After a long, hard winter, it's nearly time for the racing to get back underway
After months of waiting, the new season is just around the corner, and while a few Australian races are already under way, the Tour Down Under is the first taste of racing that most of us will get in 2017.
The People’s Choice Classic criterium
Not long to go now until January 15, that date circled on every racing fanatic’s calendar as when the 2017 season kicks off with the People’s Choice Classic Criterium.
Held two days before the Tour Down Under’s opening, this 50.6km Adelaide-based Criterium might not be included as a stage in that race, but is considered as part of the same event and features the same roster of riders.
The week leading up to the Tour Down Under sees Adelaide taken over by cyclists, which for us fans means there’s lots of stuff to get interested in before the racing even gets underway.
This is the first time we get to ogle the new bikes that the teams will be riding in 2017, with new paintjobs all round and maybe even a few new pieces of kit to feast your eyes on.
New teams, kits, and riders
Watching cycling at the start of the season is a bit like returning as an adult to the town where you grew up – everything looks completely different, and isn’t called by the name you remember it by.
Some of the main changes to get used to – Lampre-Merida are now UAE Abu Dhabi, Giant-Alpecin are now Team Sunweb, Orica-BikeExchange are now Orica-Scott and have an all dark-blue kit, and Sky are…still Sky, and still dressed in all-black. At least some things never change.
As the first race of the season, there are plenty of riders set to embark on a new start with their first outing for their new team. Peter Sagan, for instance, will be making his debut for Bora-Hansgrohe (albeit in his rainbow jersey rather than the team’s colours), while UAE Abu Dhabi will hand new recruit Ben Swift the kind of leadership role in the sprints that was often denied him during his seven years at Sky.
BMC v Orica-Scott
In recent years the Tour Down Under has often developed into a battle between BMC and Orica, and the rosters gathered by both teams for 2017 suggest that we should expect more of the same.
The former have both 2015 winner Rohan Dennis and two-time runner-up Richie Porte at their disposal, while the latter can rally behind either the punchy talents of defending champion and veteran four-time winner Simon Gerrans, or the classy climber Esteban Chaves, making his debut at his team’s home race.
Geraint Thomas will likely lead Sky Down Under, and he has a good shot at winning the overall. The Welshman starred in early season stage races last season, winning the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice back-to-back, and will be looking to again reiterate his leadership credentials with the possible aim of convincing Sky to back him as leader for one of the Grand Tours this season.
Caleb Ewan in the sprints
As ever, the Tour Down Under remains one of the flattest stage races in the WorldTour, and looks likely to throw up four opportunities for the sprinters – stage one’s flat finish in Lyndoch, stage three and four’s lumpier-but-manageable routes to Victor Harbor and Campbelltown respectively, and stage six’s criterium in Adelaide.
Caleb Ewan won two sprints at last year’s race.
Torrens Hill Road
An early shake-up to the overall classification could occur on stage two, which finishes on a short but potentially decisive hill in Paracombe.
Averaging 9 per cent over 1.2km, the riders will surely be strung out, with seconds on offer that could ultimately be the difference between winning the overall and just missing out.
As usual, however, the ascent of Willunga Hill at the end of the penultimate stage looks set to be the most crucial moment of the race. At 3km it is a much longer uphill finish than Torrens Hill Road, and is climbed twice in the final 30km – the second of which takes the riders to the finish line.
The winner of this stage does is not always crowned overall champion – Richie Porte has triumphed in this stage three years in a row without ever also sealing the overall – but to have any chance of winning you must be alert and stick to the front of the race on its slopes.
While we in the UK are all detoxing after Christmas amid short days and cold weather, the sight of riders basking in the sunshine at the Tour Down Under does feel rather other-worldly.
Australia is certainly a nice place, but, so early in the season, the riders will nonetheless still be experiencing similar post-Christmas rustiness – don’t expect the stars to be anywhere near their top form yet.
Our Antipodean cousins are just as passionate about bike racing as we are, but unfortunately they only get one chance to see the world’s best on home soil, and can’t just nip across the channel to see some of the biggest races in the world.
For that reason, the crowds invariably go nuts, dressing up in some pretty crazy and entertaining outfits to make sure they catch the cameraman’s attention.