The Tour Down Under starts next Tuesday providing some World Tour racing to deprived fans. For European followers, this means any combination of late nights/early starts/alarm setting/Eurosport recording/results page refreshing all in the name of pro cycling. This year’s route is almost unchanged from 2015 with last year’s top two Rohan Dennis and Richie Porte returning as BMC team-mates.
Stages 1, 4 and 6 look set for bunch sprints but all three are undulating enough to tempt breakaway lovers into making moves. The Australians at UniSA, Drapac and Dimension Data are likely to take part in the days’ breaks and landing a stage here can act as a career springboard (see: Jack Bobridge). Stage 5 ends with a familiar double ascent of Old Willunga hill; the first will serve as a leg tester, the second likely to decide the final classification. With Stage 5 marked as the playground of the favourites, it’s the lumpy Stages 2 and 3 that intrigue the most. Whilst both could feasibly end in bunch sprints, Stage 3’s Corkscrew Road climb will unlikely pass without attacks and riders could look to gain time in a stealth attempt to move up the GC.
Forgetting the fact they both finished on the podium last year, Rohan Dennis and Richie Porte would be candidates to take their home tour in any year they participate. They are both hungry for success at this time of year and had a competitive leg-stretcher at last week’s National Time Trial, Porte losing his title to specialist Dennis as they reversed their 2015 placings. Porte was at Team Sky a year ago but now joins Dennis at BMC after completing an expected move. On paper this is a fantastic move by BMC and Porte’s ambitions should be a good fit for their squad. In practice, however, BMC have not off-loaded any protected riders and Porte may encroach on the ground of both Dennis and American Tejay Van Garderen.
Porte is the best climber at the Tour Down Under and could be given the clear nod as team leader. It will be a tremendous shame if Dennis isn’t given the option to fight to defend his title but if BMC do spoil the fun it won’t be the first time a team has set out a clear hierarchy – something Porte himself knows only too well. That being said, Dennis wasn’t even BMC’s leader this time last year, leaving team leader Cadel Evans behind to claim his stage win and again two days later on Willunga.
The race up Willunga last year was a highlight of the early season and twenty seconds behind the winner that day was Domenico Pozzovivo – one of the only other riders in the race with any Grand Tour pedigree in a 5th place finish at the Giro d’Italia. If he’s feeling awake at this time of year he could feature on the podium. Another interesting contender is Britain’s Geraint Thomas whose superb season of climbing could see him asked to fill the void left by Porte at Team Sky. The Welshman is one-of-a-kind in today’s peloton and if he’s aiming for success at the Tour Down Under he shouldn’t be far away. Amongst the others, new Katusha rider Rein Taaramae started strong last season and could be carrying similar form whilst the talented Ruben Fernandez leads the Movistar challenge. Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal is another to keep an eye on but is unlikely to be fit for contention.
Lampre-Merida bring two valid options in Diego Ulissi and Louis Meintjes. The explosive Ulissi finished third here in 2014 and could look to gain time on Stage 2, whilst the steep opening 500m of Willunga hill may suit the highly touted Meintjes. Two-time champ Simon Gerrans leads Orica and can’t be entirely ruled out.
The sprinters usually enjoy the Tour Down Under and Caleb Ewan looks set to mop up the sprints this time around with Cannondale’s Wouter Wippert his biggest rival. Matteo Pelucchi is fast but so often missing whilst Dimension Data bring old heads Mark Renshaw and Tyler Farrar. For once Lotto-Soudal are without a premier sprinter but could have a trick or two up their sleeve. Giacomo Nizzolo and Juan Jose Lobato are other proven fast men.
Who’s going to win?
It’s difficult to look beyond Richie Porte given that it’s quite clear he’s here to win. I don’t see Rohan Dennis featuring on the podium, in part due to his BMC duties but also his new found star status removing his element of surprise. There will be a good scrap between the climbers and Pozzovivo and Meintjes could round off the podium provided the puncheurs don’t deal some damage on the opening stages.
Who could grab a stage?
New national champion Jack Bobridge looked super-strong on Sunday and could find more success here. Gerrans, Ewan and Michael Albasini shouldn’t return empty handed for Orica whilst Ulissi and Luis Leon Sanchez can threaten for Lampre and Astana. Peter Kennaugh will be on the lookout for opportunities for Team Sky.
Who could spring a surprise?
Enrico Battaglin (LottoNL-Jumbo), Adam Blythe (Tinkoff) and both William Clarke and Lachlan Norris (Drapac) may not get marked as much as they should as they hunt for stage glory. Team Sky have strength in depth and plenty of cards to play.