Words by Richard Moore
Four of the last six Tours Down Under have been won by Australians. Of the sixteen editions, nine have been won by home riders.
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So it’s a brave person who’d bet against an Australian victory at this year’s race, which starts on Tuesday and finishes on Sunday.
Nevertheless, the Tour Down Under has always been a particularly tough one to call. As the opening race of the WorldTour calendar it could sometimes appear like the last act of pre-season rather than the first real competition of the year.
For that reason, motivation can be just as important as ability.
Richie Porte (Team Sky) is the bookmakers’ favourite (7/4), with Cadel Evans (BMC), in his penultimate outing before retirement, second (15/2). Surprisingly for such experienced and talented all-rounders, neither has ever won his country’s premier event – though Evans was best young rider as a callow 21-year-old in the inaugural race in 1999.
The most fancied non-Australian, South African Daryl Impey (11/1), rides for Australia’s leading team. And Impey will have the opportunity to lead that team, Orica-GreenEdge, thanks to the misfortune of his Australian team-mate and defending champion, Simon Gerrans, who misses this year’s race with a broken collarbone.
Each has a compelling reason to want to win the race – Orica to uphold national pride, Porte to prove that he still has what it takes to lead his team in a stage race, and Evans because he will want to bow out in a manner befitting his status as Australia’s greatest ever cyclist.
Perhaps there was a time when the script would have been written in advance, a valedictory victory for Evans in his home tour all but preordained.
But the sport, and this race, have changed. Until not so very long ago, the Tour Down Under, because of the location and timing, was regarded as something of a novelty.
It fulfilled a variety of roles, being whatever the riders, or teams, wanted it to be. If the Aussies always took it seriously, for some of the Europeans it was little more than a training exercise (being in the winter, after all).
And for others it was almost a holiday – as recently as 2009 riders from a certain French team were spotted stumbling back to their hotel at 3am, with a stage the next day.
Most are on the same wavelength now. Although it may remain primarily a training exercise for a few, nobody treats it like a holiday. They can’t afford to. There are points at stake, the racing is too hard, and the opportunity for a team to gain precious early momentum is invaluable.
So who wants to win? There is one rider who perhaps feels that he needs to win. After a disappointing 2014, when he became Sky’s ‘plan B’ after Chris Froome’s crash at the Tour de France but failed in his aim of finishing on the podium, Porte worked hard over the winter.
Froome visited him in his native Tasmania before Christmas and the pair spent two weeks training together. Porte then began the year by winning the Australian time trial championship. “He absolutely deserves it,” said Froome this week. “Richie is really on it, really motivated.”
The big target for Porte is the Giro d’Italia but this is a huge season for him – not least because he is out of contract at the end of it. Days away from turning 30, he doesn’t have a lot of time to prove that he has what it takes to lead a team in a Grand Tour.
For Evans this must have been a strange winter. He was 25th in the Tour of Lombardy in early October: did he take a break, or just carry on training, knowing it was only for four more months?
The 37-year-old is one of the great enigmas, who doesn’t let many people close, but he is a proud and emotional man. He has predicted tears when he races for the final time in his own race, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.
In the end it won’t come down to sentiment – it will probably come down to the summit finish at Willunga Hill on the penultimate day. Only then will Evans find out if he can finish something that began in 1999 when he rode the first Tour Down Under, a race he finally went close to winning last year, finishing second to Gerrans – will 2015 be the year when Australia’s only Tour de France winner closes the circle?