Long gone are the days when the January trek to Australia was little more than a sunny training trip for overweight pro cyclists still in build-up mode. These last years have brought a massive shift in the seasons as the concept of the World Tour has established itself. Perversely, what was originally a brainchild of Hein Verbruggen, a man becoming more persona non grata by every passing day, is now the accepted basis of the cycling calendar albeit in a slightly modified form. We no longer consider the idea of serious racing in January to be a joke or an abstract idea in some over-ambitious organizer's mind but a natural reality. Teams have fully embraced the new reality, quickly realizing that World Tour points earned in January are worth every bit as much as those won in April or July so why not target them? They are ripe for the taking if you are just willing to commit the resources.
So this is where we are. With a startlist for the Santos Tour Down Under that can rival any mid-season stagerace in Europe. And don't be fooled, long gone are the days when the list is impressive in names only. Sure there are a number of riders who are only just getting their hard training-load started and will have very limited ambitions beyond spinning their way through the week and improving for goals further ahead. They are in the minority these days though as we look at a peloton of riders who have had the TDU in their sights for a long time already. First of all there are the big name sprinters like Kittel, Greipel & Goss who are here to start racking up wins and to hone their all-important sprint-trains for the season. New riders need to be integrated in the trains and the old ones re-establish their mojo. Greipel and his crew, the perhaps most successful sprint unit of 2012 will be looking to get off to as good a start as they did last year and Greipel himself is probably the most dependable performers in the TDU, a race he has practically made his own. Expect to see those epilepsy-inducing Lotto kits a lot at the front when it really matters.
Had it not been for last years major route-change, the inclusion of the uphill finish at Willunga Hill, Greipel and the stronger of his sprinter colleagues would also be the major favorites for the overall GC victory but not so anymore. The race dynamic changed subtly but decisively last year to include a batch of stronger climbers/allrounders among the favorites. Gerrans and Valverde, the archetypes for that type of riders, faced off in the first of a memorable string of duels to decide the win between them. Gerrans lost out on the day but did enough to snatch the overall in the end. So presumably Gerrans will be a hot favorite to repeat this year for an Orica team that more than anyone come focused to win on homeground. They come with a strong, if perhaps not quite as revved up, team as they did for last year's coming-out party but they also benefit from having a number of riders hot off the national championships last week.
Threatening Gerrans is no doubt a mean and lean looking Edvald Boasson Hagen, leading a Team Sky lineup that looks almost 100% like the one we can come to expect the cobbled classics. It's quite obviously all about the teambuilding ahead of the big races in April where Brailsford is determined to make up for failings in past seasons. It's also all about economizing with resources for a team that has some massive objectives ahead of it this year, saving the big GT-guns for later dates, allowing them to ease into form. But lets not kid ourselves. Despite it being all about the teambuilding and economizing it's also all about showing off the shiny new Rapha duds. So to sum up, it's all about the teambuilding, economizing and the Rapha kit. Mostly the Rapha probably.
As always with season openers there are things you look forward to, with everything fresh and unwritten. An Argos team in it's first real year in the bigs, now a fully fledged World Tour team. A Blanco team with a fresh start. Will they be going in with the fresh optimism of a re-born and "not yet set in it's ways"-team or will they be marred by the pressures of performing to catch on a potential new sponsor? Will Renshaw be an actual real live winning sprinter? Will Andrea Guardini take his sprinting to a new level as he races regularly with the bigs on a new team and if so, is he the next major threat to Mark Cavendish's superiority? Will Radioshack start the season off with some good results to try and get out of the funk of 2012? They need to get a new winning spirit going in the team. A team of that standard can't put all their eggs in the Cancellara basket as strong as he is. Other riders need to put numbers on the board too and I don't think anyone would be comfortable depending on Andy to be the one to do it? He may bounce back strongly but I wouldn't count on it and Fränk is still an unresolved issue (WTF is up with that by the way? Just make up your minds.)
It's not like we'll get many definitive answers since it is still January, Hein Verbruggen or not, but there will always be some nice revelations Down Under. We got our first whiff of Peter Sagan there once and last year pointed the way for Gerrans breakthrough season that culminated in Sanremo with a monument win in it's first try for Orica (then Greenedge). So what if we try to take a few wild stabs in the dark at guessing what might be the revelation this year. Could it be one of these three?:
1. Luke Durbridge follows up on his double national titles and makes the TDU the first of many one-week stageraces where he is a major factor?
2. Andy Fenn takes a major step forward and establishes himself in the role as the OmegaPharma ShitSmallRace sprinter in non-Cav races ?
3. Chris Juul Jensen shows that his 2012 Ardennes riding was no fluke and places high on the Old Willunga stage, the first of many prominent placings in 2013? (Ok that last one might be more wishful thinking than anything else but the kid has promise and no lack of attitude.)
Whether it's one of these three (or with 99.99% certainty someone completely different) doesn't really matter though. The main thing is that we get racing under way and get to experience the thrills and disappointments of events on the road. FSA DS (our in-house fantasy cycling game, should anyone wonder) season is just around the corner and many a sharp eye will be aimed at picking out some hidden gems in the TDU peloton. And we will of course start up our live-thread discussions for every minute of every stage of the race. The motto for these threads is "more aussies, more better" So, in short, we're ready. Let's get this show on the road.