I haven’t been able to figure out if I love the Tour Down Under because it’s the glorious curtain raiser for the pro cycling season or if the race itself is one of the best. I’m leaning towards the latter with intriguing startlists and a distinctly non-European feel making the race a must watch at the start of the season. This year I’m reserving mammoth race previews for the Grand Tours so here’s my Tour Down Under quick picks.
Before Christmas Peter Sagan was my man for the Tour Down Under. He’s a multitalented tour de force and likely to want to deliver early for Bora-Hansgrohe. However, after taking a second (and third, and fourth) glance at the route I’m doing a U-turn; this year’s Tour Down Under will be won by a climber. Willunga Hill stands in all its familiar glory but there are now other testing climbs that should prevent a Sagan (or three-time champ Simon Gerrans) from wrapping up the time bonuses. The likes of Sagan are sure to contest at least a handful of sprints but won’t have things all their own way. Without a large time buffer, the fastmen will find Willunga too hard to control. Here are my race picks:
The Winner – Sergio Henao 11/2
It’s early in the season and I’m feeling bold. It’s impossible to talk about a winner of the Tour Down Under without mentioning Richie Porte. He really should have won by now and he’s the rightful king of Willunga Hill. I’m actually shying away from him because I think he is now too good a GC contender to be peaking in January. Last year we saw a slightly more relaxed attitude to the race and I think we’ll see the same in 2017. Behind him on Willunga last year was Sergio Henao. He is shorter odds than teammate Geraint Thomas and I suspect he’ll lead the team. Wouldn’t it be typical of Team Sky to take a victory during a difficult period of media attention?
The Contender – Rohan Dennis 14/1
Sticking to my guns on Porte, I like the longer odds of BMC teammate and 2015 champion Rohan Dennis. Unlike Porte, Dennis enjoys a January peak in order to take out the National TT Championship. I’m well aware that last year he went awry on Willunga but he had ridden pretty competitively up until that stage and I’m expecting another charge this year. I think Dennis will develop into a more GC-focussed rider over the next few years and BMC are strong enough to protect both him and Porte equally throughout the first four stages. I doubt Dennis is good enough to win on Willunga Hill so dealing early damage may prove his best tactic.
The Outsider – Diego Ulissi 25/1
Despite listing him as my outsider, I find the price on Ulissi the most attractive of all my picks. It’s often said (by me) that Ulissi is an Italian road specialist but his performances at the Tour Down Under have been consistently strong since winning a stage back in 2014. He was second into Stirling last year before an overlooked fourth on Willunga Hill. The course is suited to his strengths and – if he fancies it – I think he’ll get on the podium this time around. A potentially difficult pre-season with UAE Abu Dhabi may be the one factor which holds him back.
Look Out For – UniSA, Ben Swift and Michael Valgren
I can’t think of a World Tour race where a wildcard team makes as big an impact as UniSA at the Tour Down Under. They’ve got local knowledge and tend to be in shape for the Australian summer. This year they actually have a former race winner in Cameron Meyer.
Ben Swift’s move to UAE is sure to bring him more opportunities than his time at Team Sky. UAE’s first team selection is actually pretty strong and Swift’s bold move to a flailing Lampre setup was one of the most interesting from transfer season. I can see him challenging for stage honours.
I’m not sure when I got so keen on Michael Valgren but his move to Astana gives the team the sort of rider they’ve often lacked. He’s not a pure climber, nor a flat road powerhouse, but somebody who can do a bit of everything. I think he’ll finish as the leading Astana rider; hopefully inside the top ten.
Stage Previews in Seven Words
Stage 1 – Tough for an opener. Still a sprint
Stage 2 – Stirling loop to start. An uphill finish
Stage 3 – A day at the seaside; crosswinds possible.
Stage 4 – Lumpy all day. Sagan’s first for Bora?
Stage 5 – Willunga Hill. Can Porte make it four?
Stage 6 – What you would expect; a proper sprint.