Preview: What you should know about the 2018 Santos Tour Down Under

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The Santos Tour Down Under is Australia’s biggest bike race and the first WorldTour race of the season. The 2018 edition, which starts in Adelaide this weekend, will be the race’s 20th, and it’s shaping up to be another fascinating contest.

Local riders will be in red-hot form off the back of the Australian Road National Championships, while most of the European pros will be doing their first race of the year and trying to ride themselves into form.

Here’s what you need to know about the 2018 Santos Tour Down Under.

The race comprises a curtain-raiser criterium and six road stages.

The men’s Tour Down Under carnival begins on Sunday evening (January 14) in East Adelaide with the People’s Choice Classic criterium. This 22-lap, 50.6km circuit race isn’t actually part of the Tour Down Under — rather it’s a separate criterium that sets the scene for the week ahead and gives us a sense of which sprinters might be in form.

There’s no racing on Monday — the Tour Down Under proper starts on Tuesday morning. Here’s a brief overview of what each stage might hold:

Stage 1: Port Adelaide to Lyndoch (145km) – This opening road stage winds its way north east out from Port Adelaide towards Lyndoch in the Barossa Valley wine region. There’s three laps of a 26.5km circuit to wrap things up, and the stage will almost certainly end in a bunch sprint. (Note: the same finishing circuit was used last year and a slightly different circuit was used in 2016. Both stages were won by Caleb Ewan).

Stage 2: Unley to Stirling (148.6km) – Stage 2 heads north east out of Adelaide as well before tucking around the back of the nearby hills. From Stirling there’s three laps of a now-familiar finishing circuit, with the race finishing back in Stirling on a tough uphill drag.

Some Stirling trivia: Only one edition of the last nine Tours Down Under hasn’t had a stage finishing in Stirling, and that was last year. The past stage winners in this year’s race are: Jay McCarthy (2016), Diego Ulissi (2014), Tom-Jelte Slagter (2013) and Will Clarke (2012).

The stage 2 profile.

Stage 3: Glenelg to Victor Harbor (146.5km) – From the beachside suburb of Glenelg this stage heads south and finishes in Victor Harbor. There are three laps of a lumpy circuit before the flat finish. The same finish was used last year (albeit with one more lap of the circuit) when Caleb Ewan won the stage.

Stage 4: Norwood to Uraidla (128.2km) – After starting in Norwood, the riders head out into the hills then loop back around towards the city. The final 30km features the fast Gorge Rd descent, the 5km ascent up Norton Summit Road — Adelaide’s most popular climb — before an undulating 8km section to the finish line in Uraidla.

The stage 4 profile.

Stage 5: McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill (151.5km) – The classic Willunga Hill stage. Three laps of the big Aldinga Beach circuit before two ascents of Willunga Hill, the second of which concludes the stage.

The stage 5 profile.

Stage 6: Adelaide (90km) – A circuit race in the centre of Adelaide. The same course that’s been used for the past few years and an almost certain sprint finish to round out the week.

The general classification is likely to be decided on two stages: stage 4 and stage 5.

On paper, just two of the TDU’s six stages have the capacity to create meaningful time gaps. While stage 2 is a tough finish into Stirling, it would seem that only stage 4 and 5 are likely to create big enough time gaps to affect the GC.

Stage 4 is shaping up as perhaps the most interesting stage of the race, due to an interesting final 30km. The 5km climb up Norton Summit should split the field considerably, but there’s no guarantee we’ll see the GC favourites give it everything up the climb. The lumpy 8km run-in from the top of that climb to the finish might make going it alone a risky proposition.

Instead, it seems more likely that a reduced group will reach the finish in Uraidla, with those riders putting time between themselves and the rest of the field. The real time gaps are likely to come the following day.

The Willunga Hill climb is only 3km long but it’s reasonably steep and being at the end of the stage, it’s a chance for the climbers and GC favourites to give it everything. The outcome of stage 5 is likely to decide the overall classification. That’s not to say that the rider that wins on Willunga will win the Tour overall, but it’s a strong possibility.

Richie Porte (BMC) is the big favourite.

After finishing second in 2015 and 2016, Richie Porte won last year’s Tour Down Under by nearly a minute. In 2018 he won’t have the benefit of two uphill finishes like he did last year, but he’s still the favourite coming into this year’s race.

Porte has won on Willunga Hill every year for the past four years and it would be little surprise if he managed to make it five on the trot. And, if Willunga does indeed decide the GC, then Porte’s dominance on this climb should pave the way for a second straight overall win (he would be the first rider in the race’s history to achieve that feat).

Porte in action at last week’s Australian Road National Championships. (Image: Con Chronis)

Porte has recovered from the significant injuries he incurred at last year’s Tour de France and if his efforts at last week’s Aussie Road Nationals — third in the ITT and lead group in the road race — are anything to go by, he’s in good form. Importantly, he’ll also have the support of what is probably the race’s strongest team, including four-time winner Simon Gerrans and 2015 winner Rohan Dennis.

It will be interesting to see how BMC approaches the race. The team have said they’ll ride in support of Porte again but having Gerrans and Dennis on board gives them more potential winners than most other teams combined.

Gerrans on his way to winning the 2014 TDU, with now-teammate Richie Porte in tow.

There are a handful of riders that could challenge for the overall.

While BMC will be expected to win the Tour, they’ll have their hands full to resist the challenges of several riders.

Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) put in one of the best rides of last year’s Tour Down Under when he clawed his way to second on Willunga Hill after being dropped earlier in the climb. He finished the race fourth overall, with only bonus seconds on the last stage knocking him off the overall podium. The Canberran is in good form, having finished fifth in both the ITT and road race at last week’s Aussie Road Nationals, and he’ll be desperate for a strong showing at the Tour Down Under.

Haas is unlikely to be able to match the likes of Porte on Willunga Hill, but he’s got a fast enough finish that he can accrue bonus seconds throughout the rest of the race. If he can finish close enough to the lead on Willunga, he might be a chance of overall success (and certainly the podium).

Haas has ridden well on Willunga in the past, not least last year when he finished second on the stage. Here he is pictured on the hill while racing for Garmin.

The man who knocked Haas off the podium in last year’s Tour Down Under was Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe). A very similar rider to Haas, McCarthy is also capable of climbing well and can use his impressive sprint to take bonus seconds throughout the race (as he did on the final stage last year to finish third).

Like Haas, McCarthy is in strong form, having finished second in last week’s road race at the Australian Road Nationals. And like Haas, McCarthy will likely be disappointed not to finish on the overall podium at this year’s Tour Down Under.

Jay McCarthy won into Stirling in 2016. He’ll be vying for the overall again this year.

George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) doesn’t have the best record at the Tour Down Under (his best was 10th in 2015) but he certainly shouldn’t be discounted. The 2017 Tour of California winner can climb with the best in the world and he knows what it takes to be successful in week-long WorldTour stage races.

Bennett is in good form too — he was fourth last week in the road race at the New Zealand National Championships. Be sure to keep an eye on the yellow-kitted Kiwi.

George Bennett was something of a surprise winner at the 2017 Tour of California. He shouldn’t be underestimated in Adelaide.

For other outsiders for the overall podium, keep an eye on Ion Izagirre and Domenico Pozzovivo (both Bahrain-Merida).

It might be early in the season but Peter Sagan will almost certainly have an impact.

World champion Peter Sagan didn’t win a stage at last year’s Tour Down Under but he was still one of the most important riders in the race. He finished second on three occasions but more than that, his presence attracted the attention of cycling fans around the world.

Don’t expect Sagan to be at his world-beating best in Adelaide — he has much bigger goals this season, after all. But you can expect that he’ll be there when it counts, fighting for a stage win or two and helping his teammates on the days that don’t suit him.

For Sagan fans, Stage 2 will be particularly interesting to watch. The uphill drag to Stirling suits Sagan perfectly and if he’s feeling good, he’ll be one of the big favourites for the stage. Then again, his teammate Jay McCarthy won there the last time the race finished in Stirling (in 2016) and if McCarthy is targeting the overall (which he seems to be), then perhaps Sagan will ride in support of his Australian teammate’s hopes of taking the stage and some valuable bonus seconds.

There was plenty of attention on Peter Sagan at last year’s Tour Down Under. The same will be true this time around.

Either way, we’ll be seeing plenty of Peter Sagan over the next week or so and that’s a great thing for the race.

Caleb Ewan is probably the rider to beat in the bunch sprints.

It’s no secret that Caleb Ewan does well at the Tour Down Under and in the Aussie summer races generally. He won four stages last year, two the year before that and, rather ominously for his competitors, he thinks he’s probably “in my best shape ever for the Australian season”.

On paper, stages 1, 3 and 6 should probably end in a bunch sprint, so too the People’s Choice Classic criterium. Ewan will start the People’s Choice Classic as the favourite, but he’ll have stronger competition in the sprints than in years gone by. In fact, Mitchelton-Scott sports director Matt White has described the sprint field at this year’s Tour Down Under as the best in the race’s 20-year history, and it’s not hard to see why.

Ewan won four sprint stages at last year’s Tour Down Under.

Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) returns to the Tour Down Under for the first time since 2014 and is likely to be Ewan’s biggest challenger in the sprint finishes. Greipel holds the record for the most TDU stage wins — a whopping 16, to go along with two overall wins — and has won at least one stage in all but one of his appearances at the race.

Greipel’s early season form is unclear at this stage, but we’ll know by the end of the People’s Choice Classic whether Greipel has a chance of extending his stage victories record.

Andre Greipel took a comfortable stage win last time he raced the Tour Down Under, in 2014.

Peter Sagan and Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) shared sprinting duties at last year’s Tour Down Under and could well do the same again in 2018. Both have the ability to beat Ewan and Greipel, but a lot will depend on the sort of form the pair have brought to Australia.

Elia Viviani will make his debut for QuickStep Floors at the Tour Down Under and is another rider that, on his day, can challenge for a stage win or two. As with the other foreign riders, a lot will depend on how strongly Viviani has come out of the European winter and how his form stacks up against Ewan’s.

For other contenders in the sprint finishes, consider Phil Bauhaus (Sunweb), the combination of Sam Welsford and former stage winner Steele Von Hoff (UniSA-Australia), and Kiwi Alex Frame (Trek-Segafredo).

You should keep an eye on more than just the GC favourites and sprint contenders.

Beyond the riders vying for overall honours and the fast finishes, there are many exciting riders on this year’s startlist. Here are a handful you should keen an eye on:

Brendan Canty (EF Education First-Drapac): Canty was very disappointed to miss last year’s Tour Down Under due to illness and he’ll be raring to go this time around. We can’t wait to see what the Victorian climber can do on Willunga Hill. Will he be able to stay with Porte? It’s not out of the question.

Brendan Canty will make his Tour Down Under debut this week.

Egan Bernal (Sky): Sky has taken what some have described as its “C team” to this year’s Tour Down Under, but we’re still very keen to see what this young Colombian is capable of. It’s Bernal’s first race for the British juggernaught and while he isn’t likely to be in peak form, it will still be fascinating to see how he goes when the road tilts up.

Ben O’Connor & Lachlan Morton (Dimension Data): Ben O’Connor was mightily impressive in his neo-pro season last year and seems to be in strong form again early this year. Both he and Morton have the ability to go on the attack and shake up the race.

Cameron Meyer (Mitchelton-Scott): The TDU will be Meyer’s first WorldTour race since re-joining the GreenEdge family. He was on support duties for Caleb Ewan at the Nationals last week and the same will likely apply in Adelaide. Hopefully the West Australian will be given a bit of latitude to get up the road at some point — he’s an exciting rider that’s capable of having a real impact on the race.

Don’t forget that Meyer won this race overall back in 2011 off the back of a breakaway stage victory …

Cameron Meyer raced the Tour Down Under last year with the UniSA-Australia team. He’ll be back racing for Mitchelton-Scott in 2018.

Adam Hansen (Lotto Soudal): One of the most popular riders in the pro ranks, Adam Hansen loves going on the attack. He showed good form in a breakaway at the Aussie Road Nationals last week and hopefully he gets another chance to get up the road in Adelaide.

Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates): Interestingly, this is the first time Costa has raced the Tour Down Under. On his day the 2013 world champion is capable of a very strong result, but that will depend on the sort of form he has brought into the new season.

Chris Hamilton and Michael Storer (Sunweb): A pair of young Australian riders, both of whom are very handy uphill. It will be Storer’s first WorldTour race with his new team and it will be interesting to see how he fares.

Will Clarke (EF Education First-Drapac): Like Hansen, “The Big Horse” is a big fan of getting up the road. And also like Hansen, Clarke showed promising form at the Road Nats last week. Look to Clarke to get up the road during the week and if all goes well, he could even add to his breakaway victory from 2012.

Will Clarke is a former stage winner at the Tour Down Under.

The race is live on TV.

For the eighth year in a row, the Tour Down Under will get coverage via the Nine Network, both on TV and online. The network claims they’ll have more live coverage this year than ever before, with all six stages shown live on the Nine Network in Australia and streamed on 9Now (the People’s Choice Classic will be streamed on 9Now).

The race will be broadcast internationally across multiple networks, the details of which you can find here. As ever, be sure to check your local guides for information specific to your region.

To follow the race on Twitter, check out the #TDU hashtag. And, of course, stay posted to CyclingTips and our social channels for on-the-ground coverage from our team.

What are you looking forward to most about the 2018 Tour Down Under? And who do you think will win it overall? Let us know in the comments below.

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