It's hot in Adelaide. How do I know this? Apart from this thing called the Internetz, I can see people at the Australian Open in not-too-terribly-distant Melbourne suffering from heat exhaustion. Not that I do; that stuff happens at like 2am. But I see pictures, and I think of how there's a bike race about to start.
It seems so incredibly foreign, so jarring, for the cycling world to start off by taking a trip into summer. How does this prepare them for the GP La Marseillaise or Strade Bianche? I dunno, but it does. Cyclists are chameleons as far as weather is concerned. Perhaps literally.
So the road season kicks off in a slightly bigger way on Sunday, slightly bigger than it already has (Aussie and NZ just had their Nats, and there's a race in Gambia happening). Oh, and Sunday is Saturday night back here in the western hemi. Anyway, the Santos Tour Down Under opens the 2014 UCI World Tour, whether anyone likes it or not.
Very little has changed from year to year, apart from the name and the UCI ranking that came in 2009, and the use of Willunga Hill. Willunga has been a feature since the 2008 edition, but 2012 featured the first hilltop finish, on the penultimate stage, putting climber(ish) Simon Gerrans into the winner's tunic after several years of sprinters being in charge. This year's course will continue the tradition, as well as using a circuit at Stirling on stage 2 to force a potential early sorting. The beers will continue to be giant, as will the crowds. The stages will have names like San Remo Pasta Stage 1, which I will refuse to use. Same as it ever was.
Potential differences? Well, for starters, a cool front is expected to roll in over the weekend, meaning the heat won't put people in mortal peril. Beyond that, there's the element of surprise, pitting a race of local guys in mid-season form(ish) against the creme-de-la-creme halfway through their winter training. Young guys, like last year's winner Tom Jelte Slagter, might get more rope than they will starting in March. Vlaanderen90 will certainly be on the edge of his seat for this one.
Really, the purpose of this race is in part to extend the season beyond all reasonable bounds to satisfy the obsessive demands of ridiculous cycling fans. And to celebrate Australian cycling, which has contributed more talent, results and personalities to the sport than any other English-speaking country over the last generation. Yes, I see you there New Zealand.
Where Will the Race Be Won?
Old Willunga Hill. I mean, something could happen sooner, but in two MTF editions, that's where the race was sorted. Interestingly, both times a two-man break took it, with the stage going to one and the GC the other. Is that interesting? Maybe more like textbook. Hey, it's January.
Who Do I Need to Know?
Well, Gerrans comes in as a favorite, having taken the Aussie Road Championship last week on a nice little climby course called Mount Willabongaloo or something (OK, Mt. Buninyong). Gerrans has all the necessities: good form, good skills, and all the incentives you can imagine (local pride, WT points). His Orica-GreenEdge team is similarly situated, with enough muscle and climbing talent to go along with their very Australian pedigree and make something stick. Gerro edged Ritchie Porte (Sky) and Cadel Evans (BMC) for the title, so don't sleep on the other two steps of Australia's Golden Podium.
On the remaining five stages, we should see some interesting sprint battles. Andre Greipel returns as the most decorated STD-U'er, with ten stage wins and two overall titles to his name. A third GC is out of the question since the course redesign, and further stages will be just as difficult to attain this year, with Marcel Kittel perhaps the fastest man on hand. Plenty of others too, e.g. Mark Renshaw, Michael Mathews, and Elia Viviani, to name a few.
Rick Zabel, legacy par excellence, makes his senior cycling debut for BMC. Frank Schleck gets let out of the penalty box for Trek Factory Team. Everyone's kits will be seen in action, many for the first time.
Plenty more reasons to watch, and the enthusiastic crowds will pump some additional fun into things. According to Wikipedia, the STD-U is second only to the Tour de France for crowd sizes, attracting upwards of 700,000 fans, almost none of whom will be dressed as bananas, syringes, gorillas, or anything else. Take note, American cycling fans. It's called dignity.