It’s been a long few months, but the start of the 2017 cycling season is nigh, with January 17 marking the start of the Tour Down Under.
Since being added to the calendar in 1999 the Australian stage race has been a key part of the early season calendar.
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It was included in the first ProTour in 2005, and continues to be the first race of its modern incarnation the WorldTour, reliably attracting a high calibre of rider looking to get their season off to a flyer and potentially gain some early WorldTour points in the process.
This early in the season it’s almost impossible to gauge form, as riders return from months of not racing with little surety of how their bodies will respond.
But there has been one pattern that does tend to remain consistent at every Tour Down Under – that home Australian riders tend to go well.
They account for eleven overall victories of the race’s 18 editions, and it is testament to how seriously Australian riders take the race, and the strength of nation’s current generation, that they’ve been even more prolific in recent years (five wins in the last six).
Another assortment of Aussie talent is set to line-up for this year’s Tour Down Under, from which Richie Porte (BMC) looks the pick of the bunch.
He’s been a star of the race in recent years, winning the queen stage finishing atop Willunga Hill in each of the last three editions, but has never taken the top spot on the overall classification podium, finishing second (2016) second (2015) and fourth (2014) having leaked too much time prior to the Willunga Hill stage.
2017 feels like a particularly important year for Porte – having last season cracked the top five of the Tour de France, he can finally be taken seriously as an unequivocal candidate for the yellow jersey, but, given that he’s set to turn 32 at the end of the month, hasn’t much longer to enjoy his top form.
An overall win for Porte Down Under will go some way to convincing the team that he merits outright leadership come the Tour.
Aiding his bid for overall glory will be fellow Australian and national time trial champion, Rohan Dennis. The 26-year old is a fine rider in his own right, and won the overall himself in 2015, but the route’s lack of a time trial makes him better suited to a supporting role.
Most years Porte enters the Tour Down Under as the best climber, but this year Esteban Chaves will challenge him.
The Colombian – who celebrates his 27th birthday on stage one – went from strength to strength last year, and, if at his best, will be an explosive presence on the uphill finishes to Torrens Hill Road on stage two and Willunga Hill on stage five.
Chaves is the star of Orica-Scott’s line-up, but the Australian team have alternative options is the Colombian’s not on top form yet.
Simon Gerrans may be 36 now, but can still be relied upon to turn up fresh at the Tour Down Under – just as he did to win the overall here last year.
Orica-Scott also have the best sprinter in the race, Caleb Ewan, who will be eyeing up the flat routes of stages one, three, four and five, as well at the People’s Choice Classic criterium that takes place two days prior to the race’s start.
He’ll have some competition though, with world champion Peter Sagan making his debut for Bora-Hansgrohe. If the Slovakian brings his climbing legs, he could even be a contender for the overall classification too.
Whatever happens and whoever ultimately triumphs, it’ll be great to have racing back again.
Tour Down Under stages
Stage one, Unley to Lyndoch, 145km
Stage two, Stirling to Paracombe, 148.5km
Stage three, Glenelg to Victor Harbor, 144km
Stage four, Norwood to Campbelltown, 149.5km
Stage five, McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill, 151.5km
Stage six, Adelaide, 90km
Tour Down Under: Recent winners
2016 Simon Gerrans (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge
2015 Rohan Dennis (Aus) BMC
2014 Simon Gerrans (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge
2013 Tom-Jelte Slagter (Ned) Blanco
2012 Simon Gerrans (Aus) GreenEdge
2011 Cameron Meyer (Aus) Garmin-Cervelo
2010 Andre Greipel (Ger) HTC-Columbia
2009 Allan Davis (Aus) QuickStep
2008 Andre Greipel (Ger) High Road
2007 Martin Elmiger (Swi) Ag2r
2006 Simon Gerrans (Aus) Ag2r
Last year’s top-10
1. Simon Gerrans (Aus) Orica-GreenEdge 19-11-33
2 Richie Porte (Aus) BMC Racing at 9secs
3 Sergio Henao (Col) Team Sky at 11secs
4 Jay McCarthy (Aus) Tinkoff at 20secs
5 Michael Woods (Can) Cannondale
6 Ruben Fernandez (Spa) Movistar at 28secs
7 Demnico Pozzovivo (Ita) AG2R La Mondiale
8 Rafael Valls (Spa) Lampre-Merida at 36secs
9 Steve Morabito (Sui) FDJ at 49secs
10 Patrick Bevin (NZl) Cannondale