Daryl Impey goes for a hat-trick
A South African in his mid-30s with no real pedigree as a GC rider in stage races hardly seems like an obvious candidate to start dominating the Tour Down Under during the late stages of his career, but that’s exactly what Daryl Impey has done these past few seasons.
He was the surprise winner of the 2018 edition by less than a second ahead of Richie Porte, then successfully defended his title last year with Porte again languishing in second place behind him.
The race’s parcours suits Impey’s punchy riding style, with the bonus seconds on offer, and no climbs sufficiently tough enough to expose his frailties going uphill.
For these reasons he’ll again be Mitchelton-Scott’s leader for the GC, despite the presence of superior climber Simon Yates on the roster. Yates will instead make for a luxury domestique, and could prove essential in the likely scenario of Impey again battling to limit his losses on stage six’s crucial Willunga Hill climb.
Rohan Dennis make Ineos stage race debut
As the first WorldTour race of the season, many newly-transferred riders will be getting accustomed to riding for their new team and alongside new team-mates, high-profile examples including André Greipel for Israel Start-Up Nation, Fabio Felline for Astana and Kristoffer Halvorsen for EF Pro Cycling.
The most eye-catching new signing, though, is Rohan Dennis for Ineos. The team has a habit of converting strong stage racers leaders like Dennis into super-domestiques for their many other star riders, but for the Tour Down Under Dennis has been given leadership duties, with a squad mostly made up of rouleurs such as Luke Rowe, Ian Stannard and Dylan van Baarle to support him.
Since winning the overall here back in 2015, his returns have been far more modest, with sixth in 2017 and fifth last year his best showings. It’s early days, but we might get something of an idea of how good a fit Ineos will be for him based on whether or not he manages to improve on those placings, and mount a serious threat for overall victory.
The lack of a time trial will hinder him, given that he’s the defending world champion in that discipline, but with a strong team around him and the added motivation of competing in front of home fans, overall victory in his first stage race appearance for his new team is a possibility.
Also riding for new teams will be two of the best sprinters in the world: Elia Viviani, who will be making his debut for Cofidis, and Sam Bennett, the man Deceuninck-Quick-Step hired to replace Viviani.
Watching these two go head to will be one of the most fascinating subplots of the Tour Down Under. Not only is there the spice of a rider competing against his former employers (renewing a rivalry that stretches back to the 2018 Giro d’Italia, where the pair shared seven stages between them) it will also an early indication as to whether Deceuninck-Quick-Step have made the right move
Recent history would suggest that Bennett will come out on top. Since leaving Deceuninck-Quick-Step after the 2017 season, Marcel Kittel’s form descended to such an extent that he even decided to retire last year, while Fernando Gaviria also struggled for his form of old during his first stint away from the team last season – a worrying omen for Viviani as he embarks on life outside of the Belgian team.
Both Bennett and Viviani will be determined to make a strong first impression, but might still find themselves upstaged by another sprinter competing down under in the form of Caleb Ewan. The Aussie was arguably the world’s best sprinter last season, and loves riding in this race – no-one else has bettered his tally of seven stage wins over the past four editions.
Ewan won round one at the Schwalbe Classic, but there will be plenty of chances for the others to strike back, with stages one, two, four and five of the Tour Down Under all looking like likely bunch finishes.
Richie Porte on Willunga Hill
There are only three certainties in life: death, taxes, and Richie Porte winning on Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under.
The Aussie is now on a remarkable run of winning the annual stage six editions on the trot, and is on the start-line again for Trek-Segafredo hoping to make it seven.
In that time, however, he’s actually only won the overall of the race once, in 2017. Despite always winning on the climb, the last two editions have seen him fail to gain enough time on Daryl Impey, so he ought to prioritise not losing time in the early stages – especially stage three, and its smaller but no less decisive uphill finish.
Set to turn 35 at the end of the month, the Tour Down Under could be a revealing indication as to whether Porte still has what it takes to compete at the highest level. After finishing second overall in last year’s edition, and fifth at the Herald Sun Tour shortly after, his form took a sharp dip, registering just one overall top 10 finish (fifth at the Tour of California) during the rest of the season.
We’ll have a better idea soon of whether than was just a temporary dip in form, or a sign of more permanent decline.
Romain Bardet makes his debut Down Under
One rider capable of challenging Porte’s supremacy on Willunga Hill is Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), a climber hungry to start the season with a bang after such a disappointing 2018, and perhaps the only rider with strong enough legs to match Porte going uphill.
The Frenchman will be making his debut at the Tour Down Under, as part of a new early season schedule catered towards peaking for the Giro d’Italia in May, another race he’ll be debuting in this season.
Bardet has never started his season this early before, so it’s difficult to predict what his form will be – especially given that he hasn’t raced on the road since last year’s disappointing Tour de France, a race he’ll be desperate to expunge from the memory.
If he arrives at the race in a state of freshness rather than rustiness, though, overall victory is a distinct possibility – a result that would, somewhat surprisingly, be a first ever overall victory at a WorldTour stage race.