Nine months ago, West Australian cyclist Ben O’Connor was at a crossroads in his career.
The 2016 UCI World Tour gets underway this week with the 18th edition of what is fast becoming a fans and riders’ favourite in the early-season race calendar.
Far from the sprinters’ paradise that it used to be in its infancy, the six-day Tour Down Under offers a mixture of terrain within a familiar framework, with the Corkscrew and Willunga Hill climbs usually pivotal on the final outcome of the ochre jersey.
Being the first race of the season and the only World Tour event in the southern hemisphere, the Tour Down Under encourages opportunistic racing and is often tough to call, with no one rider having yet successfully defended his crown.
Time bonuses of ten, six and four seconds for the first three finishers each day means the overall standings are often tight and fiercely contested, while the centralised location in and around the South Australian city of Adelaide guarantees flocks of fans and peak rider satisfaction.
Its position on the race calendar means the Tour Down Under also gives spectators the first chance to see riders turning out for their new teams, and this year we have debuts for the likes of Richie Porte (BMC), Ryder Hesjedal and Jack Bobridge (both Trek-Segafredo), Louis Meintjes (Lampre-Merida), Rein Taaramae (Katusha), Nathan Haas and Cameron Meyer (both Dimension Data), Wouter Wippert (Cannondale), Rafa Valls (Lotto-Soudal) and Cyril Gautier (Ag2R-La Mondiale).
If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. That seems to be the motto of race director Mike Turtur and the Tour Down Under committee with the race now following quite an established route, offering enough sprint finishes, punchy climbs and breakaway terrain to keep everyone happy – besides the time triallists (we still have yet to see a race against the clock feature).
Early climbs each day should encourage breaks to form shortly after the start of each stage – although Bobridge will find himself a marked man after riding into the ochre from a break in last year’s curtain raiser, before repeating the feat last week while becoming the Australian national champion.
Tuesday’s opening stage should result in a sprint finish in the Barossa town of Lyndoch and an opportunity for the likes of Wippert, Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo), Adam Blythe (Tinkoff) and Ben Swift (Team Sky) to get their revenge on Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge). The 21-year-old from Sydney won Sunday’s People’s Choice Classic in Adelaide and looks to be the man to beat in the sprints.
After a punchy climb out of Unley, Stage 2 features five circuits in and around Stirling where the victory should be taken in a whittled-down sprint (Movistar’s Juan-Jose Lobato and Lampre-Merida’s Diego Ulissi – both present this year – are previous winners in Stirling).
The first GC summit meeting takes place in Stage 3 with the infamous Corkscrew climb (3.7 kilometres at nine per cent after an early 16 per cent segment) coming six kilometres from the finish in Campbelltown. Geraint Thomas used the hair-pinned climb as a platform for his win at nearby Rostrevor in 2013.
On paper, the sprinters will have a chance to shine in Stage 4 to Victor Harbor, where Germany’s Andre Greipel (not present this year) has won twice before. But the early climb of Norton Summit could provide an early launchpad for a break, while potential crosswinds on the coastal road could make the race hard to control.
Saturday’s queen Stage 5 starts in Maclaren Vale and culminates with a double ascent of Willunga Hill which usually proves pivotal in the outcome of the race. That said, twice Porte has won on the three-kilometre climb but the former Sky rider is still not among the host nation’s list of overall winners (there are seven, with Simon Gerrans having won on three separate occasions).
Unless the top two are tied or separated by a second or two, Sunday’s final criterium-style stage in Adelaide should be all about the sprinters, with Ewan clearly the man to beat after his performance a week earlier.
A tried-and-tested triple winner (2006, 2012, 2014), Gerrans has the requisite armoury to make it four. But question marks hang over his age (35) and his form (the crash-prone Orica-GreenEDGE rider missed chunks of last season with injuries, and failed to pick up a win for the first time since 2010).
BMC seem to offer a safer bet when it comes to backing Australians, with defending champion Rohan Dennis joined by debutant Porte in the red and black. Dennis won last year after the big favourites had marked his teammate Cadel Evans as the danger man, and he and Porte could well prove an even deadlier combination.
Porte has a cluster of stage race victories to his name and is by far the more explosive climber of the two, so the ochre jersey stands a better chance of covering his shoulders next Sunday rather than the new Australian time trial champion. What a start to his BMC career that would be.
But Porte will have the unorthodox task of marking his old teammates at Sky – and in particular his good friend Geraint Thomas. The two are very similar riders and between them have excelled in the past on both the Corkscrew and Willunga Hill.
Thomas admitted over the weekend that it will be “strange” to see Porte “shouting at us now rather than BMC” and this intriguing dynamic should prove one of the major subplots not only of the race but the start of the 2016 season in general. Both Porte and Thomas are following very similar race programmes as they bid to put their personal ambitions higher than their accustomed role of riding for Chris Froome).
If the Welshman doesn’t have the early season legs, then Sky have a wealth of strength in depth with Colombia’s Sergio Henao and Britain’s Peter Kennaugh both potential winners.
New Lotto-Soudal signing Rafa Valls could be an outsider to watch, while the likes of Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Jarlinson Pantano (IAM Cycling), Julien Arredondo and Hesjedal (both Trek-Segafredo), Tiago Machado and Taaramae (both Katusha), Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana), Haas and Ulissi are all capable of putting in a strong performance.
There are also a slew of youngsters who could get in the mix, namely Meintjes, Ruben Fernandez (Movistar) and Petr Vakoc (Etixx-QuickStep). A lot is expected, too, from New Zealand’s Paddy Bevin (Cannondale) and homegrown duo Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff) and Lachlan Norris (Drapac).
Expect all eyes to be on Ewan after his victory on Sunday, the young Australian more and more resembling Mark Cavendish in his pomp. Italian Nizzolo and British duo Blythe and Swift are all capable of victories on their day, while Dutchman Wippert – a winner last year for Drapac – will look to improve on his disappointing ninth place for new outfit Cannondale in the People’s Choice Classic.
In the absence of their team’s marquee sprinters, Mark Renshaw (Dimension Data) and Koen de Kort (Giant-Alpecin) will have a free card to join the fun, while Lobato, Marko Kump (Lampre-Merida) and Steele Von Hoff (UniSA-Australia) should get in the mix.
If none of the established ‘Big Four’ riders have made the trip to Adelaide it is not a reflection on the calibre of the race, rather of the parcours. While hilly and undulating, there are no huge climbs on the agenda, which is probably why both Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana have opted for the Tour de San Luis in Argentina instead.
Appearances from world champion Peter Sagan and sprinting royalty Mark Cavendish wouldn’t have gone amiss but Sagan opted for Argentina while Cavendish’s track ambitions have seen him opt for the Hong Kong velodrome instead.
But this shouldn’t matter. There are enough big names – including a stellar cast of Australian riders – to ensure this will be a competitive race from start to finish, and not worthy of the ‘Bore Down Under’ moniker sometimes attributed to the race by cynics.
There is certainly a case for the race organisers to be more ambitious in the future – a visit to Kangaroo Island would be bold, for instance – but it’s understandable why they stick with a winning formula. By keeping the race based in one city with all riders and journalists staying in the same hotel, it’s a logistical paradise to ease everyone back into the new season.
What’s more, the Tour Down Under is an extremely fan-friendly race which is guaranteed to pull in the crowd while encouraging public participation – whether that’s in the Bupa-sponsored sportive event, or in club rides with teams in the week prior to the race.
While it would be great for TV viewers to see the Tour Down Under granted to another Australian state once every four years, the likelihood of that is slim. But don’t be surprised if we see a time trial or some fresh climbs and innovative finishes at some point in the near future. Stability is a great thing, but stagnation is only just around the corner.