In a sport that seems more obsessed than any other by "warm-up races" it's a bit absurd that the first race out of the gate is a World Tour race nowadays, and a fairly important one too judging by the startlists. Long gone are the days when Tour Down Under was a fun pre-season romp for half-trained pros and new guys given their first chance to integrate with the team. This year there is barely a neo-pro in the race and almost every team is bringing some big names to put numbers on the board early. Some say that the hype is exaggerated and riders are still coming to Australia well out of form to train themselves into shape but the racing we've seen in the latest editions belies that I think. I'm sure there are one or two riders treating it as a training race but clearly the teams can't afford to send many of those anymore.
What's in store is a pretty recognizable race. There was the "prologue" criterium that Caleb Ewan of Orica won with ease, an easy sprint day one and a more challenging uphill sprint on day two before the race turns tricky on stage three with the now familiar Corkscrew climb shortly before the finish to create havoc in the finale. As long as you don't have Peter Sagan in the race these opening stages make for three diverse days. Then there is a likely straightforward sprint day before the big decider on Old Willunga Hill, the stage that has become the TDU trademark since the uphill finish was introduced there.
The cast of contenders is fairly recognizable from last year too with the notable exception of the now retired Cadel Evans. There is Rohan Dennis and Richie Porte, last years 1 & 2 now united at BMC. It is almost tempting to think that they recruited with the expressed intention to dominate the TDU but there might just possibly be some other idea behind the signing of Porte. Orica are the other powerhouse here as it should be in their home race. Gerrans. Impey and Albasini are all riders built to dominate a race like TDU with their allround capabilities and fast finishes on medium-hard stages and for the pure sprints they have young Caleb Ewan to fall back on. If there is a day in this race where they aren't contending for the win it will be a disappointment. Movistar bring Lobato and Ruben Fernandez who were both major players last year. Ag2r bring Pozzovivo, LottoNL bring George Bennett and so on. All in all there aren't many major differences from last year, on paper you would expect to see a pretty similar top 10 to what we saw a year ago.
What looks like the interesting points to look at is the new teams and some of the riders in their first races on new teams after transfers. Dimension Data is making their World Tour debut with some potentially interesting aussies. With few top sprinters in the race, Mark Renshaw could be a winner on a team that will most likely be looking to get their sprinting setup in order for a season where that quality will likely be the make or break factor. Well known koala-hater Cav isn't here (has he ever raced the TDU?) but that likely won't change the agenda much even if the team also have two very interesting outsiders fr the GC in Nathan Haas and Cam Meyer. Both of them have sought out new teams to maybe re-ignite their careers and take another step up in new environments and TDU offers the kind of terrain they both could thrive in.
Last years trainwreck team Cannondale also fields a team with lots of riders I'll be looking at with curiosity. Can Moser get out of the doldrums he's been caught in? What is Simon Clarke capable on his own when he isn't on a team full of riders with the exact same qualities as himself? Will Wippert become a viable WT sprinter? And perhaps most interesting, what can new signees Michael Woods and Paddy Bevin do at this level? Clarke is probably the most interesting story here. Always strong, he has never quite managed to have a breakthrough ride. His move now is apparently a serious attempt to explore his own potential and it will be a fun one to follow even if I'm slightly sceptic that it will be all that successful in terms of big wins. As always Cannondale's roster is full of promise and intriguing possibilities. Most likely it will be false promise with mediocre outcome as per usual but the dream that they will one day deliver never seems to die for many of us.
The fact that there are so few neos in this race is intriguing to me and I'd love to know why that is. Is the TDU too tough an intro these days, too important a race (since it's WT) to send new kids to? Do they want to make sure they get a more "normal" start to the season with proper training camps etc.? Whatever the reason we will have to wait a bit to see the big neo signings for the first time, the only real big name is Etixx's Davide Martinelli who already started off strongly with a top 10 in the Peoples Choice crit. Maybe a good sign for him because finding room for yourself as a fastman on Etixx might take some doing even for a man who has had as strong a U23 career as Martinelli.For all their strong riders though Etixx have always been good at giving young riders chances to show their worth. It's not like some teams where even huge talents somehow get kept languishing in the shadow of established riders to the point where their original qualities slowly fade away as the riders resign themselves to eternal support duties.
So after a long winter we finally get to stop pretending that we like cyclocross, with men riding around in mud like animals, and can return to watch beautiful roadracing. With FSA DS season just a few weeks away the more clever of us will be keeping an eye out for more than just re-designed jerseys this week, there may be any number of improved and underpriced riders to be found Down Under and there should be quality racing on most of the stages. Bring on the 2016 season.