As much as the Tour Down Under has given cycling fans all the thrills of elite-level racing, it’s also been great for highlighting the next generation of riders.
When I covered my first TDU in 2000, the big names were the likes of Stuart O’Grady, Robbie McEwen, Brad McGee, David McKenzie and Jay Sweet.
The next generation were, to me at least, a bunch of unknowns; Michael Rogers, Allan and Scott Davis, Baden Cooke, Graeme Brown, Brett Lancaster, Luke Roberts and Nic Brown.
These guys were part of the United Water-AIS team and for many, the 2000 TDU was the biggest race they’d ever ridden in.
Looking back, you could say that was a very good group of Aussie cyclists, maybe not all-round awesome, but most of those guys have reached the very top of their profession both on the road and the track.
The equivalent team for this year’s TDU will ride under the UniSA banner. Historically this is a team that provides some of the best racing for each tour.
Long-time team director Dave Sanders demands aggression and panache from his riders, so once again expect them to be in the breaks or at the very least trying to establish the early rhythm of the day.
Crystal ball gazing as to where Team UniSA will be in 14 years’ time is pretty unrealistic but based on TDU history and what we’ve seen already, some of these guys are headed for the very top.
I can’t remember such hype around a young rider as there is around Caleb Ewan.
I have yet to see him race in the flesh, but watching him on TV during coverage of the National Road Series, The World Championships, The Nationals and The Bay Crits is a real treat.
Last year was his first year riding in the Under 23 classification, but Ewan was still good enough to win eight races, including two stages of the Tour de l’Avenir or, as it’s also known, ‘the race of the future’.
But just as impressive was his fourth place at the World U23 road race in Florence, where Ewan was forced to sprint with 600m to race and was beaten to the podium by Norwegian Sondre Enger.
Ewan’s rise has continued this year, winning the National Under 23 Road Race and Criterium Championship plus the final stage of the Bay Crits series.
This small selection of wins highlights his world-class tenacity and startling all-round abilities and explains why Orica-GreenEDGE signed him on a pre-contract late last year; he’ll join the professional ranks in August.
What this means for the Tour Down Under is we have a guy who’s already saying he wants to mix it with German sprint powerhouse and record Tour Down Under stage winner, Andre Greipel.
“To be exposed to that level of racing will be good,” Ewan told Fairfax’s Rupert Guinness late last year.
“If you could beat him [Greipel] it would be a pretty big confidence boost. Maybe that is a bit too farfetched for now, but I will have a go.”
Alongside Ewan is National Road Series Champion Jack Haig, who won both the gruelling Tour of Tasmania and the Battle of the Border races on his way to the title.
Another product of the Huon-Genesys (now Avanti Racing) production line, which has won the NRS team award four years running, Haig has four teammates in the UniSA line-up, including Campbell Flakemore.
Flakemore, also known as ‘The Hammer’, spent most of last year racing in the Jayco-AIS World Tour Academy squad and finished fourth in the World U23 ITT, just 12 seconds shy of a podium place, topped of course by Damien Howson.
Mark O’Brien won the NRS in 2012 before spending last year racing overseas where things didn’t go quite as planned. But he‘s begun 2014 in good style, finishing seventh in the National Champs Road Race.
Anthony Giacoppo debuted at the Tour Down Under last year and looks to again be in good sprinting form. Last week he narrowly failed to snare a second National Criterium Championship to go with his victory two years ago.
Neil van der Ploeg is a former MTB racer who has also represented Australia in cross-country skiing. Injury affected a fair bit of his 2013 campaign but van der Ploeg nabbed a number of NRS podiums and wins races in the early part of the season. He could also be the hairiest rider at the TDU.
West Australian Bradley Linfield completes the team, securing his position with bronze medal in the National Under 23 Road Race and a fifth place in the Under 23 Criterium Championships.
And while UniSA look set to animate the TDU peloton once again, there are other emerging Aussie riders who will have much loftier ambitions.
None more so than Rohan Dennis who, based on his 2013 season, should be targeting a podium finish in Adelaide.
He finished fifth at the TDU in 2012, but lost the opportunity to improve on that last year when he succumbed to a virus the day before the race.
He soon bounced back though and memorably time-trialled his way into the leader’s yellow jersey at the Criterium du Dauphine, his debut race in the World Tour.
Dennis went on to be selected for the Tour de France, and capped off his season by winning stage three and topping the GC at the Tour of Alberta in Canada.
Racing in front of his home crowds, South Australian cycling fans have a new local hero to cheer on.
And with the added honour of team leadership due to the imminent arrival of defending TDU champion Tom Jelte-Slagter’s first child, Dennis is set to fly.
The next generation could hardly be more exciting, and I haven’t even written about Luke Durbridge, Michael Matthews, Jack Bobridge, Nathan Haas or Steele von Hoff. Nor have I mentioned Team Drapac!