We look ahead to the opening race of the WorldTour season
Can Andre Greipel rediscover his mojo?
André Greipel (Lotto Soudal) is one of the most successful riders in the history of the Tour Down Under, winning the overall classification in the flat 2008 and 2010 editions, and collecting hauls of more than three stages on four separate occasions.
Despite this prolific record, however, ‘The Gorilla’ hasn’t actually appeared in this race since 2014, choosing to begin each of his last three seasons few weeks later in Spain.
His decision to return this year to such a historically happy hunting ground may well be motivated by the worrying drop in form he suffered last year, during which time he only won two races from April onwards.
Now aged 35, his performance this week may indicate whether that barren run was just a blip, or a sign of a more terminal decline.
He’ll be up against some quality opposition, with Mitchelton-Scott’s home favourite Caleb Ewan – who swept up four stage wins last year – the standout sprinter, and Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) also capable of competing.
There will be plenty of chances for these rivals to duke it out. Stages one, three and six are all very sprinter-friendly, while the People’s Choice Classic – a criterium race held in Adelaide a couple of days before the race’s official start – is also virtually guaranteed to end in a bunch sprint.
Peter Sagan returns to Australia
The biggest coup the Tour Down Under organisers have pulled off for this year is to persuade Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) to line up for a second successive year.
Although it is part of the WorldTour, the big stars (at least, those that aren’t Australian) often pass on riding it, choosing to wait a little longer to get their seasons underway. But Sagan is as big a star as cycling has, and will, resplendent yet again in his world champion’s rainbow jersey, give the race a real boost with his charisma.
Like everyone else, it’s unclear what his form will be like (Christmas dinner was only a couple of weeks ago, after all). In theory, though, he could be involved in every stage – he ought to compete in the bunch sprints, stage two’s draggy uphill finish in Stirling looks perfectly suited to him, and even the climbs on stages four and five might not be difficult enough to rule him out.
Riders making debuts for new teams
As the first (with all due respect to obscure events like the Vuelta al Táchira en Bicicleta and La Tropicale Amissa Bongo) proper race of the season, the Tour Down Under provides a first chance to see riders competing for new teams they have signed up for.
The most intriguing debut being made at this year’s edition is Simon Gerrans, who, having won this race three times with Orica-GreenEdge (now called Mitchelton-Scott), will this time line-up for BMC Racing.
Now in the twilight of his career, his main role will be to support former rival Richie Porte’s bid for overall victory, but it will be interesting to see whether the Aussie favourite will be given a chance to ride for himself at all – especially on stage two, which finishes on the kind of draggy uphill he once specialised in.
Other riders to look out for include Peter Kennaugh who, after eight years riding predominantly as a domestique for Sky, could have a chance to ride for GC for new team Bora-Hansgrohe; Domenico Pozzovivo, who enters the race as a potential overall for Bahrain-Merida; and sprinter Elia Viviani, who will be eager to let Sky know what they’re missing having let him leave fo Quick-Step Floors.
Sky’s young Brits
Among those riders are three of Britain’s most promising prospects – Owain Doull, who could feature in the sprints; Jonathan Dibben, on the back of a successful first professional year which included a time trial win at the Tour of California; and Chris Lawless, who will be making his debut for the team.
Perhaps the most exciting rider of all to keep an eye on will be Egan Bernal, Sky’s new Colombian sensation who turns 21 three days before the race start, and who, following overall victory at last year’s Tour de l’Avenir, is being touted as one of cycling’s next big things.
The Tour Down Under provides a relatively low-pressure environment for an emerging rider like Bernal to test himself, and he’ll be among several young talents who could be about to kick-off breakthrough seasons, including Sam Oomen (Team Sunweb), Pierre Latour (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Marc Soler (Movistar).
Richie Porte on Willunga Hill
As far as sure bets in Australian-set sports events go, Richie Porte winning on Willunga Hill is only matched in its inevitability by England getting hammered in the Ashes.
Porte has won on the hill in each of the past four editions of the Tour Down Under, making the annual stage into something of a procession.
Unusually, even though the hill is always cited as the race’s decisive moment, last year was the first time Porte followed a stage win with overall victory, having finished second in 2016 and 2015.
He’s nonetheless the clear favourite for overall victory this year, with a very strong BMC team, that also includes Rohan Dennis, backing him. The finish atop Willunga Hill on stage five will likely again provide the battleground for Porte and the other riders gunning for GC, but time could also be lost or gained on the late categorised Norton Summit climb at the end of stage four.
Among those attempting to defeat the Australian will be UAE-Team Emirates’ dangerous duo of Rui Costa and Diego Ulissi, both of whom excel on short uphill finishes like Willunga Hill; Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), riding in his first race since dramatically crashing out of the Tour de France prologue last year; and Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe), who has made the top four in both of the past two editions, and is off to a flyer this year already having finished second at the Australian national championships road race.