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Who'll win the first WorldTour race of the year?

Photo: Sirotti

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TOUR DOWN UNDER

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18.01.2016 @ 22:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The days when the opening months of the cycling season can be used to ease into the races, are long gone and nowadays the first WorldTour points are on offer right from the beginning. For most riders, the Tour Down Under is the first competitive action of the year but it presents a great opportunity to open the points account already from the take-off. This turns the race into a hotly contested affair and with the days when the race was a sprinters' affair now belonging to the past, the overall classification shapes up to be decided in an exciting battle between puncheurs, climbers and classics specialists.

                                                                              

2016 has barely begun but the times when January is a month for training and preparation at team training camps are now history. Nowadays, the best professional cyclists start to race earlier than they did in the past as they benefit from the globalization of the sport to get some early-season racing kilometres under their belt under distant and warmer skies.

 

This development has prompted the creation of the new opening week of the professional cycling season which takes place more than a month before the traditional Belgian opening weekend and a month and a half before the first major European race, Paris-Nice. Although the Tour Down Under and the Tour de San Luis are held on separate continents, they have combined forces to kick off the racing season by splitting the professional peloton into two halves, with most of the sprinters and classics specialists heading to Australia and the stage racers travelling to Argentina.

 

Following on the heels of the national championships in New Zealand and Australia, the two races signal the real kick off of the season for most of the WorldTour teams. It is testament to the globalized cycling that the major stars now travel all over the world to Oceania and South America to start their season in sunny conditions.

 

It may be early in the year but there is no time to gradually find the racing legs. Nowadays, teams are involved in a fierce battle for UCI points - which will be no less fierce due to the uncertainty that follows from the restructuring of the international calendar that is set to be introduced in 2017 - and as a WorldTour event, the Tour Down Under has a big amount on offer. Some riders may be travelling to Australia mostly for training but all teams will take the race very seriously and have made sure that they have a few riders that are able to fight for the wins in both the overall and on select stages.

 

With cycling's major stars now going head-to-head in the event, the race has come a long way since its beginning in 1999. Originally created to promote South Australia as a tourist destination, the inaugural edition had attracted a few European teams but the first races were mostly dominated by Australians. Local hero Stuart O'Grady was the first rider to win the event, with O'Grady again, Michael Rogers and Patrick Jonker making sure that the race had home-grown winners four times during the first six years.

 

However, the race gradually became more and more international and it became increasingly difficult for the local riders to make their mark on the race. When the ProTour was introduced in 2005, race director Mike Turtur started a dedicated lobbying work to make the race become the first non-European event to be added to the finest calendar. With the UCI being keen to internationalize their finest race series, the race passed several historic European races to be added to the ProTour in 2008.

 

Although it guaranteed the presence of all ProTour teams and gave the starting field a major boost of international stars, the new status also posed a new difficulty. Until then, the Willunga Hill with its subsequent finish in the city of Willunga and the general rolling terrain had been enough to split the field and create some unpredictable races - very often a surprise breakaway distanced the peloton significantly in one of the opening stages - but the race was now too easy to control for cycling's major powerhouses. The race turned into a rather predictable sprint affair, with Andre Greipel and Allan Davis winning the 2008 and 2009 editions of the event respectively.

 

To test the world stars a bit more, the organizers decided to add an extra passage of Willunga Hill to the queen stage of the race. That gave way to a very exciting race, featuring climbing stars like newly crowned world champion Cadel Evans, Alejandro Valverde, Luis Leon Sanchez and neo-professional Peter Sagan but it was not enough to prevent Greipel from winning the race for a second time courtesy of bonus seconds. The next edition was the first to be won by a non-sprinter but Cameron Meyer's surprise victory was more a result of the peloton's underestimation of a breakaway featuring Meyer, Thomas De Gendt and Laurens Ten Dam than it was testament to the toughness of the course.

 

For the 2012 edition, the organizers realized that something had to be done to turn the race away from its many sprint finishes. For the first time ever, the race featured a summit finish on the Willunga Hill and this tipped the balance into the hands of the puncheurs. Simon Gerrans took the win after a thrilling battle with Alejandro Valverde while the sprinters now had to be content with the fight for stage wins. In 2013, the race was made even tougher with the inclusion of a stage that passed the steep Corkscrew climb close to the finish, making for a balanced race with three traditional sprint stages, two stages for the climbers and the uphill sprint into Stirling. The formula was repeated in 2014 when the Corkscrew and Willunga climbs set the scene for an exciting battle between the major Australian climbing stars. In 2015, it was a similar course even though the Corkscrew stage had been replaced by a new hard stage into Paracombe.

 

That evolution has changed the dynamics of the race. While in the past there was little reason to field anything else than a dedicated sprint team, the field now boasts a solid mix of puncheurs and sprinters. Although the race is still not one for the pure climbers and grand tour specialists, the field is now much more diverse than it has been in the past and most teams make sure to have a solid pair of climbing legs on their roster.

 

With the Tour de San Luis offering an alternative way to prepare the new season, the two races are involved in a constant battle to attract the strongest fields. As the Argentinean race offers some kind of a mini grand tour with a team time trial and real mountain stages, the pair have shared the stars between them, with most stage racers heading to Argentina and most sprinters and classics riders travelling to Australia. The only real stage race specialists to be present in Australia are local stars like Richie Porte and Rohan Dennis, Canadian Ryder Hesjedal, Italian Domenico Pozzovivo, Spaniards Rafael Valls  and Ruben Fernandez, Portuguese Tiago Machado and Estonian Rein Taaramae but with riders like Giacomo Nizzolo, Matteo Pelucchi, Marko Kump, Caleb Ewan, Wouter Wippert, Ben Swift, Mark Renshaw, Tyler Farrar, Steele von Hoff, Juan Jose Lobato and Brenton Jones as the main sprinters, the Tour Down Under can boast a formidable line-up of fast finishers. One sprinter will be missing though as André Greipel – who has the record of most stage wins – will skip the race for the second year in a row. With the GC now suited to puncheurs, it is no surprise that a formidable line-up of Ardennes specialists will travel to Australia, with the field being led by triple winner and local hero Simon Gerrans.

 

However, due to its lower status, the Tour de San Luis does offer less stress and media coverage and this has prompted some sprinters like Peter Sagan and Fernando Gaviria to stay away from the Australian race that has the focus from the entire cycling world in the month of January. On the other hand, the greater prestige means that the Tour Down Under is a hotly contested international affair while the overall classification in San Luis is often dominated by local riders, with the European stars mainly using the race as training.

 

Last year all was set for a fairytale ending to Cadel Evans’ career as the local grand tour star lined up for his final stage race but an in-form Richie Porte’s strong showing at the national championships had set the scene for an exciting Australian duel. However, it was another Australian who came away with the win as Rohan Dennis benefited from team tactics and good legs to take the first WorldTour stage victory of his career. Having initially been dropped in the hilly third stage, he returned to the leading group at the top of the final climb and capitalized from the hesitation to ride away with the stage win and the leader’s jersey. He limited his losses to an outstanding Porte in the Willunga stage to take the overall win with a 2-second advantage over the Sky leader, with Evans having to settle for third. Of course the latter won’t be back in 2016 but Dennis and Porte will both return as they now line up as BMC teammates.

 

The course

Since joining the ProTour in 2008, the Tour Down Under has gradually turned away from being a sprinters affair to become a much more diverse race. In 2013, the race had its hardest course yet, with only half of the stages being dedicated to the fast finishers, and the organizers were so pleased with the lay-out of the most recent edition that they followed a similar pattern in the design of the 2014 course. In fact, only two stages were designed for the pure sprinters as the opening stage included a difficult climb close to the finish put the sprinters on the back foot.

 

Just as one had reached the conclusion that the organizers had found a pretty fixed format for their race, they again gave the course a bit of an overhaul in 2015. They found no reason to change the traditional stages to Stirling and the top of Willunga Hill but the Corkscrew stage that helped shape the GC in 2013 and 2014 was missing. Instead, the organizers introduced a new uphill finish in Paracombe, meaning that half of the stages were again for the puncheurs and the climbers. The final three stages suited the sprinters, meaning that the fast riders found the course a bit more to their liking than the very difficult 2014 route.

 

There is no reason to change a winning formula and the 2016 edition is very similar to what we have seen in recent years. Like last year the race will be split into three stages for the sprinters, two for the climbers and the uphill sprint into Stirling, with the latter three set to decide the overall. The opening stage is the novelty but it should be an affair for the fast riders. Like last year the Stirling stage comes on the second day while stages 4 and 6 are the traditional sprint stages to Victor Harbor and Adelaide. The climbing stages come on the third and fifth day and like in 2014, the decision will be made on the Corkscrew climb which makes a welcome return in stage 3, and the traditional uphill finish on Willunga Hill.

 

The organizers are aware that their race is an early-season affair and is held far away from Europe and this plays a huge role in the design of the course. While the logistical problems of transporting time trial equipment all the way to Australia mean that the race has never included a race against the clock, the early time of the year means that the race cannot be too hard. Hence, there are no major climbs in the race and the stages all have rather short distances. At the same time, the race offers perfect conditions for the riders who are able to stay at the same hotel in Adelaide during the race, with all stages taking place close to the major city of the region. However, the heat has often been extreme at this time of the year, making for some very hard racing in Southern Australia.

 

The riders will have a chance to test their legs on Sunday in the traditional warm-up criterium, People's Choice Classic. Originally, the race on the fast circuit in Adelaide was a part of the race but since 2006, the race has been held as a non-UCI race with the same field as the Tour Down Under. This offers the riders the chance to get their legs up to racing speed before things kick off in earnest and allows the public an opportunity to get a presentation of the field.

 

 

Stage 1

The race has traditionally kicked off with a stage for the sprinters (usually won by Andre Greipel) but in 2014 the organizers changed the script as they opened their event with a very tough stage that included the steep Mengler’s Hill just 11.7km from the finish, meaning that most of the fast finishers were left behind before the sprint.

 

Last year the first stage was again expected to suit the fast finishers who were upset by a surprisingly strong breakaway and a win for Jack Bobridge. They will try to avoid a repeat of that scenario when they kick off the 2016 edition. The opening stage will feature a new finish in Lyndoch but if the sprint teams can work together, there is a big chance that the first holder of the ochre leader’s jersey will be decided in a bunch sprint.

 

The short 130.8km stage goes from Prospect to Lyndoch and is a mostly flat affair, with only a few rolling climbs along the way. As the race kicks off from an Adelaide suburb, it has a pretty tough start as the riders climb out of the coastal city. The first 12.8km are all uphill and leads to the top of the category 2 Lower Hermitage climb. As this is the only categorized climb in the stage, there will be a mountains jersey on offer right from the start.

 

That signals the end of the climbing challenges and the riders will mainly face flat roads as they travel west and north to the city of Williamstown which they will reach after 40km of racing. Slightly descending roads will lead to Lyndoch where they will cross the finish line at the 50.1km mark.

 

The final part of the race consists of three laps of a 26.9km circuit in the area south of the finishing city. The first half is slightly ascending and the second half slightly descending but it is a mainly flat affair. The riders will contest intermediate sprints at the same point in the first two laps at 59.6km and 86.4km marks respectively. The finale is completely non-technical as the finish line is located on a long, straight, flat road, with the final turn coming more than 5km from the finish.

 

Lyndoch has never hosted a stage finish before.

 

 

 

Stage 2

The pure sprinters will step out of the spotlight after the opening day as the second stage is a tough Tour Down Under classic. The uphill sprint in Stirling has become a tradition of the Australian race, with the finish featuring in all editions since its debut in 2009. While the stage usually doesn't decide the GC, it is a tricky one where potential winners can target bonus seconds and where you can easily lose a few seconds in the hectic finale.

 

The stage has traditionally started in Unley just south of Adelaide and after a one-year absence, that city was back as the starting point for the tough stage in 2015. It will be back in 2016 too. The distance between the start and finish is very short but to reach the total distance of 132 – which is a bit shorter than last year – the riders will zigzag their way through the area for a little while. Right from the beginning, it is uphill as the riders will climb slightly for almost 8km before they descend to the bottom of the only categorized climb. The short category 2 Carey Gully summits at the 13.8km mark from where the riders descend to the main circuit which they will reach after less than 20km of racing.

 

After tackling the uphill part of the circuit, the riders will cross the finish line at 24.9km mark and then the rest of the stage consists of five laps here. The circuit is 21.4km long and consists of the long uphill drag to the finish and a second, undulating, mostly downhill section. This is where the action will pan out as the rising section to the finish is too tough for a lot of riders – especially if some of the climbing teams decide to up the pace. The finishing straight is non-technical with only a few sweeping bends inside the final kilometre. There will be intermediate sprints in the first two laps after 27.9 and 49.3km of racing respectively.

 

In the past, the stage has been made tougher by adding more and more laps around the circuit, culminating in 2013 when the riders did 5 full laps. However, the riders only did two laps in 2014 and 2015 which made the stage a lot easier. This year the peloton again faces five full laps, meaning that it should favour the puncheurs over the sprinters who have occasionally had a chance on this course.

 

In 2009 Allan Davis beat Graeme Brown in the uphill sprint while Manuel Cardoso held off Alejandro Valverde and Cadel Evans with a long sprint in 2010. In 2011, Michael Matthews proved that he is perfectly suited to this finish when he triumphed ahead of Andre Greipel and Matthews Goss and one year later he again won the sprint - albeit only for second as William Clarke held off the field in a long solo move. In 2013 Tom-Jelte Slagter laid the foundations for his overall win by holding off Goss and Philippe Gilbert while Diego Ulissi timed his move to perfection to win the 2014 stage ahead of Simon Gerrans and Cadel Evans. Last year it was Juan Jose Lobato who came away with the win by beating Daryl Impey and teammate Gorka Izagirre into the minor podium positions.

 

 

 

 

Stage 3

Like last year the riders will have to wait until the third day to really make their mark but stage 3 is a great chance to try to make a difference. The Corkscrew climb was a very popular addition to the race in 2013 and featured again in 2014. The race skipped the climb in 2015 but this year it will again provide the first indication of the potential winners of the race.

 

At 139km, it is another pretty short stage and again the distance from the start in Glenelg just south of Adelaide and the finish in Campbelltown is pretty short. To build the distance, the riders will again have to zigzag their way through the area in the first part of the stage. In the first part, they will travel along flat roads close to the coast until they get to Old Noarlunga after 20km of racing. Here they will leave the coast and contest the first intermediate sprint at the 33.8km mark before they start a long, gradually ascending section as they head northeast towards the finishing city. However, there will be no major climbs and the road will again be flat after a short descent that leads to the feed zone.

 

The flat roads will continue past the second intermediate sprint at the 95.2km mark until the riders get to a descending section just before they reach the northernmost point of the course. From here it is downhill all the way to the bottom of the category 1 Corkscrew climb which brings the descending to an abrupt end. It is 2.5km long and has an average gradient of 8.8%. The first 1.1km averages around 8% while there are double-digit gradients between the 1.1km and 1.7km marks. The final 800m are easier.The summit of the ascent comes just 5.7km from the finish and from there it is a downhill run all the way to the finish in Campbelltown. The road is winding until the riders get to the final right-hand turn 500m from the line.

 

While the first part of the stage was easy, the finale will be very difficult. The roads are slightly descending for more than 10km, meaning that the riders will be riding very fast by the time they make a sharp turn to hit the climb and they will have to get back up to speed from what is almost a complete standstill. The climb is harder than the Torrens Hill Road that featured in last year’s third stage and bigger differences can be made. With just a short downhill run to the finish, there will be little time to organize a chase, meaning that it offers an opportunity to create important time gaps in the overall standings. The stage is likely to come down to a battle on the final climb and it will give a first clear indication of who’s going to win the 2015 Tour Down Under.

 

Corkscrew climb first featured on the course in 2013 when Geraint Thomas confirmed his climbing potential by riding to a solo win, holding off Javier Moreno and Ben Hermans by a single second. One year later Cadel Evans dropped all his rivals and reached the finish with a 15-second advantage over a small chase group. Campbelltown also hosted a stage finish in 2015 but one year ago they didn’t tackle the Corkscrew climb. Instead, Jack Bobridge took a surprise win on a stage that was expected to be for the sprinters.

 

 

 

 

Stage 4

For the pure sprinters, the first part of the 2016 Tour Down Under was a tough one but they can expect to be back in the spotlight on the fourth day. As it is often the case, the fourth stage will see the riders head down to the Flerieu Peninsula just south of Adelaide where the sprinters have often had a chance to shine and it seems that this year will be no different. However, the inclusion of a new climb close to the traditional finish in Victor Harbor could throw a spanner in the works for the fast riders.

 

The stage will bring the riders over 138km from the Adelaide suburb of Norwood to Victor Harbor which hosts the finish of stage 4 almost every year. As usual, the first part of the stage is slightly ascending as the riders climb out of Adelaide for the first 10km. Then the road is slightly descending as the riders pass through stage 2’s finish in Stirling and get to the first intermediate sprint after 27.6km of racing. From there, they will continue their southerly journey along flat roads until another descending section will lead to the feed zone in Strathalbyn after 66.7km of racing.

 

Having reached the Flerieu Peninsula, the roads are now completely flat as the riders continue their southerly journey until they get to the final intermediate sprint in the coastal city of Goolwa at the 100.9km mark. From here they will follow the coastal road towards the finish in Victor Harbor but the organizers have made a slight change that will be an unpleasant surprise for the sprinters. Instead of continuing straight to the finish, they will head inlands to tackle the category 2 climb of Kirby Hill. It’s around 4km long and has an average gradient of 5.6%, with the steepest 10% sections coming near the top.

 

The summit is located 19.8km from the finish. It is followed by a short flat section before the riders turn around and head back to the coast and the finish in Victor Harbor. The final 13km are predominantly flat but there’s another small climb 3km from the finish. The riders then get to a fast descent with 1.3km to go before they hit a small climb at the flamme rouge. The final kilometre is flat. The finale is a bit technical as the riders will turn right with 800m to go and then do the final left-hand turn just 200m later.

 

In the past, the only thing that really been able to prevent a full bunch sprint in Victor Harbor has been the wind in the sea region – just recall how Orica-GreenEDGE split things when the city was last visited in 2014. This year the riders will spend less time along the coast but the wind will still be a potential danger, especially in the finale. However, the final climb will change the dynamic of the race. It is too far from the finish to play a role for the GC riders but it would be no surprise to see a team like Movistar go full gas there to get rid of Juan Lobato’s rivals. If Simon Gerrans is in need of bonus seconds, Orica-GreenEDGE may also want to get rid of the sprinters and so the most likely outcome is a reduced bunch sprint.

 

In the first years, Victor Harbor hosted a stage almost every year but since 2010 it has only been visited in 2014 when André Greipel won a reduced bunch sprint, and in 2012 when Greipel also came out on top. Graeme Brown and Allan Davis won there in 2009 and 2008 respectively while Baden Cooke, Luis Leon Sanchez, Philippe Gilbert, Robbie McEwan, Alessio Galletti and Stuart O’Grady won there before the race joined the WorldTour.

 

 

 

 

Stage 5

As usual, Saturday is the day of the queen stage, with the general classification battle coming down to the famed Willunga Hill. While the climb has featured on the route every year since 2002, the organizers decided to add an extra passage of its steep slopes in 2010, and in 2012 the stage finish was even moved to the top of the climb. This will again be the case for this year's queen stage which is completely identical to the one that decided the past four editions of the race.

 

The 151.5km stage starts in McLaren Vale and from there, the riders start a 39.7km lap that brings them to the coast and back to the starting city. The circuit will be tackled three times and the riders will even start a fourth lap. Along the way they will contest the intermediate sprints at the 63.4km and 103.4km marks respectively. However, passing through the city of Willunga, the peloton will turn left and head up the famed climb for the first time. After the KOM sprint, they stay at a plateau for around 10km before tackling the fast descent back onto the original circuit. From there, they head back to Willunga to start the second and final ascent of the climb, with the final circuit having a length of 22.4km.

 

The category 1 climb is 3.0km long and has an average gradient of 7.5%. It is hardest at the bottom, with the gradient staying between 7.9% and 9.1% for the first 1.3km. From then, the gradient drops a bit and in the final 1.2km, it stays between 5.5% and 6.6%.

 

The first part of the stage is usually not too exciting but sometimes the wind has played a role. The favourites usually keep their powder dry for the final sprint up the climb but the final 30km have often been very aggressive, with several attacks being launched during the first passage. These attacks have never been successful but the fast pace on the climb has always reduced the size of the peloton significantly. At the top, the riders hit a very windy zone which Astana and BMC used to split the field in last year’s edition of the race. Sky managed to bring it back together but it shows that it is crucial to be well-positioned at the top of the climb.

 

Nonetheless, the teams of the favourites have always managed to bring things back together for a final sprint on the previous occasions, with Alejandro Valverde narrowly edging out Simon Gerrans in 2012, the Australian getting his revenge by beating Tom-Jelte Slagter one year later and Richie Porte dropping everybody to win the 2014 and 2015 editions of the stage. The uphill sprint suits the true puncheurs and Ardennes specialists more than the climbers and the gaps are never very big.

 

Last year 19 riders finished within a minute of the winner and the top 6 riders were separated by less than 20 seconds. This means that bonus seconds on both this and the previous stages can come into play. However, There is no doubt that the Willunga stage will the single most decisive of the entire race and you won't win the Tour Down Under if you don't end up near the front on this stage.

 

 

 

 

Stage 6

The end of the race has always been inspired by the Tour de France, with the final stage being a criterium held in downtown Adelaide. However, after several years with the same circuit, it was time for a change in 2014 when the organizers introduced a new 4.75km route. While the old course had a (very) small climb that offered the chance to hand out a few more KOM points before the end of the race, the new circuit was completely flat and was pretty technical.

 

The organizers again decided to reshape the final stage for last year’s race as they introduced a new 4.5km circuit and it will again be used in 2016. Unlike the 2014 course, it is pretty non-technical as the riders go down a long, straight road before they turn around and hit the area around the Adelaide Golf Club. Here they go up the very small climb of Montefiore Hill but it will do nothing to split the field even though it comes just 1.2km from the finish. On the 10th and 15th lap, however, there will be KOM points on offer. After a lap of a small circuit in the park, the riders reach the finishing straight which is likely to be the scene of an excellent bunch sprint. The riders will do 20 laps for a total distance of 90km and there will be bonus seconds on offer in the intermediate sprints at the end of the 8th and 12th laps.

 

The sprinters will be keen to exploit this opportunity and so nothing will prevent a big bunch sprint to end the stage. However, the GC has often been very close going into the final stage and this means that bonus seconds could come into play. While the overall contenders are unlikely to have their say in the final sprint, the two intermediate sprints could play a crucial role in the battle for the win. Furthermore, the stage has often been marred by crashes which can destroy things for GC riders.

 

Since the inclusion in the WorldTour, Francesco Chicchi, Chris Sutton and Ben Swift have all won the sprint but the dominant figure has been Andre Greipel who won the stage in 2008, 2012, 2013 and 2014. As he was absent in 2015, he failed to make it four in a row and instead Wouter Wippert claimed the biggest win of his career in a crash-marred stage.

 

 

 

The favourites

Early-season races are generally a rather unpredictable affair. With only a few national championships races to gauge the conditions of the riders, nobody - not even the riders themselves - have a real idea about how everyone is going. At the same time, none of the stars can allow themselves to be in top condition at this time of the year which makes races in January much more open to surprises than the major races later in the season. While Tom-Jelte Slagter has long been known as a good puncheur, few pundits had written him down as a genuine winner candidate three years ago and for anyone who has trained well over the winter, early-season races is a good opportunity to achieve some great results.

 

On the other hand, the last two editions were a lot more controlled and easier to predict. A number of the best Australians had all red-circled the race as an early target and had made it clear that they have travelled to Adelaide to win the event. In 2014, Simon Gerrans, Cadel Evans and Richie Porte lived up to their staturs ab bige favourites and were a class above most of their European rivals while Evans and Porte again battled for the top positions in 2015 even though Rohan Dennis was a slightly surprising, albeit not unexpected, winner. This year the race is again a big goal for Gerrans and Dennis while Porte is not in the same outstanding condition that he was 12 months ago. There is little doubt that Gerrans and Dennis will be among the best riders in the race but as always it is a lot harder to predict which European riders will turn out to be their biggest rivals.

 

The days when a sprinter can realistically hope to win the Tour Down Under are long gone and the race is likely to be won by a rider who excels on short, steep climbs and has a good punch on uphill slopes, with a decent sprint being no disadvantage either. The single most decisive stage is certainly the summit finish on Willunga which suits the Ardennes specialists, but history shows that the Corckscrew stage is almost as decisive. In fact, that climb is a lot harder than Willunga and so has the potential to create bigger time gaps even though it is a flat finish. That stage is another one perfectly suited to the puncheurs and with no time trial either, this is a race for the riders that excel in the Ardennes terrain. A strong team could be needed for stage 4’s potentially windy conditions while the expected bunch sprints in stages 1 and 6 should have little impact. The uphill finish in Stirling may offer an extra opportunity for the puncheurs to shave a few seconds off their overall time by picking up a few bonus seconds.

 

On paper, the Australians may be the favourites for their home race but they won’t have it their own way. The South Americans also have the advantage of good weather for the winter training and they are also accustomed to the heat. Hence, it is no surprise that they have often been flying in the early part of the season and this year we tip a Colombian to come away with the win.

 

In the last two years, Richie Porte has led Team Sky and he has been agonizingly close to the win with two second places and two Willunga stage wins. However, the elusive win is still missing for the British team and without Porte on their roster, they have lost their leader for the Australian race. However, they probably have an even better card to play in 2016. On paper, Geraint Thomas may be the leader of the team but we don’t expect him to be even close to his best form. Already last year he used the race merely as training and this year he is deliberately aiming for a slower start. We will be very surprised if the Welshman is near the top when the race reaches Adelaide for the final criterium.

 

Instead, our favourite is the second Sky leader, Sergio Henao. The Colombian is one of the greatest climbing talents in the world as he proved in the spring of 2013 when he was stronger than Nairo Quintana in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and got close to the win in Fleche Wallonne. However, his bad knee injury from the 2014 Tour de Suisse put his career on hold and it has taken some time for him to get back to his best. Nonetheless, he finished second overall in last year’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco and won the queen stage at the Tour de Pologne.

 

Since his comeback, Henao has suffered a bit on the longer climbs and in the long races but the Tour Down Under is tailor-made for him. The stages will be very short and the climbs are perfect for a punchy Ardennes specialist like him. In fact, he is much better suited to this race than Porte and offers better chances for Sky to win the race. Furthermore, he will be supported by a very strong team that includes classics specialists Ian Stannard, Thomas, Salvatore Puccio and Luke Rowe to keep him protected in the crosswind and he will be one of the favourites in the two climbing stages. Furthermore, he has the punch to be in the mix in Stirling.

 

However, the most important aspect at this time of the year is form. Henao is traditionally very good at the start of the year. He has traditionally been flying in Mallorca and in 2013 he beat several stars on the Alto do Malhao in Algarve. He may have been set back by injury but his performance in Pais Vasco and Poland proves that he is again one of the best riders on short climbs. If he is close to his usual level, he is our favourite to win the race.

 

Another rider coming back from a difficult time, is Diego Ulissi. The Italian was flying in 2014 when he won a stage and finished on the podium in this race before he went on to dominate the first half of the Giro with two stage wins. In that race, he was in a class of his own in the punchy uphill finishes but his subsequent ban for a positive test for Salbutamol put his career on hold. It took some time for him to find his racing legs and 2015 was a disappointing year but he still managed to win another uphill sprint in Stirling and at the Abu Dhabi Tour he showed that he is getting closer to his previous level.

 

Ulissi has done nothing to hide that he is aiming big at the Tour Down Under and this naturally turns him into a favourite in a race that is tailor-made for him. He is a past winner in Stirling and if he can return to the outstanding level he had at the 2014 Giro, he will be very hard to beat in stage 2. The Corkscrew and Willunga climbs are also suited to him. He may not have the same climbing skills as Henao but he has a faster sprint. If he can win in Stirling and keep up with the Colombian and his other rivals on the two key climbs, he has a big chance to improve on his third place from 2014.

 

A potential danger for Ulissi will be the possible crosswind in stages 4 and 5. He is often very lazy when it comes to positioning and he doesn’t have the strongest team for windy conditions. His rivals will try to grab an opportunity to distance him on the flats but if he can avoid stupid mistakes, he is an obvious winner candidate.

Rohan Dennis goes into the race as the defending champion and has done nothing to hide that he hopes to become the first rider to take back-to-back wins. In December, he downplayed his chances, underlining that Rio was the main goal, but since the racing started in Australia he has been a lot more optimistic. Last year he was training for the Hour Record but he even claims to be in better condition in 2016.

 

Dennis took a dominant win in the Australian TT Championships but the competitive was not fierce. Richie Porte was his closest rival but he admits not to be in his best form. The road race is a much better gauge. Here Dennis rode solidly as he managed to distance all his rivals with an attack on Mt. Buninyoung with 30km to go. Pat Lane later joined him and the group came back together before he went again on the flats with Cameron Meyer. He looked like he was going to take silver behind Jack Bobridge but cracked spectacularly in the final two laps.

 

That race leaves mixed impressions. He looked strong on the climbs but clearly lacked something in the finale. The level is much higher at the Tour Down Under and he will have to improve. Furthermore, he is not tailor-made for that race. He is strong on short climbs and has a decent punch but he is not a puncheur like Henao and Ulissi. To win the race he simply has to be the strongest on the climbs. Last year he benefited from his underdog status as he mainly won the race with a smart attack over the top of the final climb in stage 3 and then defending himself on Willunga. There won’t be room for such surprises this time.

 

Secondly, Dennis is another potential victim if the crosswinds strike. He doesn’t like the fight for position and it was a bit of a miracle that he got back to the front in stage 3 in 2015 as he had originally been dropped because of starting the ascent at the rear end of the field. Positioning is key in this race and he has to be a lot more attentive. On the other hand, BMC is one of the strongest teams and he has proved that the form is good. A second win is definitely possible for Dennis.

 

Simon Gerrans is the only three-time winner of the race and he is the perennial favourite. However, it will probably be a lot harder for him to come out on top in 2016. First of all, Gerrans has had a terrible 2015 season where he crashed whenever he seemed to be getting close to his best condition. Towards the end of the year, he got better but he was pretty anonymous in the Vuelta. He still managed to finish sixth at the World Championships but there’s a vast difference between being competitive on the course in Richmond and to climb with the best on the harder ascents at the Tour Down Under.

 

Gerrans was reported to be flying in the build-up to the Australian Championships but that race did little to confirm that assessment. In fact, Gerrans was far from his best in that race and he was simply unable to hold Rohan Dennis’ wheel when the BMC rider made his move with 30km to go. In the end, he had to settle for sixth and was even unable to win the sprint for fourth.

 

Gerrans is a strong Ardennes contender but his strategy has always been to follow the best on the climbs and then use his lethal sprint to claim the win. He is not climbing at the same level as the likes of Henao, Ulissi and Dennis and he probably needs to be at his very best to follow those riders on Willunga and Corkscrew. On the other hand, he is much faster in a sprint and will have a good chance to pick up bonus seconds in Stirling and Victor Harbor if Orica-GreenEDGE can get rid of the sprinters on the final climb. Furthermore, he will be able to pick up bonus seconds in the intermediate sprints. That can provide him with a solid buffer and then it is just a question of limiting his losses on Willunga. Nationals was his first race this year and it can always be hard to get the legs going. If Gerrans can return to his usual level, a fourth victory is definitely within reach.

 

Lotto Soudal want to be more competitive in week-long stage races in 2016 and to reach that goal they have signed Rafael Valls. It has always been evident that the Spaniard is a huge talent but he has had a difficult start to his professional career. However, 2015 season was a bit of a breakthrough for Valls. In the Tour of Oman, he beat a star-studded field of GC riders to claim a hugely surprising win and he rode to top 10 finishes in both Paris-Nice and Catalonia. Unfortunately, a knee injury prevented him from proving his grand tour potential in the Vuelta a Espana.

 

What makes Valls very interesting for the Tour Down Under is the fact that he is usually extremely competitive in the early months. He claimed his first pro win in a stage of the Tour de San Luis a few years ago and did well in his first participation Down Under in 2013. Furthermore, his win in Oman came at a point when he had done very little racing. We can expect him to come out with all guns blazing as he will be hugely motivated to get his time at Lotto Soudal off to a great start. He is not very punchy though and the climbs in Australia are probably a bit too short for him. Furthermore, he is not fast in a sprint but if he has the legs he had in Oman 12 months ago, he will be a danger man.

 

Last year Domenico Pozzovivo made his debut in this race but lined up with modest expectations as he had just come back from a bad leg fracture. Nonetheless, he defied his own expectations by finishing sixth overall in a race that actually doesn’t suit him. That result confirmed his huge consistency that has made him one of the most underrated in the peloton. In fact he finished in the top 10 in every race he finished in 2014 and 2015 until he was a surprisingly poor 11th in the Vuelta – if you forget about the races he did at the end of the 2014 when he had just broken his legs. That shows an impressive reliability in both stage and one-day races and makes Pozzovivo one of the sure cards to play for Ag2r.

 

Unfortunately, it looks like his Giro crash has hampered him quite a bit as he failed to reach his usual level last autumn. It remains to be seen whether he can return to his classy self but there is a good chance that he will do well in Australia. Despite his tiny stature, he is actually pretty strong on short climbs but he lacks the explosiveness and sprint to be a real winning contender. However, he is one of the best climbers in the race and the podium is definitely within reach.

 

One of the really interesting riders to follow is Rein Taaramae. The Estonian will be making his Katusha debut in the Australian and it is always a bit of a gamble when it comes to the inconsistent talent. After a fantastic start to his career, he had a few illness-marred years and it looked like he would never confirm the huge potential he showed as a young Cofidis rider. However, 2015 looked like it could be a turning point for him. He was not at his best in the first part of the year but he reached a fantastic level in August where he won the Vuelta a Burgos and the Arctic Race of Norway. His win in the Spanish race was beyond impressive as he rode on the front for his teammates on the final climb in the queen stage but simply turned out to be stronger than the protected riders.

 

Taaramae will have more responsibility at Katusha and the Tour Down Under represents a great chance to get his time in Russia off to a great start. He is not really an explosive climber and so the race doesn’t suit him perfectly. However, if he has the legs he had in Burgos, it will be very hard to follow him on the two main climbs.

 

Henao is not the only Colombian that is tailor-made for his race. Julian Arredondo is one of the best riders in the world for punchy finishes like the one on Willunga and he is likely to be the Trek leader as Ryder Hesjedal is never close to his best form at this time of the year. As opposed to this, Arredondo was flying in the early part of the 2014 season when he made his Trek debut by winning two stages in San Luis.

 

Arredondo had a horrible 2015 season as health issues prevented him from reaching a decent level. He hopes to have solved the problems but admits that he has no guarantees. This means that his performances in Adelaide are highly uncertain but if he is back at his former level, the short, steep climbs suit him down to the ground.

 

Movistar always come up with something in this race and they are always in the mix for the top results. Last year it was former Tour de l’Avenir winner Ruben Fernandez who delivered the goods as he finished fifth overall. This year the young Spaniard will be back as part of a two-pronged attack that also includes Jesus Herrada and both are strong candidates on a course like this.

 

There is no doubt that Fernandez is a huge talent and he has the explosiveness to do well on the short climbs in Adelaide as his performance in 2015 proves. He claims to have trained well and this should automatically make him a contender. At his young age, he can expect to improve compared to last year but he still needs to prove the consistency as his lack of regularity makes him a bit of a wildcard.

 

Herrada also has a huge potential and he has all the skills to do well here. He is still waitig for his big stage race breakthrough and it could come in Australia as the short climbs suit him well and he is very fast in a sprint too. The main question is his form as he crashed hard at the end of the 2015 season and missed the final part of the year.

 

Dimension Data will be hugely motivated to start the year well and they have a very strong two-pronged attack of Australians. Cameron Meyer and Nathan Haas finished second and fourth in the Australian road race respectively so they are both in great condition. Meyer is a former winner of the race before it included the summit finish on Willunga and was a lot less hilly while Haas was fifth two years ago so they both know how to do well here.

 

It looks like Meyer is climbing better than Haas and he is usually very good at this time of the year. Last year he was instrumental for Daryl Impey on Willunga Hill as he set the pace for most of the climb and then went on to win the Herald Sun Tour. Now he will finally be allowed to lead his team at the Tour Down Under and he should be one of the best. However, he probably misses the explosiveness that will make him a winning contender.

 

Haas has that explosiveness and he is still getting better and better. On paper, this race suits him down to the ground and he will be keen to improve on that fantastic fifth place. However, there are some very good climbers in this race and Haas has never been able to mix it up with the best at the highest level. At this time of the year, form is the most important factor though and this should play into Haas’ hands. With his fast sprint, he should also be able to pick up bonus seconds along the way.

 

There is little doubt that Diego Ulissi is the Lampre-Merida leader but the Italian team has a back-up plan. Louis Meintjes will be making his debut in Australia and he is likely to continue the improvement that allowed him to finish 10th in the Vuelta a Espana. Last year he rode very well at the Tour of Oman and as he comes from the good weather in South Africa, he is likely to be riding well. However, he has done nothing to hide that he is ready to work for the team and the climbs are probably too short to make him a potential winner. However, he will ready to take over if Ulissi shows signs of weakness.

 

Luis Leon Sanchez is a former winner of this race and will lead Astana like he did 12 months ago. In the early part of his career, Sanchez was always one of the strongest riders in the early part of the season and back then he would have been one of the top favourites for this race as he is strong on short climbs and fast in a sprint. However, he has now turned into a luxury domestique and seems to lack the winning edge that he had a few years ago. That was evident in his first year at Astana where he had to settle for 13th in this race. We no longer believe that Sanchez has what it takes to win this race in a direct battle with the best climbers. On the other hand, he always knows how to invent something and his win at the European Games in 2015 proves that he is still a contender.

 

Lieuwe Westra is the second Astana card. The Dutchman was second in the 2012 Paris-Nice when he looked like he could be a strong contender for week-long stage races. However, he has never done well in a stage race on the WorldTour since then and is now mostly a domestique. On the other hand, he claims to be in good condition and is targeting a top 10 in Australia where he should get plenty of freedom. In general, he wants 2016 to be the year when he returns to his former level. It would be a surprise if he is strong enough to contend for the podium but he knows how to create that kind of surprises.

 

Last year Richie Porte was the pre-race favourite for this race and he is a double winner on Willunga Hill. However, things are different in 2015. His amazing condition in Australia meant that he was fatigued later in the year so now he is aiming for a slower start to his first year at BMC. That was evident in both the time trial and the road race at the Australian Nationals and after he had abandoned the latter race, he said that he knew that he would not be in race condition. This makes it very unlikely that he will contend for the win and he will probably be playing a support role for Dennis. On the other hand, you can never rule out the strongest climber in the race.

 

Cannondale have a strong team with no less than four potential GC riders: Simon Clarke, Patrick Bevin, Moreno Moser and Michael Woods. All have what it takes to finish in the top 10 but Clarke was riding surprisingly poorly at Nationals and Moser is always a long shot. Bevin still hasn’t proved that he can match the best on this kind of climbs but it is different for Woods who is a huge talent. The Canadian was second in the 2015 Tour of Utah where he showed the right explosiveness to win an uphill sprint with a well-timed move. He was also in the top 5 in the Volta ao Algarve queen stage where he was up against some of the best climbers in the world for the first time in a European race. It remains to be seen if he can handle the stress of a WorldTour peloton but there is no doubt that he has the characteristics and potential to be a contender in this race. He could be the big surprise of the race.

 

Last year Jarlinson Pantano finished ninth in this race which suits his explosive climbing skills really well. The result set him up for a great year in Europe but it looks like he will never become a genuine contender in the biggest races. However, he should be able to do well in Australia where he can benefit from the good form he has built in Colombia. He is strong on short climbs and has a fast sprint that will allow him to possibly pick up some bonus seconds.

 

Finally, Tiago Machado deserves a mention. The Portuguese was third here in 2012 and ninth in 2013. Last year he was poised to finish in the top 10 but a crash in the final criterium prevented him from picking up the valuable WorldTour points. In general, he was riding really well for NetApp-Endura in 2014 but he was unable to reach similar heights in his first year at Katusha as he failed to capitalize on the few opportunities he was given. He is not very explosive either so the Australian race doesn’t suit him perfectly. On the other hand, he is always very competitive at the start of the year and this makes him a definite top 5 contender.-

 

***** Sergio Henao

**** Diego Ulissi, Rohan Dennis

*** Simon Gerrans, Rafael Valls, Domenico Pozzovivo, Rein Taaramae, Julian Arredondo

** Ruben Fernandez, Cameron Meyer, Nathan Haas, Louis Meintjes, Luis Leon Sanchez, Jesus Herrada, Richie Porte, Lieuwe Westra, Michael Woods,  Jarlinson Pantano, Tiago Machado

* Jay McCarthy, Simon Clarke, Moreno Moser, Patrick Bevin, Enrico Battaglin, Adam Hansen, Geraint Thomas, Cyril Gautier, Petr Vakoc, Carlos Verona, Daryl Impey, Peter Stetina, Steve Morabito, Tsgabu Grmay, Thomas De Gendt, Egor Silin, George Bennett, Primoz Roglic, Patrick Lane, Samuel Spokes, Lachlan Norris, Gavin Mannion

 

Betting tips

Geraint Thomas to beat Daryl Impey - 1.83 at Bet365

Since he won a stage in 2013, Geraint Thomas has primarily used thTour Down Under as training. Last year he played a domestique role for Richie Porte but this year the signals are different. An exhausted Thomas finished the season earlier than usual, and he has resumed training activities earlier. He expects to be at a much higher level than in 2015 and targets both a stage win and the overall standings.

 

The situation is different for Daryl Impey. Last year he was captain of Orica-GreenEDGE, but that is by no means the case in 2016. On the contrary, he is the team's all-rounder and must both be the last rider for Simon Gerrans on the climbs and do the lead-out for Caleb Ewan. His personal ambitions will play a minor role. It does not mean that he won’t finish far ahead - he was seventh when he played a similar role in 2014 - but it will be difficult to repeat in a race where his team will be expected to work much. As he is not climbing as well as Thomas, the Briton should be favorite.

 

You can place your bet here.

 

Sergio Henao to beat Richie Porte - 1.66 at Bet365

Richie Porte has been in the top 4 two years in a row and won the queen stage to Willunga. This year, however, he has made the deliberate choice to have a slower start. He was second at the Australian TT Championships which had a rather poor field but abandoned the road race after which he declared that he was not in race shape. It is part of a strategy to reach peak form for the Tour and avoid running out of steam halfway through the season as it has repeatedly been the case. Therefore, he is expected to mainly support Rohan Dennis who is the BMC captain, even though he will of course try to be a second GC card too.

 

Sergio Henao is on the way back after his serious knee injury but is gradually approaching the best level. Last year he was already second overall in a very hard Vuelta Pais Vasco, and he won the queen stage at the Tour of Poland. Both are WorldTour races with short, steep climbs like those ound in Australia, and there is no doubt that an in-form Henao is among the very best in this terrain.

 

At the same time, Henao is traditionally flying at the start of the season as he has often taken advantage of the good conditions in Colombia. He has previously delivered strong performances in Mallorca and Algarve, and it will be a big surprise if he does not already at a very high level. Sky has the ambition to win the WorldTour, and Henao is their best chance for a good start in Australia. As he is also much better on short, explosive climbs, he is clear favorite in this bet.

 

You can place your bet here.

 

Michael Woods to beat Louis Meintjes - 2.75 at Bet365

If you want to gamble a bit, this bet is an option. Michael Woods makes his WorldTour debut in Australia but has the skills to do well on the short, steep climbs. Last year he was second in the Tour of Utah where he just used his explosiveness to win a stage with a short uphill stretch to the finish. Earlier that year he was fifth in the queen stage of the Volta ao Algarve where he distanced several world-class riders on the famous Alto do Malhao that is very comparable to the climbs in Australia.

 

Woods is one of several Cannondale card in the Tour Down Under and he has the freedom to go for GC in a team that is not expected to have to take a lot of responsibility. In his blog on Cyclingnews, he set an optimistic tone regarding his form and is certainly not lacking any motivation.

 

Louis Meintjes is one of the greatest stage race talents and he will undoubtedly go for the general classification. However, he has made it clear that the Lampre-Merida captain is Diego Ulissi, and he is ready to work for the team. At the same time, he is certainly not made for the short, steep climbs, and he is not great in the fight for poition that is crucial in the third stage.

 

Due to Woods 'inexperience, Meintjes is probably the favorite, but not to the extent that the odds reflects.

 

You can place your bet here.

 

Sergio Henao to win the race - odds 8.00 at Bet365

Read our analysis of the favourites

 

You can place your bet here.

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