Five months have passed since Rohan Dennis abandoned the Tour de France in mysterious circumstances, climbing off the bike seemingly without cause during stage 12, the day before the race’s major time trial.
You’ve got to love social media. People like to say anything, just because they can.
One well known cycling journalist – who shall remain nameless to protect them should it prove wrong – tweeted in the middle of yesterday’s stage that the winner of this year’s Tour Down Under would come from the Top 10 in the Stage to Stirling.
The comment was qualified with an “I think”, but as punts go it seemed a bold one. Or was it?
Fact: since 2012, a rider who finishes top 10 in Stirling has won the Tour Down Under.
There’s another caveat, though, because in 2012 the second climb up Willunga Hill was introduced, which dramatically changed how the race is decided. I call that innovation the ‘Andre Greipel Rule’, because when ‘The Gorilla’ got over the famous climb in 2010 and went on the win the race, tour director Mike Turtur decided something had to be done to stop sprinters winning every year.
So in 2012 we saw the first of the two Willunga Hill climbs on the TDU’s penultimate day.
That year, Simon Gerrans won the Tour, and in Stirling (Stage 2) he finished third behind Will Clarke and Michael Matthews. In fact four of the top five that day finished in the top 10 overall (Gerrans, Alejandro Valverde, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Matthews).
In 2013, the winner into Stirling (Stage 3) was unknown to Australian fans – Tom Jelte Slagter of Team Blanco. He also went on to win the overall classification, and again, four of the top 10 from Stirling finished top 10 overall (Slagter, Javier Moreno, Geraint Thomas and Gorka Izagirre).
The tradition continued last year with Gerrans. Second into Stirling (Stage 2) behind Diego Ulissi, who by the way is now serving a doping ban, Gerrans was crowned TDU champ for a record third time four days later. Five others from the top 10 that day went on to finish top 10 overall (Diego Ulissi, Cadel Evans, Robert Gesink, Richie Porte and Daryl Impey). Robert Silin, who finished 11th in Stirling, also made the overall top 10.
So the brave cycling tweeter is looking good if you only go back as far as 2012 when the double Willunga climb was also introduced as a race feature.
In 2011 Cameron Meyer won but wasn’t in the top 10 in Stirling, and neither was Andre Greipel when he won the General Classification in 2010. The only other year we’ve had a Stirling finish was 2009 when Allan Davis claimed victory on his way to winning the Tour Down Under.
So history is on our pundit’s side.
So where does that leave us in 2015? Will the theory hold true once again? Well, if you had to pick the winner from yesterday’s top 10, you’d have some real quality options.
Cadel Evans and Richie Porte are two of the hot favourites anyway. Luis Leon Sanchez won it in 2005 and is a quality rider. Daryl Impey can climb and has a great team around him and Gorka Izagirre finished seventh on GC in 2013 and 12th in 2011.
Then there’s yesterday’s winner Juan Jose Lobato. He’s the team leader for Movistar, the world’s number one ranked team in 2014 with 34 wins. Spanish teams have always done well at the Tour Down Under. As mentioned, Sanchez has won the overall here, as has Mikel Astarloza (2003).
And they’ve had plenty of stage wins – importantly Valverde, Alberto Contador, Sanchez and Francicso Ventoso have all won on Willunga Hill.
Movistar are not here to muck around and the other contenders would’ve been intrigued to hear what their team manager José Luis Arrieta had to say after the stage.
“It’s a very important victory for us and for his confidence as well,” he said.
“We knew that Lobato was climbing well, and that he could get up the difficulties better than the other sprinters, so we knew we would have a good chance today.
“We had a puncture with Lobato with one lap to go, so he used a bit of energy to chase back, so we were not sure going into the final sprint how he would react.
“We don’t have a clear leader for GC, but this victory gives us a bit of glory here.”
Even Cadel was talking him up after the finish.
“I don’t know if I’m quite as good as I was last year, I was a bit jumpier and that. But as I said it’s the first race of the year, we don’t know who’s good,” he said.
“Today’s the first day I think we really see the contenders overall and I think maybe Lobato will be the guy to beat.”
The fact that Lobato chased back from a puncture and still absolutely flew past everyone in the final 50 metres was astonishing. You can see why he was fourth in last year’s Milan San Remo.
Maybe two climbs up Willunga will prove too much for Lobato or maybe the Spanish success on that climb will continue.
Before that, though, there’s the small matter of Stage 3 and the uphill finish on Mount Torrens Road. This finale may also suit Lobato (1.2 kilometres at nine per cent) and he’ll be able to wrest the Ochre jersey from Jack Bobridge’s shoulders. Or maybe not.
Either way, if you don’t feel like putting a wager on Lobato taking out the big prize, Richie Porte, Cadel Evans and Luis Leon Sanchez all look like good bets.
For me though, even though Cadel’s words are ringing in my ears, my money is on Richie.