A six-day stage race in January with significant logistical restrictions does limit what Santos Tour Down Under Race Director Mike Turtur can do to keep the race vibrant.
The 15th edition of the TDU is no exception.
Tanunda, Willunga, Stirling, Unley, the opening twilight “Classic” and city circuit finale are all familiar destinations in the TDU calendar, but you won’t hear many people saying that the race seems stale.
This year one word is responsible for that, “corkscrew”… but more about that later.
Turtur’s mission is to make each TDU a race for both sprinters and the classics/climbers, so essentially a three and three split between flat stages and hilly stages.
If he makes it too easy then people will lose interest. If he makes it too hard, the result will be the same.
The main logistical hurdle he must overcome when trying to design innovative race routes is time-based. The riders stay at the Hilton Hotel in the Adelaide CBD and have a four-hour maximum race window. This means a start or finish can be no more than a two-hour drive from the city.
Throw in traffic and spectator considerations plus the necessary race infrastructure, and finding suitable destinations and suitable routes gradually becomes more problematical.
Last year the addition of a second climb up Willunga got everyone talking as it changed the entire mood and tone of the race.
What had historically been a sprinters race was now one to suited to a climber or classics specialist.
But as we saw, it wasn’t just Willunga Hill that did the damage to sprinters with GC ambitions. It was the climb up Menglers Hill the previous day.
It was a day Andre Greipel lost nearly eight minutes to stage winner Oscar Freire who clearly doesn’t mind a TDU-style climb or two. The same goes with Gerald Ciolek, Daniele Bennati and Jose Rojas who were all on Freire’s wheel as they sped into Tanunda.
This year the ascent of corkscrew plays the x-factor role, and its effect on GC should be much more significant.
As Turtur said in the TDU’s major media conference on Saturday, “Anyone who has ridden a bike in Adelaide, knows about the corkscrew.”
It’s a rite of passage for aspiring “mountain goats”, but there’s always a sense of fear when you’re riding it for the first time.
Notwithstanding Willunga’s hilltop finale, a climb close to a finish is something Turtur has always wanted to have.
In the TDU, unlike Menglers which was more than 20 kilometres from the end, corkscrew is only seven, and from its summit, it’s all downhill to the finish line.
Corkscrew is also a few hundred metres longer and steeper, averaging 13 percent but peaking at around 19 percent.
Four tight hairpins define the climb but on rough roads, the 15 percent approach to them is not pleasant.
Once through the bends the road flattens out to around seven percent for the final 700 metres. Then it’s time to descend.
Adding to the excitement the patchy road surface on the descent has been re-laid.
Race favourite and defending champion Simon Gerrans will face a number of threats on corkscrew. Maybe not so much from Andy Schleck, who has sounded rather circumspect about his TDU ambitions, but Liege Bastogne Liege winner Maxim Iglinskiy should feel at home on Corkscrew as should Tiago Machado who finished 3rd at the TDU last year.
Then there’s the “King of the Stelvio”, Thomas de Gendt, World Champion Philippe Gilbert, TDF stage winner Edvald Boasson Hagen and Aussie climber Matt Lloyd, to name a few.
And don’t discount the usually aggressive Team UniSA and their riders Damien Howson and Adam Phelan who set some scorching times up corkscrew recently.
Team SKY’s Geraint Thomas has also been training on these roads for weeks and his teammate Ian Stannard is reportedly in rare form.
Of course, we can’t be certain who will make the selection over corkscrew, but what we do know is while someone won’t win the TDU here, they can easily lose it.
A spot on a corkscrew hairpin on Wednesday is the place to be, but space is tight so whoever can grab a possie should have some stories to tell.
And it’s stories like those that will help keep this race vibrant.