The Tour Down Under once again delivered a week of action worthy of kicking off the cycling season and by the time things wrapped up three Australians were top of the pile. Richie Porte and Cadel Evans fought hard but were outdone by 24 year-old Stage 3 winner Rohan Dennis. The BMC rider took the lead after his win and hung on impressively when it mattered. In the race that bid farewell to Evans, it looks like a new Australian has come to the fore. The riders rolled out of Tanunda on Stage 1 for what looked like a short stage and a bunch sprint. This was not to be the case as a quartet escaped early on and stayed away until the finish. The pack closed in significantly but late aggression saw Jack Bobridge of the UniSA team upset the odds and take the overall lead. Fellow escapees Lieuwe Westra and Luke Durbridge barely held on for second and third but claimed the other available time bonuses. With bonuses available mid stage, Bobridge had built up a 4 second lead in the GC and had 13 seconds on the favourites. This was the first of two occasions in the race that the small UniSA team upset the seasoned sprinters.
The first stage set the tone for Marcel Kittel’s week. Despite winning the People’s Choice Classic a few days earlier, the German was anonymous for the majority of the event. Not one for the minor places, Kittel did not contest the sprint on Stage 1 and could be found off the back of the bunch for the rest of the week. His record in Australia is extremely poor by his standards. Instead, his team concentrated their efforts on Tom Dumoulin who looked good in his 4thplace overall finish.
Behind Bobridge on Stage 1, sprinters Niccolo Bonifazio, Juan Lobato, Daryl Impey, Steele Van Hoff and Heinrich Haussler all finished in the top 10. For the most part, these were the best sprinters in this year’s race. The Spaniard on that list, Lobato, claimed Stage 2 with an impressive late kick round his rivals. Cannondale-Garmin’s Nathan Haas made his move too early in the sprint, and although Impey looked set to profit, Lobato swooped in for the win. The testing finish into Stirling meant that overall favourites Dumoulin, Evans and Porte participated in the sprint looking to snatch seconds from each other. Their efforts were in earnest as they finished together placed 4th, 5th and 7th. Behind them was Italian Bonifazio who was Lampre’s leading sprinter with Roberto Ferrari nowhere to be seen. Bobridge stayed with the front bunch and kept his overall lead.
Stage 3 looked like the first real test for the riders and one that would get the main contenders stretching their legs. With the breakaway caught the main pack began to fragment as the road began to rise. As it kicked up, Porte attacked but Evans countered comfortably. Dumoulin and Domenico Pozzovivio made the jump across and the four appeared to have slipped away. Porte went again but could not shake Evans and they remained together as the others hung on. Behind the excitement, another group of riders could be seen. With the leaders watching each other, the two groups became one and at that moment Dennis made his winning move. The BMC team-mate of Evans accelerated smoothly past the front four. Pozzovivio’s response lacked power and Dumoulin looked the only man capable of making the chase. However, the Australian turned a corner on to flatter roads and opened up an unassailable gap and it was the move that won the Tour Down Under. Dumoulin faded, and Evans kicked round him to take an important second place and six second bonus. Porte, who started the attacks, lost 15 seconds to the stage winner in total, and eight to Evans.
An interesting interview with new leader Dennis followed. Struggling to hide his happiness, he was asked if Evans had spoken to him yet. He revealed his team leader had given him ‘a thumbs up’ and was a ‘man of little words’. Sceptics would suspect that Evans was not best pleased with the attack. Still, at the time very few expected Dennis to defend the jersey two days later on Old Willunga Hill.
Stage 4 saw another win for a UniSA rider when Steele Van Hoff powered home in the sprint. He was released by Garmin following their merge with Cannondale and made that decision look foolish with his fast finish. It will be a Tour not remembered fondly by Cannondale-Garmin as Dennis too could have stayed with them had he not grown unhappy last season. Impey was forced to settle for second once again but took a firm hold on the Points competition.
The next stage took the race into Willunga where the Tour Down Under is traditionally settled. Old Willunga Hill is a long, hard drag and looked better suited to Porte than the spiky finish of Stage 3. This year the route looped round and visited the climb twice. Before the leaders took centre stage a trio escaped which included Stage 1 winner Bobridge. The South Australian had also broken away the day before and accumulated enough King of the Mountains points to take the competition lead.
They were all back together with around 5km to go and the final ascent of Willunga Hill yet to start. The bunch broke up in familiar fashion with team-mates fading away after doing stints at the front. Eventually Porte took over, tapping out a fast rhythm and stringing out the field. Soon after, and in hindsight a little late, he kicked off the front and instantly opened a gap. Evans had no answer and fell behind whilst others offered limited responses. The only man who did follow his wheel was the increasingly impressive Dennis. The man in the ochre jersey latched on to Porte’s back wheel with gritted teeth. A second acceleration by Porte was met with more resistance but a third cracked the race leader. It became a race against the clock for both men and, taking into account their respected time bonuses, Dennis remained the leader by two seconds. Evans and Dumoulin finished together meaning Evans hung on to third by the same margin.
The final Stage was just 90km long and one for the sprinters. As expected, the race was decided in Willunga and Porte did not attempt anything sneaky on the final day. The stage ended in a bunch sprint with another surprise winner. Wouter Wippert’s form had grown all week and he beat Haussler to the victory. The Drapac rider was 47 minutes down in 114th, but will be delighted with his final sprint. Impey finished 5th and was confirmed a clear winner of the Points competition. He was the only sprinter to finish in the top ten this year confirming the route as a tough one.
So as Cadel Evans bids farewell to Pro Cycling, Dennis looks set to step up and replace him. At times you could have questioned if he was calling it a day too early; he looked sharp when responding to Porte’s moves. However, he missed one key attack in Willunga and had to settle for third place. The man of ‘little words’ often chose harsh ones in the direction of journalists. He never seemed at ease in the media even when finally getting his Tour De France win in 2011. Looking beyond his awkward interviews, it is difficult to label Evans as anything other than a brilliant Australian bike rider. Dennis must decide if he wants to tackle the Grand Tours, but he could do a lot worse than to seek advice from his compatriot.