Eight talking points from the 2016 Tour Down Under

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The 2016 Santos Tour Down Under has come to a close after a week of terrific racing in and around Adelaide. As you would have read by now, Simon Gerrans won the overall title for a record-extending fourth time (no one else has won it more than twice) and Orica-GreenEdge won four of the six stages thanks to Gerrans and Caleb Ewan.

So with the dust now settling on the season’s first WorldTour race, we thought we’d take a look at some of the talking points that emerged over the seven days of racing.

Jay McCarthy is destined for big things

Arguably the biggest break-out performance of this year’s Tour Down Under came from 23-year-old Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff). It was clear McCarthy was in good form when he finished fifth in the Nationals road race a couple weeks back, but the Queenslander took it to the next level at the TDU.

In fact, McCarthy has been taking it to the next level every year for the past few years. He was third in a stage of the Giro d’Italia in 2014, third overall at the Tour of Turkey last year, and this week claimed a stage win, a fourth-place overall and the best young rider jersey at the Tour Down Under.

From what we’ve seen so far, McCarthy has similar qualities to Simon Gerrans — he’s a good climber with a fast finish. It will be fascinating to watch how his career progresses from here.

Time bonuses continue to shape the Tour Down Under

Love them or hate them, time bonuses almost always decide the Tour Down Under. By our reckoning, Sergio Henao (Sky) would have won this year if time bonuses weren’t available at the end of each stage, and Richie Porte would have won it had he not lost eight seconds due to a split in the peloton on the finish line of stage 4.

Bonus seconds on the line in Victor Harbor gave Simon Gerrans a bit of a buffer going into the Willunga stage.
Bonus seconds on the line in Victor Harbor gave Simon Gerrans a bit of a buffer going into the Willunga stage.

Without time bonuses, this year’s race would have been decided on the Willunga stage and on the Willunga stage only. That doesn’t necessarily make for a compelling week-long GC battle. But with the race the way it is, it’s very difficult to win the Tour Down Under just by winning on Willunga Hill. Just ask Richie Porte.

Instead, the race favours a very specific type of rider.

The climbs aren’t long enough for the pure climbers to have a chance of winning overall, and the climbs aren’t short or flat enough for the pure sprinters to win the race like they once used to. To win the Tour Down Under these days you generally have to be the sort of rider that can climb Willunga with the best climbers, while also having a fast-enough finish to be able to contest the bunch sprints. Of course, you need look no further than 2016 winner Simon Gerrans for the perfect example of such a rider.

Michael Woods won’t fly under the radar any more

When Michael Woods attacked on stage 3’s Corkscrew Road climb, he had most journalists in the press room reaching for a copy of the startlist. It clearly wasn’t Simon Clarke attacking, nor Paddy Bevin, so who was this lime-green-clad rider dashing up the climb and splitting the race?

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For those that have followed Woods’ progression through the North American racing scene, his performance at the Tour Down Under (his first race as a WorldTour rider) won’t be of any great surprise. But to everybody else, it certainly was. He took it to the big names of the race, saying after stage 3 that he found it “so easy” responding to Richie Porte’s attacks and then riding off the front.

At the start of the year the plan was for Woods to ride for GC at the TDU and then go into domestique mode for the rest of the year. We hope team management gives Woods the chance to ride for himself every so often so we can see more aggressive and exciting racing from the 29-year-old neo-pro.

It’s time for Caleb Ewan to test himself against the world’s best (again)

There’s no doubt Caleb Ewan was the fastest sprinter at the 2016 Tour Down Under. He won two stages and the People’s Choice Classic criterium and all of them by a considerable margin.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

Finish line photos like the above would likely have looked a bit different had Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel or Mark Cavendish been in attendance but that’s not to take anything away from Ewan — he could only sprint against the riders that were there and while he was the favourite for each flat stage, he still had to get the job done.

Comparisons between Ewan and a young Robbie McEwen have become commonplace and with seven wins already this year, Ewan is well on his way to another successful season. But the next challenge for the 21-year-old will be to test himself against the likes of Greipel, Kittel and Cavendish. Ewan famously beat John Degenkolb and Peter Sagan on stage 5 of last year’s Vuelta a Espana but facing Kittel, Greipel and Cavendish will be just as tough, if not more so.

On paper we could see Ewan vs Cavendish at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race on Sunday but as Ewan noted in his post-TDU press conference, the chances of he and Cavendish getting to the finish in the lead group that day are slim.

Hopefully we’ll have plenty more opportunities to see Ewan vs the other great sprinters in the year ahead, including the head-to-head that many people are looking forward to: Caleb Ewan vs Fernando Gaviria.

The next generation of Aussie talent is already on its way

The UniSA-Australia national team is all about introducing good, young Australian riders to the rigours of WorldTour racing and, to a lesser extent, introducing those good, young riders to the world. As ever, the national team was plenty active throughout this year’s Tour Down Under, no more so than on the queen stage.

Lucas Hamilton before the start of the race.

It took the best climbers in the bike race to drag back 19-year-old Lucas Hamilton on Willunga Hill, and 20-year-old Chris Hamilton ended up finishing the race in 14th overall. Lucas, too, would have been in a similar position had he not crashed on stage 3.

Both Hamiltons (not related) should be walk-up starters for the Jayco-AIS WorldTour Academy Team over the next few years and if they continue to improve, we can expect to see them at plenty more WorldTour races than just the Tour Down Under.

Simon Gerrans is an even-year specialist

If you look at the list of Simon Gerrans’ best results, you’ll see those results tend to come in even-numbered years: the Tour Down Under and Milan-San Remo in 2012, the Tour Down Under and Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2014, the GP de Quebec in 2012 and 2014, the GP de Montreal in 2014 …

There’s little we can draw from that fact and it certainly doesn’t mean 2016 will be another dominant one for Gerrans. But there is a pattern there: when Gerrans does well at the Tour Down Under he tends to have a good year.

Santos Tour Down Under 2016 stage 5

There’s something else significant about this year too: 2016 is an Olympic year. Gerrans said in his post-race press conference yesterday that he’d love to be selected for the Australian team for Rio and, assuming he’s not injured or hideously out of form, it’s hard to see him missing out. While it’s a tough course with more climbing than he is perhaps suited to, Gerrans has ample time to train for it and get in shape. And if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Simon Gerrans in recent years, it’s that when he targets a big race, he tends to do pretty well.

One thing’s clear: 2016 has already been kinder to Gerrans than 2015 was, and the year isn’t yet a month old.

Orica-GreenEdge rode a great race but the spectacle sometimes suffered

It was just about the perfect Tour Down Under for Orica-GreenEdge with the Aussie team winning the race overall, the points classification and four of six stages (or five from seven if you count the People’s Choice Classic). Had Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey not crashed on stage 2, it’s reasonable to think that those four stage wins might have been five.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

But it wasn’t just the team’s results that were impressive — Orica-GreenEdge controlled the race to perfection. Luke Durbridge and Michael Hepburn must have ridden more kilometres on the front of the peloton between them than just about every other rider combined. They brought back breakaways when they needed to, let others go when they needed to, and then piloted Gerrans and Ewan into position when that was required. Daryl Impey was particularly impressive as well, leading out Gerrans and Ewan on both the flat and uphill finishes.

But as impressive as the team was and as happy as the riders and management deserve to be with their performance, there were times where it made for less-than-exciting bike racing. It became a somewhat predictable script: the early break got away, Orica-GreenEdge sat on the front holding the break at bay, Orica-GreenEdge reeled in the break before the finish, Orica-GreenEdge rider sprints to victory.

This shouldn’t be read as a criticism of the team — they were simply doing their job and doing it well. But often when a race is being controlled so well, it doesn’t make for particularly compelling viewing. Thankfully there was more than enough excitement to be had on the Corkscrew Road and Willunga Hill stages.

Richie Porte has started the biggest year of his career on good footing

In the lead-up to and during the Tour Down Under, Richie Porte continually downplayed his form. He claimed to be heavier and less fit than in previous years and appeared to be riding in support of Rohan Dennis for the first four days of the race.

But when Porte tore the peloton apart on Willunga Hill on Saturday, it was clear he’d either been sandbagging to the press, or that he’s just so good that he can almost win the Tour Down Under without really trying.

Porte even said he felt better on Willunga this year than he did in 2015 after his best pre-season ever.

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On more than one occasion Porte has referred to 2016 as the biggest year of his career. He’s moved to BMC to give himself a better chance at racing for the overall win at the Tour de France, and he’s again got his eye on the one-week European stage races he’s done so well at in the past. If Porte’s win on Willunga was indeed achieved with minimal specific preparation for it, then we can probably expect him to be in ominous form when “the real races” start in March, to quote Richie himself.

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What about you? What will you take from the 2016 Santos Tour Down Under? Which riders or teams impressed you? And which did you expect more from?

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