This week, the 105th Giro d'Italia begins when the starting gun fires in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. After COVID-related issues forced race organisers…
The 2016 Tour Down Under will be remembered for the outstanding performances of two riders from the same team.
Namely by Simon Gerrans for his sparkling overall will and two consecutive stage wins and that of his young teammate Caleb Ewan, whose utter dominance in the sprints against established names bagged him two scintillating wins.
Gerrans’ overall win made it four wins for the Orica-GreenEDGE leader, with wins in 2006, 2012, 2014 and now 2016. At 36 he is now a veteran in the peloton but age does not seem to be slowing him down.
2014 may arguably have been his best season while 2015 was blighted by a series of injuries that included a cracked collarbone at that year’s Tour Down Under, a fractured elbow at his comeback race in Italy, the Strade Bianche, and a massive high-speed crash at that year’s Tour de France that saw him withdraw with a broken wrist.
That he came back to finish sixth at the Worlds (despite a muddled tactical choice to have two leaders in that race by team management) is a testament to the gritty determination of a man who has carved out a niche for himself in the peloton as a multi-skilled rider, capable of winning anywhere but on the highest mountains.
Gerrans is the type of rider that any team would want on their roster and his experience as a team rider is as highly valued as his ability to bag victories.
Rohan Dennis made no bones about wanting to become the first rider to win back-to-back titles at the TDU, though he was proven right when he marked Gerrans as the biggest threat to that dream.
Dennis heaped praise on his countryman’s qualities as Gerrans pipped him for the win on Stage 3, a win that changed the look of the whole race, as the time bonus provided Gerrans and his team with a buffer worth protecting.
“It is a little bit disappointing,” Dennis said after the stage.
“I thought I did a real sprint, but Gerrans … you can’t take anything away from his class act. He hasn’t won Liege, Tour de France stages, beaten guys like Sagan in a sprint for nothing. And I really have to take my hat off to him.”
Gerrans’ real trump card is his versatility. He won that sprint against Dennis with sublime bike control and great technique – if you watch the video as they fight over the final 70 metres it is Gerrans who is driving straightest, gaining himself the edge to sneak it on the line.
Stage 4 saw another masterful performance in the sprint, bumping off Jay McCarthy to come from behind to win. He suffered a bit on the way up Willunga Hill but he did enough to hold his lead. Bit of a lycra ninja, is Gerrans!
What can we say about Caleb Ewan that hasn’t already been said? That a young rider has such a combination of raw power and a level of cool-headedness in the toughest of situations is remarkable. His debut year was arguably one of the most impressive in recent times, but then he’s no stranger to winning.
He’s been Australian junior road, points, madison, omnium, time trial and criterium champion, was second in the Junior Worlds in 2012, won two stages at the Tour de l’Avenir at 18 and came fourth in the Under-23 Worlds the same season, won a Rainbow jersey in the Junior Omnium in 2014 and became Australian Under-23 road race champion in 2012 aged 19.
To top it all off, in his last few weeks before turning pro for Orica-GreenEDGE Ewan came second in the World Under-23 road race. Then it was two wins at the Herald Sun Tour, two more at Langkawi and the Points Classification, a win at the Vuelta Rioja, four stages at the Tour de Korea and then a stage win at the Vuelta a Espana.
Like all the great sprinters he has incredible close control of his bike and a fearlessness that is in itself rather terrifying.
He also shares an advantage with another great sprinter, Mark Cavendish, in that his size means he is hard to draft off and therefore more difficult to come around than say Andre Greipel or a Marcel Kittel.
It’s not much of an advantage but in these sprints, every little counts. I am sure he will be on the top spot of many a podium in the years to come.
Ewan was quick too to thank Gerrans for sharing the team with him when it came to the sprints.
“I need to thank Gerro for sharing the team with me,” he said after Stage 1.
“If he says to the team that he wants them to do the drive for him, they would have to do that. So for a guy like that who can really win the overall, to say ‘yeah you can have your go on the day there’s so many sprints’ it means a lot.
“It’s a really proud moment for me, I’ve never led a World Tour race before and to lead my first one in my home country is a real honour for me.”
The Tour Down Under is, of course, an Australian race and some may think it’s natural that the top performers there are invariably from there, but compare this with the Tour of Britain and you’ll see that things do not necessarily work out that way.
The depth and range of talent from Australia constantly impresses me, with riders like Richie Porte, Luke Durbridge, Dennis, Ewan and Adam Hansen to name but a few. Another top performer at the Tour Down Under was Jay McCarthy, who also deserves a mention.
His win on Stage 2 brought him into the leader’s jersey and his final GC placing of fourth, just 20 seconds behind Gerrans and 11 behind Porte on second, was testament to a very mature ride from the 23-year-old.
It certainly augurs well for the future. McCarthy looks the type of rider who, similar to Gerrans, will be capable of winning over tough courses.
“It’s always good to start the season here in Australia and to finish it with a victory was really good,” McCarthy said. “I am glad the team gave me the chance to go for the stage and I am happy it paid off in the end.”
Finally, a mention for Canada’s Michael Woods who was working in a bank and then a grocery store before he came to cycling. In his debut season for Cannonade at 29, he was excellent on the Corkscrew finish and came close to a brilliant debut win.
His fifth on the final overall is a result worth cherishing, and it will be interesting to see if he can continue this form and get a crack at one of the Grand Tours in his first year.
To finish, I should give a mention to the fantastic crowds who come out to support the riders and the race. The big climbs showed just how well supported and loved this young race has become, and it’s a cracking way to open the season.