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The 2014 season is finally about to begin and we should be in for quite a show here in Australia. The field is one of the strongest in many years and we have at least three top contenders for the overall win. Mikkel Condé offers his insights into the 2014 Santos Tour Down Under and brings us up to date on who is likely to win and how the race could play out.
The first World Tour race on the calendar takes place from the 21st to the 26th of January and includes six stages; one uphill finish (stage 5), two bunch sprints (stage 4 & 6) and three stages which should end in a sprint within a reduced group (stage 1, 2 & 3). Looking at the start list, there are many riders with a solid chance of getting a good result in Tour Down Under. However, three riders stand out. Former Tour de France winner Cadel Evans, last year’s Paris-Nice winner Richie Porte and the new Australian champion Simon Gerrans.
I’m sure it’s going to be a close race between these three riders but to me, Simon Gerrans is the number one favorite. Tour Down Under always comes down to the bonus seconds and, thanks to his fast finish, Gerrans should be able to score a few seconds on Evans and Porte. At the Australian championships, Simon Gerrans proved to be in great shape already. GreenEdge played their cards perfectly and in the end Gerrans had no problems outsprinting Cadel Evans and Richie Porte on the final meters. Gerrans was so sure about his sprint he even told teammate Cam Meyer to help Porte and Evans pulling in the quartet on the final lap. After the race, Richie Porte said that Simon Gerrans was the strongest on the climbs. If this hasn’t changed over the last week, Gerrans will be incredibly difficult to beat overall in the Tour Down Under.
GreenEdge brings their A-team to the start with their minds set on winning stages and winning the general classification. The other teams know GreenEdge is the team to beat and on the contrary to recent years, I doubt we will see Team Sky working a lot at the front of the peloton. In Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas (third overall last year), they have two strong riders for the GC but they need to be smart and don’t waste any energy early in the race. Porte’s big goal this season is the Giro d’Italia and I think he will be eager to start the season with a big win. Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome both won almost every stage race as they prepared for winning the Tour de France, and I think Porte will try to do the same, as he gets ready for the Giro.
BMC comes with a strong and loyal group of riders ready to work hard for Cadel Evans. Like Richie Porte, Evans is aiming at the Giro this year and according to Allan Peiper, sporting manager of the team, Evans actually felt that he was the strongest on the climbs at national championships. Cadel Evans is not slow in a sprint but he’s not nearly as fast as Simon Gerrans. This means that Evans needs to attack Gerrans in order to beat him and that will most likely be on Willunga Hill on the penultimate day of racing. The same goes for Richie Porte. However, there are other chances to attack than on Willunga Hill. The steep gradients on Corkscrew Hill, on stage 3, also provide an excellent opportunity for Porte and Evans to put Gerrans under pressure. Still, if the Australian champion is as strong as he seems, I can’t see why he shouldn’t be able to follow the attacks.
Just behind the three riders mentioned above, we’ll find guys like Robert Gesink, Rohan Dennis, Javi Moreno, Diego Ulissi and Fränk Schleck. It won’t be easy for any of these to beat Gerrans, Porte and Evans but as I expect a close race, you simply can’t rule out any of them already. In the absent of last year’s winner, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Rohan Dennis is now Garmin’s designated leader. He had a freak accident in the Australian time trial championship but he seems to be okay. Jonathan Vaughters says he believes Dennis can win the race but I think it will require a solo win on Willunga Hill. However, Rohan Dennis did surprisingly well on the climb in 2012 when he finished 5th (and 5th overall as well). On a good day, the young Australian may go all the way.
Somehow I doubt that will happen to Robert Gesink. The former Dutch super talent has never managed to fully live up to everyone’s big expectations and he’s now no longer Belkin’s number one GC rider for the Tour de France. Another thing which speaks against Robert Gesink is that Belkin was one of the last teams to arrive in Australia. Team Sky already arrived in the end of December, while teams like Lotto-Belisol and OPQS came two weeks before the start of the race. Gesink says the race suits him well and of course, if he’s able to find the right set of legs, he may be able to light things up on Willunga Hill. Personally, I doubt he will do better than a place just outside of the podium. Also, keep an eye on teammate Stef Clement who will be very interesting to follow this season. Clement finished 11th overall in Dauphiné last year and I have a feeling he’s just getting started showing his true stage race potential.
Movistar’s Javi Moreno finished second overall last year and in 2012, he did an impressive amount of work for Alejandro Valverde. Moreno clearly likes riding in Australia and if he’s in the same shape as the last two years, he will be difficult to hold down. He has been one of the strongest riders in a row on Willunga Hill within the last two years and even though he may not be the fastest of the favorites, Moreno knows where and when to attack. Don’t forget he was also in the four-man front group after Corkscrew Hill last year.
My personal outsider for the overall win is Diego Ulissi. According to the young Italian, he’s more focused on one-day races than on stage races but he has all the skills to win a short stage race like Tour Down Under. Ulissi is fast on the line, which is important regarding the bonus seconds, plus he’s explosive on the short climbs. I see at least three stages well suited for Diego Ulissi to strike. There are 10 bonus seconds to the winner of each stage and if Ulissi wins one of these, he will have a big advantage on guys like Porte and Evans. However, this is the first race of the season and naturally Ulissi won’t start the race in the same kind of shape as home favorites Gerrans, Porte and Evans. Lampre-Merida won’t put any pressure on Ulissi to perform already but I think he could be the big surprise this year. Like Tom-Jelte Slagter was in 2013.
For other outsiders look to riders like; Jussi Veikkanen, George Bennett, Maxime Bouet, Jan Bakelants, Enrico Gasparotto, Laurent Didier and the youngsters Julian Alaphilippe, Matej Mohoric and Kenny Ellissonde. The French climber won on Angliru in Vuelta España last year. However, Elissonde suffered from gastroenteritis just before leaving for Australia so he may not able to fight for the top positions in the general classification.
Unlike in the past, there are now only two bunch sprint stages left in the race. Stage 4 and 6. Andre Greipel, Marcel Kittel, Mark Renshaw, Elia Viviani, Roberto Ferrari, Matt Goss etc. will all be eager to take advantage of the few possibilities they’ll get. The way I see it, Andre Greipel is the man to beat. He won all three sprint stages last year and this time he’s bringing his best leadout train to Australia. Lotto arrived early, like last year, in order to fine-tune the leadout and to me, it would be a surprise not to see Greipel winning at least one of the two sure sprint stages. Naturally, Marcel Kittel will be eager to build on his outstanding Tour de France performance but it requires a perfect leadout. Last year, Giant-Shimano had big problems getting their leadout right at the beginning of the season and they can’t afford to let that happen again this time. GreenEdge have a strong duo in Matt Goss and Michael Matthews and it will be interesting to see how they will play their cards. Matthews has been in a league of his own the last two times he has rode the finish in Stirling (stage 2) and he is the big favorite to win here again this year.
There are many young sprinters knocking on the door of the big scene and guys like Steele Von Hoff, Danny van Poppel and Caleb Ewan all have what it takes to make an upset this early in the season. Especially the two Australians seems to be in great shape already and if the big favorites miss out, Von Hoff and Ewan won’t hesitate for a second.
See daily previews of all the Tour Down Under stages on Mikkel Condé’s blog C-Cycling.