The opening WorldTour race of the 2018 season – the Tour Down Under (January 16-21) – is done and dusted. What did we learn from the six-day race?
Peter Sagan is on flying form
Over the past few years, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has himself made a few jokes about the length of time and number of second places he takes before securing his first win of the season. This time around, the road race world champion took a victory at the absolute first opportunity – sprinting to win the People’s Choice Classic ahead of the Tour Down Under, and then stage four of the race itself.
Although some of the opposition may not be in absolute top form – it is still mid-January after all – you cannot deny that Sagan beat some of the fastest names in the business: André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) and Elia Vivani (Quick-Step Floors).
That Sagan won a short, flat criterium and then a hilly stage shows that he has both strength and turn of speed in his legs. His Classics rivals back in Europe must surely have been taking note.
Sprinters spread the spoils
This year’s TDU attracted some of the world’s best sprinters, and it certainly livened up the bunch finishes. In fact, it was a very even competition with no one rider overly dominating as Ewan did last year. Viviani, Ewan and Sagan all took a stage apiece, with Greipel taking two wins.
That’s a healthy situation for the race, and it should also entice those riders – and perhaps some of their rivals, too – in joining up for next year, particularly with WorldTour points on offer.
Although he didn’t match the four stage wins of last year, Ewan will be pleased to come away with a victory in the year that he is scheduled to make his Tour de France debut, very likely sprinting against the same riders.
New ‘summit finish’ didn’t make much of an impact
The race’s annual finish on Willunga Hill is well established as the first real climbing test of the season, but this year it was joined by a summit finish in the preceding day’s stage too. We say ‘summit finish’ in broad terms, as it was more of a hill-then-a-bit-of-downhill than something to rival Alpe d’Hue or the Angliru.
Much was expected of these back-to-back climbs-to-the-line, but in the event stage four’s finish at Uraidla ended in a bunch sprint won by Sagan, albeit one from a reduced peloton that was devoid of some of the pure sprinters after they’d got dropped.
Defending champion Richie Porte (BMC) once again won the following day on Willunga Hill, for the fifth consecutive year.
There’s already talk of a team time trial being introduced for 2019’s race to try and mix things up, rather than having Willunga Hill play such a decisive and predictable role.
Richie Porte has made a remarkable recovery
Richie Porte went into the race as defending champion and favourite for the win, which was a remarkable feat given his horrific crash on stage nine of the 2017 Tour de France, which effectively ended his season. It could so easily have been career-ending.
Porte was backed in the TDU by a BMC squad that could be described as ‘full strength’. Porte was joined by former TDU winners Rohan Dennis and Simon Gerrans, with the latter still holding the record for the most number of overall wins in the race at four.
However, BMC’s strength did not ultimately help Porte become the first rider in the race’s 20-year history to take consecutive wins, as he was pipped by South African Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott), who rode an intelligent race to minimise his losses to Porte on Willunga Hill.
It was very, very close. The two riders finished the race on the same time with only Impey’s stage placings handing him the final ochre jersey in Adelaide. Porte is looking back to his best, and that should bode well for the remainder of the Tasmanian’s season.
Hot weather didn’t please everyone
Blistering hot temperatures in the mid-40s celsius were once again a factor in the Tour Down Under, with two stages altered due to the extreme conditions. Stage three was shortened and stage four was started an hour earlier than originally scheduled to try and miss some of the day’s highest temperatures.
The conditions were a shock to the system for European-based riders arriving from a cold and damp winter at home, and many wilted in the temperatures. Needless to say, there were some complaints.
Rider’s union representative Adam Hansen (an Australian who lives in Europe) said that he received some ‘screams’ from fellow riders who were unhappy with the conditions. Hansen issued an open response via social media, in which he quotes a Spanish rider: “If it’s too hot for some people then tell them not to start their season at the Tour Down Under”. Which seems fair enough.