I did not watch Mathieu van der Poel dominate the cyclocross season. I did not watch the Saitama Criterium. Nor did I watch the Antipodean national championships. However, I am recharged and ready for some more cycling, right in time for the Tour Down Under, the best race in everyone’s favourite country (currently-on-fire category). Daryl Impey has made the race his own in the last couple of years, taking the victory by less than a second over Richie Porte in 2018 and beating the same rider by a comparatively boring thirteen ticks last year.
The race takes place on familiar roads around Adelaide as always; the organisers know that the ability to stay in the same hotel for much if not all of the race with long transfers very much frowned upon. No part of the race is further than an eighty-minute car ride from the city centre, giving the peloton a start to 2020 which, if not easy, certainly compares favourably with what will be on offer in Europe in the coming weeks.
The crit formerly known as the People’s Choice Classic has already taken place and was won by Caleb Ewan, as it has been ever since he developed a heartbeat. Things take a level in difficulty from now on though, with stage one taking in a couple of categorised climbs.
Stage two is the first chance for the GC contenders to go for a few bonus seconds. This stage to the Mt. Barker Road in Stirling is a common feature of the race and I’m actually a big fan of it, the run-up to the line tends to bring a wide range of riders into play which is borne out in the riders who have won there: Caleb Ewan, Jay McCarthy, Juan José Lobato, Diego Ulissi, Will Clarke, Michael Matthews, Allan Davis. Even four bonus seconds for third place here could be vital by Sunday.
Stage three’s finish at Paracombe is also a recurring star, last appearing in 2017 where it gave Richie Porte the opportunity to go twenty seconds ahead of the field in the GC. He never looked back from there and went on to take his (somehow) only victory. This time however there isn’t as much climbing: less than 1.5 kilometres at nine per cent basically means this will be a tough uphill sprint.
Stage four is flat for the last seventy kilometres and should suit Caleb Ewan.
Stage five isn’t quite so familiar. The finishing town of Victor Harbour certainly won’t be new to loyal viewers but the climb of Kerby Hill (which sounds like the name of some mediocre Aussie Rules player) does seem to be new. It will likely whittle down the field to the point that Impey will be eyeing this stage up to make up some of the time he will undoubtedly lose the following day.
That following day? Surprise, surprise, it’s Willunga Hill. Same formula as usual, a flat run-in to two laps of this race’s most iconic climb. Richie Porte has won on Willunga the last six years in a row. He will do the same this year. You do not have any logical reason to disagree with this. It’s a matter of by how much over the riders likely to have picked up a few seconds over him over the course of the week.
I’ll take this moment to say that I appreciate the fact that they have decided to nix that crit around Adelaide that used to close off the race, with Willunga becoming the final stage. It gives more room for the bonus-second-fight during the week that usually decides this race.
The bookies have the race’s two most recent winners as their favourites and, as the gist of this preview may have made clear, it really is quite difficult to look past Porte and Impey. Porte is going to be the climber in this race who is on the best form, and beating him will mean taking little chunks of time on the flatter stages while staying close enough to him on the climbs. The master of the genre, Simon Gerrans, has retired leaving his student Impey to take his own pair of titles here. Impey has done an awful lot with his talent over the course of his career (wearing the yellow jersey, winning a Tour stage plus plenty of smaller race wins) but GC leadership is not something he will get in very many other races. Hence, he should be very geared up for this, just as much as Porte. The trick for him will lie in being able to drop the Ewans and the Bennetts and being able to outsprint those who are left behind. Bonuses really are the name of the game here and if they get split too evenly, it plays into Porte’s hands.
Impey and Porte are the clear favourites and honestly one of the two seems nailed on to win it. Otherwise, we have the categories of ‘Impey-lite’ and ‘Diet Porte’ or ‘Mid-Strength Porter’, if you will. Impey-lites are Diego Ulissi, Jay McCarthy and Nathan Haas, Mid-Strength Porters are Simon Yates (at this race and no other, obviously), Pavel Sivakov and name your favourite young Aussie climber.
Outside that paradigm (if you can conceive of such a thing) is Rohan Dennis, somebody with exactly as many wins in this race as Richie Porte. If he’s on form he’s a huge threat but he’s been hit and miss in this race so caution is advised. Making a big statement that his talent means he’s worth the risk from INEOS might be advisable so he’s one to watch.
Richie Porte is my pick for the win here. I’ve always shown too much faith in the guy, why stop now? Hopefully we can learn a few morsels of what this season will bring.