Good day old chap, and welcome to the Tour Down Under, known to all as the first World Tour event, known to cyclists as a great week in the Adelaide sun, riding short stages and staying in the same hotel for all of it, known to me as “has Simon Gerrans retired yet” and known to Simon Gerrans as “I should really retire.” We’ve already had the People’s Choice Classic, the annual short criterium in which this year, Peter Sagan decided to inflict his presence annoyingly early on the top step of the podium, Sky lost the services of Kristoffer Halvorsen for a significant period of time and Caleb Ewan shocked all viewers by somehow managing to lose a criterium.
But that race is very much the less important of the week’s events, with the Tour Down Under taking up the majority of the headlines. It’s a similar formula to usual, six stages in the Adelaide area, most of which you should probably recognise from previous editions.
Stage one, for the third year in succession, finishes in Lyndoch, and for the umpteenth year in succession is basically flat, with a sprint likely.
Stage two will also be recognisable, but is a bit more interesting. It’s the famous stage to Stirling, where we’re usually guaranteed an uphill sprint for those all-important bonus seconds. Oh yes, I should mention, in a race where time gaps of bigger than a few seconds are rare, the ten, six and four second bonuses at the line are where this race is won and lost. The winner of stage two will invariably take the leader’s ochre jersey afterwards.
Stage three to Victor Harbour next, with an easier run-in than it’s had in previous years, something that just might play to the advantage of the GC contenders with less sprinting ability. Previously, hills near the end saw off the sprinters allowing Simon Gerrans to take victory and ten bonus seconds, something I doubt will be permitted them here.
Stage four at last, is something new. A very short, hilly stage from Norwood to Uraidla, the day finishes with the short descent of a five kilometre, five per cent climb. No, not shockingly difficult, but in January it will be a challenge for some, and in the Tour Down Under it’s a refreshing new obstacle. Willunga Hill is no longer the only place to make a statement.
It’s still probably the best place to do so, however, with its steeper gradients and history of being stamped all over by Richie Porte. Three and a half kilometres at seven and a half per cent makes a fair challenge at this time of year — you can usually expect to see the top ten separated by twenty seconds to half a minute. And for the last four years, it has indeed been Porte at the head of the pack.
Finally there’s another crit around Adelaide. I, personally, won’t be getting up early for that one.
Only Australians have won stages of this race for the past two editions, and there’s a reason — after warm-weather training, criteriums and national championships, they’re in much better condition than their Euro rivals. That said, as far as the sprints go, I don’t think we can expect the fastest Aussie in the race, Caleb Ewan, to repeat his antics from last year, where he won four of the six stages. No, this year he seems set to be challenged by a few Euro pros in the shape of world champion Sagan and Tour Down Under veteran André Greipel, both of whom beat him in the People’s Choice Classic, even if they may have been helped by the Australian starting his sprint a tad early. He remains the bookies’ favourite for stage one.
Three stages are for Ewan and people with similar muscle structure, but the other three will decide the general classification, with what I would assume would be a completely different cast of characters (though Sagan is unfeasibly short odds for the overall win). My favourite for the Stirling stage and the general classification is an Australian, of course, in the form of Jay McCarthy. He’s the archetypal young rider for this race, with a quick sprint, Aussie accent and ability to climb, coming in with the second group on the road on Willunga last year. Second place from a bunch kick in the Australian nationals, from a group including Brendan Canty, Nathan Haas and Caleb Ewan, shows his versatility. He’s got past form here, as well, most notably winning the Stirling stage in 2016 on his way to fourth place on GC, a position he bettered last year.
Richie Porte, however, will win on Willunga, and whether he can forge as big a victory as he did last year will determine if he can hang onto the ochre jersey he took home to Tasmania in 2017. Perhaps he’ll forfeit it to team mate and 2015 victor Rohan Dennis, who flew to a victory in the Australian TT championship. Simon Gerrans rides on the same team, but is said not to be harbouring any ambition. This troika shows, however, the amount of support the eventual leader will enjoy.
Diego Ulissi and Nathan Haas are also being viewed as potential winners. I don’t see it happening for either of them myself, but Ulissi convinces me slightly more, as a former stage winner and podium finisher here. Haas is always bandied around the favourites section for races like this, but the idea of him winning seems a little unlikely, with so many others who I think may outperform him.
So, yeah, that’s my view on the thing. McCarthy to take it by a couple of seconds from, of course, a Willunga-rampaging Porte. Oh, and welcome to the cycling season, 2018!