The Tour Down Under is the glamorous zenith of the Australian cycling season, falling a fortnight after the National Championships. As such all the big name Australian pros will be in peak form for the race and must be considered among the favourites for the General Classification. Reigning champion Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge) was saved a leadership controversy after teammate and newly crowned National criterium champion Cameron Meyer was dropped. The suspicion is that after a disappointing 2012 Tour de France for sprinter Jeremy Goss the team are looking to fine-tune his lead-out train, and this meant that there was no place for Meyer. Much will be expected of World Champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and Andy Schleck (Nissan Trek) but one can’t help but think this will be little more than a pepped-up club run for them this early in the season. Other leading domestic contenders include Lampre’s Matthew Lloyd and the young Olympic silver medallist Jack Bobridge, who features in a heavily antipodean Blanco squad (formerly Rabobank). This team is built for the sprints, with Mark Renshaw being led out by Theo Bos, David Tanner and Graeme Brown. It is in the bunch finishes where the most excitement will be had this year – a stellar line-up of sprinters will be on show, including Goss, Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), Tyler Farrar (Garmin) and Andre Greipel (Lotto-Berisol). It is not inconceivable that one of these could take the overall title, as Greipel has on two previous occasions, but the recent high temperatures in Australia make it less likely that the big guys will be able to stick the pace on the penultimate day’s twin ascent of Willunga Hill. My tip? Sky’s Edvald Boasson-Hagen. Free from lead out and super-domestique duties, expect the big Norwegian to hang tough in the sprints and clinch a stage or two to edge out Gerrans and Greipel.
History of the Tour Down Under
If we allow ourselves to put the Lance Armstrong fiasco to one side for a moment, we should give the UCI some begrudging credit for their concerted efforts to give the Pro cycling season credibility and structure with their "World Tour" series. This system awards points for the winners of 21 stage and one-day races around the world, anointing a final championship winner at the season's close. In 2012 this was Spain and Katyusha's explosive climber Joaquim Rodriguez, who edged out Sir Bradley with a decisive late-season victory in the Tour of Lombardy, to go with 3rd place in the Vuelta d'Espana, 2nd in the Giro d’Italia and a titanic victory in the La Fleche Wallone. Pro cycling has historically operated in a very disconnected way, with individual races operating independently from each other and teams and riders basically free to pick their way through the season as they see fit. This is still the case, but the advantage of the World Tour is that it integrates the calendar's major races while still weighting the points system heavily in favour of the Grand Tours (Giro, Tour and Vuelta) and the "Monument" one day classics (Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders , Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Il Lombardia). This new structure encourages the big teams and their riders to race more widely and to compete in smaller races: the success of which depends on star names turning out for the crowds. The resulting competition has nowhere near the prestige of individual races mentioned above or the World Championships, but it does provide a bit of direction for the season and offers a more objective system for judging the year's most consistent rider. It has also fulfilled the UCI's ambition of expanding the horizons of the sport away from the snowy peaks and muddy cobbles of Western Europe. The adoption of two races in each of Quebec and China demonstrates this commitment, as does thenow-traditional season-opener, theSantos Tour Down Under.
Benefitting from summer temperatures while Europe shivers in its fleece-lined bib tights, the Tour Down Under stage race is now in its 15th year - its 5th as a World Tour race. It represents only a modest challenge for the elite riders, covering undulating terrain in South Australia with stages that commonly end in bunch sprints or last- gasp escapes. Epic racing is sometimes in short supply, but the smattering of superstars and exciting finishes provides a good draw for crowds in the finishing towns. A large proportion of past winners of the "ochre" (think "orange") jersey have been out-and-out sprinters like Andre Greipel or puncheurs like Stuart O'Grady, Luis Leon Sanchez and the current holder Simon Gerrans. Greipel has made the race his own, winning 11 stages including 4 out of a possible 6 in 2008, and will be back again this year to stamp his authority on the bunch finishes.
A major highlight in the short history of the Tour Down Under was Alberto Contador’s first victory following life-threatening surgery in 2005, where his teammate and fellow escapee Sanchez gifted him the stage on Willunga Hill in honour of his recovery, a victory Contador would describe as “the most important of his career”. Might we see a similar story this year for Andy Schleck? The Luxembourger had a disastrous 2012 and will be desperate to find form, confidence and possibly a small portion redemption early in the season. He is certainly the big name in the peloton, alongside World Champion Philippe Gilbert
The fact is though that for the non-Aussie Pros the Tour Down Under is probably little more than a staging post in their winter training schedule, yet a global scale event in a sport-mad country like this was never going to be an irrelevance. The success of the race seems to be more about the way it has embraced its "curtain-raiser" status and emphasised the sporting festival that surrounds the stages. As with the Tour de France, each day’s racing is accompanied by parties and concerts, as well as initiatives to promote cycling and engage with local communities. The Australian cycling fraternity seems to have responded, embracing the week long event with that cult-ish devotion to history and mythology that typifies Anglophonic cycling culture. An Adelaide cycling forum runs a “Spotto” competition for those who can post photos of competing riders. There are strict rules of course (no photos within 200m of the team hotel, no professional photographers) but the biggest points bonuses come not from capturing Gilbert or Gerrans, but from Hinault, Jens Voigt and, of course, the legend that is Phil Liggett. Previous years have seen a similar initiative known as the "TDU Obscure Pro", where local cycling fans group together and decide to adopt a completely random, unknown domestique for the week and support him as loudly as they would any local hero. The lucky rider can expect to see his name painted on the road, hear screams and yells every time he rounds a corner and even be in demand for interviews by the local media. Sadly it seems that this tradition may be dying out, which is a shame, as it really shows the enthusiasm with which Aussie fans have embraced the race.
This is a really positive thing, as the negative side of Anglophonic sport - corporate sponsorship - might otherwise swallow up the event and render it a rolling advertising hording. The headline sponsor Santos is just the start, as each stage has its own sponsor (“the L’Oreal Men Expert Stage 2”) and the usual phalanx of car manufacturers, airlines and pharmaceutical companies throw their weight around, unavoidable on the sides of jerseys and support vehicles. This is now the case for all great cycle races of course, but what makes a middling one like the Tour Down Under more than just a money laundering exercise for petrodollars (I'm looking at you Tour of Qatar) is the support of a genuinely enthusiastic local cycle culture.
So the Tour Down Under maybe makes up in local buzz what it lacks in high octane racing. Because of its World Tour status it will always attract a sizeable number of Grand Tour superstars, and will be contested keenly by the cream of Australian cycling (excluding Cadel Evans, who's Tour-centric calendar has prevented him from competing since 2005). It's a great opportunity too for Adelaide - a somewhat minor city from a sporting perspective - to host an annual international sporting event, and to give a stage to those classic Australian qualities of gritty competitiveness, humour and sunshine. We might even think of it as a model for the up-and-coming Tour of Britain, which is beginning to overcome its tame parcours (and the resistance of councils and police) by emphasising the participatory, street-party atmosphere that is, in the end, the essence of watching road racing. Currently in the second tier of UCI road races, the ToB just needs a few more years of massive road-side support to be in contention to become only the second English-speaking World Tour stage race. As it stands the Tour Down Under is the only one, and is doing a pretty good job too.
This Year's Course
The 2013 race follows the tried and tested formula, opening on the January 20th with the People's Choice Classic: a circuit race around Adelaide that does not count towards the General Classification, but opens proceedings with a guaranteed bunch sprint. Tuesday sees the first stage proper from Prospect to Lobethal over 135km. It is flat, with the exception of Checker Hill and finishes with three laps through Charleston. You can expect the GC contenders to show their hand early on in the intermediate sprints, and a bunch finish is pretty much guaranteed.
Wednesday’s short (116km) second stage from Mount Barker to Rostrevor, sees the first serious climb of the Tour at Montacute, 10km from the finish. The final 8km is down hill, adequate time for the committed sprinters to find their way back to the head of the course, but it might be a bit of a close thing for some.
The third stage from Unley to Stirling over 126.5km involves a challenging early climb followed by 6 laps of an undulating circuit between Stirling and Bradbury. This stage looks like the most likely opportunity for a GC contender to make a move, but a serious time gap is unlikely.
Stage four is 136.5km from Modbury to Tanunda is made interesting by two intermediate sprints within 10km of each other, at 80 and 90km. This quickfire double effort wiill encourage a breakaway featuring a major contender, who may make a move on Humbug Scrub after 25km.
Saturday's fifth stage from McLaren Vale to Old Willunga Hill is the most punishing of the tour, as the weekend crowds would undoubtedly expect. 151.5km in length, it features three hilly circuits ending in two ascents of Willunga Hill. The summit finish will likely eliminate the big-boned sprinters from GC contention and could result in fireworks from punchy climbers like Gerrans and possibly Gilbert, if he is in the mood.
The sixth and final stage is another street race around Adelaide. If the GC is still close you can expect this stage to be a keenly contested tactical battle, otherwise it wil be a mix of futile escape attempts and a furious bunch sprint at the end, a la the Champs Elysees.
See the University of South Australia's YouTube channel for video previews of all the stages.
Tom Hennessy for The Breakaway