There are a few indispensible items to every preview, if you like conventional wisdom. There's a discussion of the course, and a list of guys who can get round it faster than the rest. I have nothing against conventional previews, and will be blasting out such pieces at an alarming rate starting in late February. But for the TdU... it won't do.
First, the course doesn't warrant much chatter. They've added some pitch to the penultimate Willunga stage, so maybe Andrei Greipel and Allan Davis won't be on the podium again. As usual, the course is hardly flat; four of the six stages wander off into the brushy hills of Fleurieu Peninsula. But with no uphill finishes and a peloton kicking off the rust, there aren't too many riders looking to drive an infernal pace on the climbs and shatter the field. Last year all six stages ended in bunch sprints. The year before, rain and breakaway efforts spread things around a bit more, but just.
Which leaves the contenders' list: your best sprinter. Barring a complete inability to climb, your closer should be in the thick of things if that's where he wants to be. Cue list of sprinters, past winners, and local heroes... and whoever is here with the motivation and early fitness of a winner is who you want to highlight in your generic race preview.
I like to view early races through a different lens: the team motivations. Jens (I think) made an astute comment about how Andre Greipel came to Australia in 2008 looking to jump-start his team's season, because High Road were then in the hunt for a sponsor -- as good a motivating factor as you will find. But sponsorship isn't the only reason for guys to get excited about the TdU; there's internal competition, local factors, and more January considerations, along with what they mean for the TdU teams next week, on the flip.
Teams come to the TdU with varying levels of commitment and motivation to really race. The fact that this is now a Pro Tour event will be of interest to a handful of folks. Another group of teams might want to impress a new sponsor, or beef up the resume for the next one. Teams from Australia, or including any prominent Ozzies, will want to make a nice show. Teams with a lot of internal competition at the sprinter slot might feature a rider with something to prove. Finally, teams managed by Bjarne Riis tend to treat every race the same. Let's run it down...
Teams Who Care About the Pro Tour
Hm, this one remains to be seen. The Pro Tour brand has suffered immeasurably in recent years, and Pat McQuaid's focus on races in non-traditional cycling countries doesn't wear well on some folks, I seem to recall. Saxo Bank might care, simply because they love to win team prizes, but this one is tough to call for now.
Teams Impressing a New Sponsor
Everyone has some new sponsors this time of year, including a couple name sponsors like Saxo Bank and Bbox-Bweeg, but there are two teams who fit this profile especially well: Fuji-Servetto and Katyusha. The former rises from the ashes of Saunier Duval, 2008's baddest badboy team, and consequently the squad consists of guys from outside the old team and guys who should be thankful to have a job. Look for Ivan Dominguez to take the bit for Fuji, at least in the opening and closing crits, or maybe Daniele Nardello.
Katyusha are in a roughly similar position, inheriting chunks of the Tinkoff squad, only with less of a taint. They're also inheriting quite a little sprint squad in Kenny De Haes, Robbie McEwen and Gert Steegmans, any one of whom could be in contention for stages and maybe the overall.
Teams Polishing their Resume
I'd like to use one of my lifelines here; other than recalling Columbia and Garmin are both on short-term deals, I can't think of which teams are about to explode. So many detonated in the last six months... who's left? Milram maybe? Let me know.
This is the most common motivator, as it should be: who from the northern hemisphere would be in peak form right now?
Team UniSA just borrowed Baden Cooke from new squad Vacansoleil, and with Aaron Kemps, Scott Davis and Matt Wilson in tow they are a candidate to make an impression. This is a sort of national squad for guys whose teams aren't here, so nobody is more moved by the sight of the Pro Tour in South Australia.
As for foreign teams featuring Aussies, 2008 runner-up Allan Davis is captaining Quick Step, Graeme Brown takes the bit for Rabobank, and Stuart O'Grady and Matt Goss will do the finishing for Riis' Saxo Bank. Some dark horses: Garmin's Julian Dean, though it's a shame he won't be flaunting his New Zealand champion's colors this year. Columbia's Mick Rogers, a former winner (despite not being a sprinter) and someone who just racked up gold (chrono) and silver (road) at the Aussie Nats.
Riders With Something to Prove
Individual motivations are varied, but inevitably at this time of year there are guys who, for whatever reason, wouldn't mind getting their DS's attention. In some cases it's to climb the internal ladder; in other cases, it may just be a rare chance to shine.
If Andre Greipel or Mick Rogers do not emerge as threats to win, don't forget about Bernhard Eisel. The Austrian former front-line sprinter has evolved into one of those invaluable teammates who does it all, but that doesn't mean he can't still sprint. The TdU course is good for him, and with Columbia's stable of sprinters this might be his best chance to win. My other candidate in this category is Christian Knees. Milram today are not unlike Columbia a year ago, in the midst of a significant reorganization. With Gerald Ciolek coming on board, Knees is their plan B for the sprints, so he has reasons to want to grab the ring, while the team should be vastly more energetic than it has in recent years.
As For the Rest...?
It's called getting in your miles. Or in Astana's case, getting this one over with. Teams like Lampre, Liquigas and Caisse d'Epargne never do much this time of year, though Francesco Chicchi might be around for the finishes. The French teams will all bide their time, with the possible exception of Martin Elmiger, 2007 TdU winner and coming off a disappointing 2008. And then there's Astana, as always in a class by themselves. With Lance Armstrong's return to racing, there is no way their time in Adelaide won't be a complete media clusterf--k, and in any event this isn't the kind of race that would have ever interested them. So keeping the old boss upright while he rediscovers the peloton is their only task. Not exactly what you'd call fun.