Is the Tour Down Under too easy?
Tour Down Under peloton Image: Felix Lowe
“If I designed the route, the riders would be sorry,” said Vacansoleil-DCM manager Michel Cornelisse as he drove through the neutral zone at the start of stage three of the Santos Tour Down Under.
“I’d make it open and hard so it wasn’t always the same story. It wouldn’t be a sprinter who wins every day.”
I could tell it was going to be an interesting day in the Vacansoleil-DCM team car: already more had been said in 10 minutes than the entire five hours I spent with Katusha a day earlier.
Looking at the result of the 135km stage from Unley to Victor Harbour – a third sprint win in five days for Lotto-Belisol’s powerful German, Andre Greipel – you would think that the day was yet another rudimentary stage of the kind that so riles Cornelisse.
You’d be wrong: the ethos of Cornelisse and his plucky Vacansoleil-DCM squad was captured perfectly in the three hours, twenty two minutes the Tour Down Under field spent in the saddle.
There was a definite vibe within the Vacansoleil-DCM camp at the beginning of the stage. French sprinter Romain Feillu was in a playful mood, Belgian Thomas De Gendt looked focused, rangy lead-out man Wouter Mol was one of the first to sign on, his Dutch compatriot Kenny van Hummel was all smiles after a first day in Australia without crashing.
As soon as the flag was waved, expectation was high. Live-wire ex-pro Cornelisse himself was bullish. He did not want to drive behind an indifferent peloton all day.
His boys were going to do something – that was a promise.
“We have a good plan for today,” he said, “we want to get one or two guys in the break.”
Moments after the official start to the stage the race radio clicked: Vacansoleil were setting the early pace.
“They’re all at the front. They’re on fire. Vacansoleil are on fire,” an animated Cornelisse exclaimed.
A few kilometres later, the radio delivered the latest news: “Attack by number 152, de Gendt.”
Along with three other riders, the stocky all-rounder quickly built up a lead of five minutes over the bunch.
“Thomas is on fire!” shouted Cornelisse, pumping his chest.
“He had a good breakfast. You don’t want to know. It was a serious breakfast,” said soigneur Klaus as he prepared bidons in the back of the car.
Later, once de Gendt left the podium after accepting the prize for the day’s most combative rider as well as the king of the mountains jersey, I asked him just what it was he had for breakfast.
“Oh, it wasn’t a serious breakfast at all,” he said, deadpan. “Just a bit of pasta with a few slices of ham and some cheese. And some corn flakes with milk. That’s all. Most of the guys do more than that. He (pointing towards 6’5″ Mol) does double that.”
Back to the stage, and a passionate Cornelisse reiterated – with pride – that everything was going to plan. The proof? A piece of paper with tactics he had written before the start: on the top of the page, next to an arrow pointing upwards, was the name ‘Thomas’.
“He won’t win the stage, but that wasn’t the aim. Cycling can be boring and we like to attack,” said Cornelisse as the gap dropped to a couple of minutes.
By now, de Gendt had won both intermediate sprints (taking enough bonus seconds to rise to fourth in the GC) and the category two climb of the day (enough to give him the climbers’ jersey).
Vacansoleil has succeeded in their initial plan: make an impression, cement de Gendt’s place in the general classification and animate the race.
Granted, their plan B didn’t exactly come to fruition: neither Feillu nor Van Hummel could feature highly in the bunch sprint. But Cornelisse’s mantra of riding an exciting and attacking race held true.
But what of his insinuation that the Tour Down Under was too easy? Surely the addition of a hill-top finish at Willunga was going to mix things up this year, make sure a sprinter wouldn’t canter away with the spoils?
“But they’re only climbing it twice,” said Cornelisse as we drove out of Unley, flanked by riders answering a call of nature. “I would make the riders do it three times. It may be the first race of the season and it may be really hot here in Australia, but it’s the ProTour. It should be hard.”
He has a point. Simply because the Tour Down Under is the season’s curtain raiser shouldn’t mean that it’s a stroll in the park.
That’s not to say that it has been anything of the sort this year: stage one was hampered by strong head-winds and nasty crashes; stage two featured virtually no flat and four punchy uphills into Stirling; stage three rolled through the undulating hills of the pretty Fleurieu Peninsula.
But at the same time, Cornelisse feels more should be done to stop Andre Greipel wins being accepted as a given – much like Mark Cavendish victories on the Tour de France.
And while he clearly thinks a lot lies with the organisers making more demands of the riders, Cornelisse is also quick to stress the responsibility of the riders and teams themselves in fighting for a different outcome – as Tasmanian Will Clarke of Uni SA-Australia did so bravely on Wednesday.
“What use is it if people don’t race and let Cavendish win seven times? If more people rode like my riders the races would be more interesting,” he told me two days earlier after Greipel’s victory in stage one (for Cavendish in the Tour, read Greipel in the Tour Down Under).
“You can’t refuse to race and then be surprised when Cavendish or Greipel wins. Unless teams try something different the outcome will always be the same.”
Although Cornelisse may think organisers should have added another ascent of Old Willunga Hill, his man de Gendt believes that “although not that big a mountain” it should be enough to see Greipel distanced and knocked off the top of the GC.
“He was dropped last year on the climb so why not on Saturday,” said de Gendt. 14 seconds down on Greipel in fourth-place, the Belgian has promised to go for the overall: “I think if I have good legs I can do that. But we still have Mirko (Selvaggi) and (Sergey) Lagutin for the GC, so it’s not only me.”
Cornelisse will certainly be pushing his riders to make an impression. The last thing he wants is a “boring race” – and having driven a recce down Old Willunga Hill on the way back to Adelaide after stage three, I’m pretty sure there are going to be fireworks.
Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.
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