Rohan Dennis won the Santos Tour Down Under, winning one stage, in Paracombe, and finishing second in another, on the traditional finish on Old Willunga Hill. This was enough to win by two seconds from Richie Porte, and twenty from his BMC team-mate, in an all-Australian podium.
I'll start with the People's Choice classic last Sunday. The traditional warm-up to the first World Tour race of the season, the course consists of a criterium of about 50 kilometres. The break consisted of Peter Kennaugh, Dario Cataldo, Matt Hayman and new Trek rider Calvin Watson, perhaps using the race as a last minute training session? Of course they were caught, as breaks tend to be in the People's Choice, and the riders made way for the sprint. Greg Henderson was the first to launch, taking a risk to go "for the win," as he tweeted later, but the was no stopping one Marcel Kittel, who as he did last year, launched at 200 metres to go, to win from Juan José Lobato of Movistar, and Wouter Wippert of the best dressed squad in the race, Drapac. (You'll hear more about them both later.)
On stage 1, the breakaway was quickly formed, consisting of Astana's Lieuwe Westra, Orica GreenEDGE's Luke Durbridge, Maxim Belkov of Katusha, and Jack Bobridge, of the UNISA squad. The main quality of each of these riders? Their time-trial prowess. Westra has twice been TT champ of the Netherlands, before big Tom D came about, Bobridge is the world's fastest man over four kilometres, and Durbridge has also won his national skinsuit twice. They would all be adept at, oh, I don't know, holding off a bunch on flat and rolling terrain. With 50 kilometres to go, the peloton had the gap down to under a minute, as the roads became twisty and rolling. As they reached the hardest climb of the day, Checker Hill, they were down to almost half a minute. However, with Kittel dropped, Giant weren't pulling, and they were still out front with the flamme rouge in sight, as they started to play at and mouse. With the bunch breathing down their necks, Bobridge jumped at 170 metres, and held on to the finish. Westra was second, and Durbridge finished third. The fact that a four rider break, TT specialists or not, could stay away for that much time, with such little advantage, is interesting, but probably boils down to early-season rust.
The Tour Down Under has finished in the town of Stirling every year since 2009, and is a tough uphill sprint, with Diego Ulissi winning last year, and Tom-Jelte Slagter the year before. This year, the break of Thomas de Gendt, Cam Meyer and Campbell Flakemore, (who on the ride back to the hotel would break his collarbone) was brought back with time to spare for once, and the sprint to Stirling commenced with Haas jumping at 300 metres. However, he was engulfed, as the peloton sped past. They were led by Lobato, who crossed the line ahead of Daryl Impey and his team-mate Gorka Izaguirre. Bobridge kept his ochre jersey.
A new finish for the Tour Down Under, the peloton arrived at the super-steep slopes of Paracombe hill on stage 3, which reached 20% in places. As they arrived on it's slopes, which were touted to perhaps be more decisive than Willunga, which I suppose they were, really. As the climb began, Cadel Evans, Domenico Pozzovivo, Richie Porte, Tom Dumoulin and Simon Geschke went at the start of the climb. Too early? One has to think so, as they were overhauled later, as Evans' team-mate Rohan Dennis attacked near the top, to win the stage from Evans, and take Jack Bobridge's hard won ochre jersey, by 7 seconds, again from Evans.
Mount Barker. MOUNT BARKER. Really, TDU organisation? When I read Mount Barker on a stage finish, I expect a new and exciting climb, not a slightly rolling stage, ending in a sprint. The sprint itself was a disaster, with a crash from early-sprinting second youngest rider in the race, FDJ's Lorrenzo Manzin, knocking down a lot of riders. On a cheerier note, Steele Von Hoff, the best named rider in the pro peloton, who has been let go by Garmin, outsprinting Daryl Impey, the bonus seconds moving him up the GC, and Wouter Wippert.
Stage 5, as usual, was the queen stage, finishing up Old Willunga Hill, as it has every year since 2012. Valverde, Slagter and Porte had all tasted victory atop its 7.7% slopes. This year, the break consisted of Jack Bobridge, (remember him?) Jordan Kerby of Drapac, and Greg Henderson of Lotto. As usual, the race finished on a circuit, twice up Willunga Hill. On the first time up, Jack Bobridge needed the KOM points to take the jersey home. In a great sporting gesture, Henderson, his friend, pulled before the climb, and as he was on the cusp of collapsing, have the Budget Forklifts riders a handsling. Bobridge started the climb 1' 16" ahead of the peloton, which was enough to take the points. On the flat at the top of the climb, he was recaptured, but stayed in the peloton. With not much time left until the climb, Astana's new signing Lars Boom pulled a group consisting of Luis Leon Sanchez, Rohan Dennis, Cadel Evans and Arnold Jeannesson with team-mates free. However, they got little leeway, and were recaptured before the early slopes. On these slopes, the riders rode conservatively, with Orica-GreenEDGE setting a fast pace, to help their leader Daryl Impey. However, within the last kilometre, Richie Porte went all out on an attack which shed all but Rohan Dennis, who gritted his teeth, and just held on, but in the words of Robbie McEwan, "he's starting...to CRACK!" And crack he did, but too late for Porte, who won the stage by 9", but just as last year, it wasn't enough. He lost the Tour Down Under by 2 seconds.
Finally, there was the usual crit around Adelaide today, which after a decent break went away, was won by Wouter Wippert. (I told you to remember him, remember?) Second was Australian champion Heinrich Haussler, and third was Lotto's Boris Vallée. What happened to Kittel? Four minutes behind.
The GC went to Rohan Dennis, second was Richie Porte, and third was Cadel Evans, in his farewell to World Tour cycling. How will Dennis do in stage races this year? Hard to say, but Grand Tours? No. Perhaps he can do well in races like the Tour of California again, or even the Tour de Suisse.
Porte? Like last year, he won on Willunga Hill, but last year was not an enjoyable one for him. How he will do this season? I cannot say.
Finally, Jack Bobridge. Bobridge really excelled himself this year, winning a stage, holding the leader's jersey, and winning the mountains. He has stepped down from World Tour cycling, and is riding for Budget Forklifts. He will, of course, attempt the Hour record later on.
In conclusion, we've had a pretty good introduction to road racing, a prologue if you like, and let's hope we continue to get good races.