Depending on your level of desperation for professional mens’ road cycling, you could argue that my headline comes a little late — after all, Luke Durbridge, Michael Freiberg, Patrick Bevin and James Fouché have already taken home national championships in road race and time-trial, not to mention the much-ignored Bay Crits and Down Under Classic, justifiable as that ignoring may be. However, tonight starts the Tour Down Under, the opening of the World Tour and the liberal estimate of when the cycling season begins. As most of you will know, for most of the race’s history it has been the domain of local riders who are the only ones in the right place physically to tackle a GC battle only a bare few months after climbing off the bike and attending the umpteen November weddings. This has been to the benefit of, well, Simon Gerrans mostly, whose general modus operandi was to let Richie Porte or an analogue jet off on Willunga Hill, only to cross the line in time to win the GC by about three seconds, on a good year. Gerrans is now gone, however, with his former team-mate Daryl Impey as defending champion.
The quick lowdown on this year’s race is that it will be won on stages four and six. Stage six is the classic Willunga Hill stage which has been the decisive one in most editions of the TDU, with the interesting change that it will now also be the concluding stage, with the Adelaide circuit scrapped. This should have no real effect on the race as the Adelaide stage was always the, shall we say, runt of the litter that was this race. Stage four is the more noteworthy one, however — the Corkscrew climb and its descent just before the finish have a history of springing race-altering attacks, most recently in 2014 when Cadel Evans gained fifteen seconds (one fewer than he needed to topple Gerrans) by the time he reached Campbelltown.
The other four stages are much less likely to alter the GC in any way not involving the odd bonus second: they’re sprint stages, with perhaps a chance of one or two of them turning into more of a puncheur’s finish.
So who’s here, and who can win? I’m always interested by who decides to start their seasons in January, and to be honest I’ve been a little sceptical about the benefits of doing so but Sagan is back, so clearly he had no problem with his previous experiences. Impey has come to defend his title, while it’s no surprise that Porte is here to take it back and pick up another Willunga win while he’s at it. Caleb Ewan is already on form and will likely continue it in the sprints, he’ll be up against a post-crash Elia Viviani.
Porte is obviously an easy pick to win: he always shows up here with some semblance of form and has generally been unbeatable on Willunga. However, he’s sometimes shown up in the bonus second battles which has been to his cost in the past. Impey is one to benefit from those bonus sprints but he couldn’t even put a single second between himself and Porte last year and it’s hard to see him doing any better. Michael Woods, Nathan Haas, Rafa Valls and Wout Poels are also good shouts to win it, but my pick is another former winner in Rohan Dennis. He can grab bonus seconds, he can climb and he’ll have something to prove at Bahrain-Merida. Welcome to cycling in 2019 guys, hopefully it’s a hell of a ride.