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by Mikkel Conde
January 17, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos, Tim Bardsley-Smith and Veeral Patel
With the Australian Road National Championships now complete, it’s time for the international season to begin. The Santos Tour Down Under is the first race of the 2016 WorldTour and, judging from the line-up, we can expect another close fight for the overall win. Mikkel Conde put together the following review of the course, the contenders and some other riders to keep an eye on.
The Santos Tour Down Under begins with the People’s Choice Classic criterium on Sunday evening. It’s not technically part of the tour, but all the same teams will be in attendance. It will almost certainly end in a bunch sprint.
The Tour Down Under proper begins on Tuesday with what should be another chance for the fast riders. However, that was also the scenario last year when the peloton mistimed its efforts and the morning breakaway made it all the way. Jack Bobridge won the stage that day and took the first ochre leader’s jersey of the race.
The Trek-Segafredo rider recently pulled off a 90km solo effort to win the Australian national road championships. Bobridge is clearly in great shape and has already said he wants to “have a go” at the Tour Down Under. He will definitely be eager to show off his new green and gold jersey during the week.
Stage 2 finishes on the familiar circuit in Stirling. This year, the riders will do four laps before reaching the final uphill stretch towards the line. There are 10, six and four bonus seconds up for grabs for the first three riders on each stage. Often the GC for the Tour Down Under comes down to a matter of a few seconds. Therefore, the Stirling finish is very important for GC riders who pack a fast finish.
However, the first big fight among the GC riders won’t come until stage 3, as the peloton tackles the steep climb up Corkscrew Road with just 10km left to go. This climb is just 2.5km long, but has an average gradient of nearly 9% and parts over 15%. The following descent is very fast.
The last time the race visited Corkscrew Road, in 2014, Cadel Evans had a 15-second gap on his rivals as he crossed the top. A few minutes later, the now-retired Australian crossed the finishing line maintaining that gap of 15-seconds to the first chase group. Knowing that this is by far the steepest climb in the race, the pure climbers can’t afford to miss out on this stage.
Most likely, the sprinters will have their say on stage 4. Despite a short climb in the last 30km, the teams of the fast riders should be able to keep things under control. For the GC riders, it’s all about saving energy before the last big fight the following day on Willunga Hill.
Without any surprises, the Willunga climb will decide the overall winner of the race. The peloton will take on the climb once before it really counts. The steepest part of Willunga Hill is right at the beginning with parts of nearly 10%. Afterwards, the gradients are steady around 7%.
Wind is often a factor on this climb. If a strong headwind blows, the riders will want to wait as long as possible before making their moves. However, those who aren’t fast on the line will have to attack before it evens out in the final few hundred meters.
Richie Porte has won on Willunga Hill the past two years. Now, in the colors of BMC, the Tasmanian will be gunning for a hat-trick.
The final day of the race is a criterium-like stage in the heart of Adelaide. Twenty laps of 4.5km await the riders. Anything but a bunch sprint will be a huge surprise.
2016 Santos Tour Down Under:
Having won the race three times — twice within the past four years — Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) has to be one of the top favourites for the overall win again in 2016. Gerrans is fast on the line and will be able to fight for bonus seconds in Stirling on stage 2 and in the intermediate sprints which each offer three, two and one seconds during the race.
Gerrans may not be able to follow the pure climbers on Corkscrew Road but on paper he shouldn’t lose time to his GC rivals. Gerrans is always among the best on Willunga Hill.
Last year, an injury kept Gerrans out of Tour Down Under. After Orica-GreenEdge missed out in the national championships last week, Gerrans and the rest of the team will be eager to take away an important victory on home soil.
Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) has a lot of the same qualities as Gerrans. The Italian is very fast in an uphill sprint and he too has done well on Willunga Hill in the past. In 2014, Ulissi went head-to-head with Gerrans for the overall win after each rider won a stage in the first days of racing. On Willunga Hill, the two riders were inseparable, sprinting for second place after Porte’s solo win. At the end, Gerrans won the race overall due to bonus seconds.
Later that year, Ulissi tested positive for salbutamol during the Giro d’Italia. He came back in 2015 and proved to be as strong as ever, winning an uphill sprint at the Giro and finishing third on another stage. If Ulissi arrives at Tour Down Under ready to fight for the GC, he will be a very serious candidate for the overall win. To help him succeed, the Italian can count on excellent support from two African climbers, Tsgabu Grmay and Louis Meintjes.
Another Australian with a good chance of overall success in Tour Down Under is last year’s winner Rohan Dennis (BMC). He took many by surprise, including team leader Cadel Evans, when he came flying past everyone to win stage 3 in Paracombe. On Willunga Hill, he managed to hold on to Porte’s wheel just as long as he needed to keep the overall win by two seconds.
Dennis starts out this year’s race fresh off an impressive victory at the Australian national time trial championships. He’s obviously ready to defend his title. However, in order to do so, he needs to solo away again, at least once — he is simply not fast enough to beat his rivals in the sprints.
While Porte doesn’t seem as strong now as he was the same time last year, BMC will still have two strong cards to play on Corkscrew Road and Willunga Hill with Porte and Dennis. Since neither are able to outsprint the likes of Gerrans or Ulissi, they will have to attack whenever they see a chance to do so. This could means a week of very opportunistic racing.
Team Sky is also sending a very capable team to Adelaide. With Geraint Thomas, Sergio Henao and Pete Kennaugh on the starting line, Sky will definitely have a strong say in who’s going to win the Tour Down Under overall. In 2013, Thomas dropped everyone on Corkscrew Road, winning the stage and finishing third overall. With an increased focus on stage racing this season, Thomas may be eyeing an early victory.
Henao is one of the few pure climbers in the race. The steeper the road, the better the Colombian gets. He will be one to watch on stage 3, and on Willunga Hill — especially if he’s already without chances in the GC and has nothing to lose on the penultimate day.
Two other Colombians with a solid chance in the GC are Julian Arredondo (Trek-Segafredo) and Jarlinson Pantano (IAM). Both are fast on the line in an uphill sprint and very strong on the climbs. While it’s uncertain what shape Arredondo arrives in, Pantano’s IAM Cycling team has already stated that they hope their Colombian captain can finish on the overall podium. However, given this year’s line-up, that will be a very tough ask.
On paper, riders like Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale), Michael Woods (Cannondale), Rafa Valls (Lotto Soudal), Tiago Machado (Katusha), Rubén Fernández (Movistar), Luis León Sanchez (Astana) and Ryder Hesjedal (Trek-Segafredo) are all capable of winning on Willunga Hill and thereby having a shot at the overall podium.
Also, don’t be surprised if less familiar names like Petr Vakoc (Etixx-QuickStep), Primož Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo), Patrick Bevin (Cannondale) and Lachlan Norris (Drapac) join the fight for the top positions in the general classification.
Lachlan Norris could be a rider to watch. He won a stage of last year’s Tour of Utah and has been getting stronger in recent years.
For the three expected sprint finishes, the prime picks are the in-shape Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge) and the two Italians Matteo Pelucchi (IAM Cycling) and Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo).
Together with Juanjo Lobato (Movistar), Wouter Wippert (Cannondale), Mark Renshaw (Dimension Data), Steele Von Hoff (UniSA-Australia), Marko Kump (Lampre-Merida), Oscar Gatto (Tinkoff), Ben Swift (Sky), and LottoNL-Jumbo’s newcomer Enrico Battaglin, we can expect some dramatic bunch sprints throughout the race.
It will also be very interesting to see how Koen de Kort, one of the best lead-out riders in the world, fares in the sprints. Since Giant-Alpecin didn’t send any of their top sprinters to the race, de Kort will be given a rare chance to seek own glory.
Who’s your pick for the 2016 Santos Tour Down Under? Let us know in the comments below.