Every four years, I watch the Olympics, and every four years, I watch sports such as diving, swimming, and gymnastics, and question my life decisions.
The humming thrill of Australia’s biggest bike race will rise in pitch today, as the Tour Down Under begins. There are so many drawcards it’s hard to know where to look.
The world’s top teams, fighting for the first ProTour victory of the season, some early points and the momentary cachet of leading the UCI rankings.
Three Australian teams: the big guns of Orica-GreenEdge, the newcomers from Drapac, and the mixed bag of up-and-comers riding for UniSA.
Two of the world’s top sprinters, Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel, and a host of challengers: Caleb Ewan (UniSA), Elia Viviani (Cannondale), Michael Matthews and Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) will be gunning for stage wins.
Some of the world’s top GC riders are also here: Cadel Evans (BMC), Richie Porte (Sky), and Robert Gesink (Belkin) being the obvious choices. The much-maligned Frank Schleck is back in his first race after serving a doping ban for a banned diuretic.
Porte’s teammate Geraint Thomas was extremely dangerous last year, and has the strength to cause some serious damage on the medium climbs of the TDU.
Keep an eye on Jan Bakelants (OPQS) who led the Tour de France briefly in 2013 and was consistently strong throughout the season.
Lampre-Merida’s Diego Ulissi is a rider who hasn’t attracted much attention in Australia, but he’s a rider who wins his fair share of races (including a stage of the Giro d’Italia) and can climb with the best: he finished second behind Joaquim Rodriguez in stage 19 of the Vuelta, defeating the likes of Chris Horner, Alejandro Valverde, and Vincenzo Nibali. He’ll be worth a look.
I’ll also be watching Garmin’s Australian pair of Lachlan Morton and Rohan Dennis keenly, after both riders had some outstanding results in 2013.
A talented climber, Morton’s epic stage win in the Tour of Utah earned him a cover appearance on the US Velo magazine – high praise indeed for a neo-pro. Morton spent his off-season riding his bike from Sydney to Uluru.
Dennis was the unlucky victim of a freak wind that literally blew him off his bike during the Australian time trial championship, and he was unable to recover in time for the road race, but he looked in great shape until then.
His eighth-place finish in the GC of last year’s Dauphine was a stunning announcement of his arrival at the top level, and having finished fifth overall in the TDU in 2012 (riding for the UniSA squad), the roads here clearly suit him.
The situation within Orica-GreenEDGEis an interesting one for their fans.
The team went virtually unsighted in the finish to Sunday People’s Choice Classic criterium, with the team later explaining that the hectic atmosphere amidst crashes and a nervous peloton prompted the riders to avoid the bunch sprint. As DS Matt White put it,
“Things were a bit dangerous out there, so the guys decided not to contest the final sprint, mainly due to the tricky last corner. It was a good decision- the big picture for us is Tour Down Under.”
While I think it was a shame for the fans hoping to see Matt Goss and Michael Matthews up against Greipel and Kittel, I can understand a safety-first decision in this case.
Nobody wants to lose a rider in an exhibition race, just ask Movistar’s Giovanni Visconti (broken leg) or Sky’s CJ Sutton (fractured wrist) who had the worst possible start to their seasons.
Orica-GreenEdge obviously has big goals for the TDU. A GC win for the in-form Simon Gerrans would be the dream result, and the team will be focused in that direction.
Where this leaves Matt Goss, is an interesting question. A disappointing 2013 season for the Tasmanian sprinter, the emergence of Michael Matthews as a high-class alternative, and the imminent arrival of Caleb Ewan means many have begun to wonder if he still commands the status of number one sprinter at OGE.
With the team directing its energy at the GC, Goss may be left with minimal support in the sprints, and with few genuine flat stages (stages four and six) these limited opportunities will need to be taken, and probably with minimal support.
The problem is that Kittel’s Giant-Shimano team, and Greipel’s Lotto-Belisol train, are specifically geared for their sprinters. I think that’s too much for Goss to overcome.
Ultimately, Simon Gerrans starts as my overall favourite.
He’s one of the few riders to have demonstrated good form, while the European peloton emerges from winter largely untested.
It’s too early for many GC riders to be carrying top form (I count Porte and Evans in this number, despite their strong rides at Nationals), and we are still more than a month away from the first classics of Spring.
Matt White has called out stages two and five as opportunities for Gerrans. Throughout his career, we’ve seen that when he aims for a specific race, Gerrans almost always performs. His form in the nationals road race was superlative, and unlike Evans and Porte, he has set his sights firmly on this race.
The climbs of the Tour Down Under are hard enough for Gerrans to excel on, without being so long he gets blown away by the pure climbers. However, he won’t be able to use his team to boss the race like he did at Nationals.
The distinct advantage of two months training in local conditions conducive to high-intensity work, while the Europeans and North Americans have been contending with snow, icy roads, and freezing temperatures, also works in favour of local riders.
Is that a guarantee of success? No, there are no guarantees, but it is an advantage.
When the TDU rolls into Angaston on Tuesday afternoon, we’ll have our first stage winner and ochre jersey. The buzz around Adelaide will be high, and for Australian fans, it’ll be about as good as it gets.