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Blazin' Saddles: Tour Down Under 2018 preview and analysis

Blazin' Saddles: Tour Down Under 2018 preview and analysis

13/01/2018 at 04:34Updated 13/01/2018 at 20:20

For many watching from afar, the season's curtain-raiser in Australia has become the Bore Down Under – but for riders and fans in and around Adelaide, it's the ideal race. While previewing the 2018 edition, Felix Lowe asks whether a Tour Down Under of portentous quality needs a shake up, or if it's a case of 'No worries, mate, she'll be right'.

The Tour Down Under turns 20 this year with Richie Porte the clear favourite to defend his title and become the fifth Australian to win on home soil in the past five years (and the eighth in the past decade).

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If the days are long gone when a sprinter in the mould of Andre Greipel could rock up and win the ochre jersey, then things have become no less predictable – with the ubiquitous Willunga Hill now providing the usual launch pad on which a punchy climber in the mould of Porte delivers the killer blow. And we all know that the BMC rider's the only fair dinkum contender to win on Mount Willunga – London to a brick.

After previewing the 20th edition of a race that has the whole of Adelaide – traffic cops aside – throwing a collective shrimp on the barbie, we dissect the Tour Down Under's shortcomings and limitations, and ask whether it's on the up or teetering on the edge of stagnation.

Santos Ochre Leaders jersey wearer Caleb Ewan, Orica Greenedge - photo: Santos Tour Down Under / Regallo

Santos Ochre Leaders jersey wearer Caleb Ewan, Orica Greenedge - photo: Santos Tour Down Under / RegalloEurosport

The 2018 route

A quick Captain Cook at the route and it's very much business as usual for the opening World Tour race of the season – with a mixture of sprint stages interspersed with apparently the only climbs in Southern Australia, ahead of a predictable, yet rip-snorting, sprint finale on the streets of the Adelaide CBD. All this after Caleb Ewan makes it a hat-trick in the People's Choice Classic leg-stretcher in Adelaide this Sunday.

While trademark finishes in Lyndock, Stirling, Victor Harbor and atop Willunga Hill feature once again, the opening stage of the race returns to Port Adelaide for the first time since the inaugural edition in 1999, while stage 4 boasts a first-ever finish in the town of Uraidla (pop. c.461) 10km after the ascent of Norton Summit.

Richie Porte leads the peloton up Willing Hill during stage five of the Tour Down Under cycling race from McLaren to Willunga in Adelaide on January 21, 2017.

Richie Porte leads the peloton up Willing Hill during stage five of the Tour Down Under cycling race from McLaren to Willunga in Adelaide on January 21, 2017.Getty Images

Those slight tweaks aside, it's going to be a familiar six days in the saddle for both riders and fans. If the opening stage to Lyndock is one for the flat-track bullies, the lumpy finale of the three laps around Stirling should mix things up in stage 2 before another circuit race around the breezy Fleurieu Peninsula in stage 3 should welcome another bunch sprint.

Stage 4 is a journey into the unknown, with that climb near the finish likely to make a selection and whittle down any sprint – no doubt allowing a new figure to seize the ochre jersey ahead of Saturday's queen stage. Porte has won the past four stages finishing on Willunga Hill and he's going to have to come a right gutser to miss out on number five in stage 5 before the focus returns to the sprinters in stage 6.

The favourites for ochre

For all his Willunga domination, Richie Porte (BMC) has only taken the overall title once in his career – last year's comprehensive 48-second victory over Esteban Chaves. Should the Tasmanian falter, then BMC have another card to play in fellow Australian Rohan Dennis, who has come on leaps and bounds since his surprise win in 2015. BMC even boast quadruple winner Simon Gerrans in their ranks now – but don't expect the veteran to make it a handful for himself next week.

Richie Porte (BMC) during stage 19 of the Tour de France

Richie Porte (BMC) during stage 19 of the Tour de FranceEurosport

With no Chaves around, Porte's biggest opposition will come from the likes of compatriots Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe), who finished third last year, and Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin), who was fourth.

Dutch 2013 winner Tom-Jelte Slagter (Dimension Data) could be in the mix, while UAE Team Emirates have two cards to play in Rui Costa and Diego Ulissi. Bahrain-Merida will hope that reunited brothers Ion and Gorka Izagirre can dovetail nicely, too – unless Domenico Pozzovivo's hits some rare early season form.

Although they have Buckley's chance of winning, other names worth half-mentioning for the battle for GC are Sam Oomen (Team Sunweb), Pierre Latour (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana), Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors), Team Sky's new Colombian youngster Egan Bernal, and LottoNL-Jumbo duo George Bennett and Robert Gesink.

Australian cyclist Caleb Ewan of the Orica - Scott team celebrates after winning the People's Choice Classic

Australian cyclist Caleb Ewan of the Orica - Scott team celebrates after winning the People's Choice ClassicGetty Images

Sprinters to watch

The Tour Down Under has always favoured the sprinters and the 20th edition will be a great early chance to see who has the fastest early-season legs from the likes of Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott), Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) and Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors).

Build-up to the race

While Team Sky faced an embarrassing moment when their riders were pulled aside by a traffic policeman in Adelaide, the Australian media's general lack of understanding of all things bicycle-related was captured with ham-fisted aplomb by this report of extreme and crass stupidity by 7 News – the kind of outfit for whom Ron Burgundy would work for were he called Logan and had a penchant for marsupials and VB.

Whilst that coverage will hardly go down as some of the organisation's finest they deserve some credit for the way they covered the second flash-point of the week.

Meanwhile, back to the actual racing, it's worth noting that the opening stage of the Women's Tour Down Under was won by Annette Edmondson of Wiggle High5 – just days after her younger brother Alex Edmondson (Mitchelton-Scott) soloed to a superb victory in the Australian National Championships in Buninyong.

Time for a change?

Every year, the Tour Down Under is greeted with open arms and fevered anticipation. This isn't anything to do with the quality of racing, rather since we've been denied any proper racing since Il Lombardia back in October. And yet, every year there's still that fleeting hope that maybe the organisers will do something a little different this time round.

Then it turns out that the only proper climb in the whole of South Australia that isn't called the Corkscrew is Willunga Hill – and so we settle for a few sprint stages either side of a Richie Porte masterclass on this near-solitary peak. Is this as good as it gets?

Australia's Richie Porte from BMC Racing celebrates his victory in stage five of the Tour Down Under cycling race from McLaren to Willunga in Adelaide on January 21, 2017.

Australia's Richie Porte from BMC Racing celebrates his victory in stage five of the Tour Down Under cycling race from McLaren to Willunga in Adelaide on January 21, 2017.Getty Images

How about using some of those rolling hills better with a circuit race that isn't about chalking up the requisite kilometres as much as it is blowing the peloton apart? Throw in some crosswind chaos up Long Bay and around Lake Alexandrina to the south-east of Adelaide – or even some dirt-track racing across the peninsula on Kangaroo Island? Heck, even a lumpy time trial might spice things up a little.

If that's all a bit extreme, then surely there must be some hidden climbs somewhere in the state within riding distance of Adelaide? The Corkscrew and Willunga Hill may be to the Tour Down Under what the Cipressa and the Poggio are to Milan-Sanremo – but that can't be the entire uphill contents of South Australia's geographical musette.

The peloton heads along the coast during stage five of the Tour Down Under cycling race from McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill in Adelaide on January 23, 2016.

The peloton heads along the coast during stage five of the Tour Down Under cycling race from McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill in Adelaide on January 23, 2016.Getty Images

Supposing the answer is a no – and all roads genuinely do lead to Adelaide via very little of topographical interest – then perhaps it's time to venture a bit further afield. How about starting the race in a different area of South Australia, maybe even another state, and then end up in Adelaide, making it the Paris of the TDU? Or how about scrapping Adelaide altogether and host the race on Tasmania?

These portentous rumblings aside, the Tour Down Under does risk stagnating as much as a waterhole in the Outback if it continues delivering the exact same dish, year in, year out. Unless, of course, like Donald Trump and his daily penchant for McDonalds – that's just what the punters want.

Verdict: She'll be right…

The Tour Down Under is to Adelaide and its surrounding countryside what Strade Bianche is to the white dirt sterrati farm tracks of the rolling Tuscan hills. It's not South Australia's fault that their geographical armoury is just no match for its Italian counterpart.

In fact, the Tour Down Under should be praised for having developed so considerably despite the severe constraints under which it much function. Not only is the race on the other side of the globe as the rest of the World Tour, it's grossly restricted by its date on the calendar, the weather in which it operates and the roads of the region which pays for its existence.

Taking place in mid-January and in fierce heat and with riders boasting low-fitness levels following the winter break, the race quite simply cannot be as demanding as the Tour de France or a series of lumpy classics – nor could it be so even if it wanted (what with the highest climbs in the area peaking at around 500m).

BMC rider Richie Porte ride during stage six of the Tour Down Under in Adelaide on January 22, 2017.

BMC rider Richie Porte ride during stage six of the Tour Down Under in Adelaide on January 22, 2017.Getty Images

But this suits the riders just fine – as does staying in the same Hilton hotel in Adelaide for the entire fortnight of the race and its build-up. The proximity to Adelaide suits fans – at least, the local ones – to a tee, while the entire race is tied up with local sponsors and support. And while all the money comes from Adelaide and South Australia, there's more chance President Trump would venture south of the river in London than any other city or state in Australia getting a sniff of TDU action.

Besides, it may be easy to roll your eyes at the repetition and familiarity of stages, but venturing further afield is even less appealing: areas like Port Lincoln or Port Augusta are as dry as a dead dingo's dinner while there's zero interest in another race in the desert so close to the Abu Dhabi Tour. Meanwhile, there's no way all the teams are going to export both road and time trial bikes all the way across the planet for a prologue TT.

The Tour Down Under should be celebrated for what it is: an event which eases the peloton into the season, showcasing local tourist hotspots that are easily accessible by fans.

It's a chance for fans to catch a first glimpse of riders in their new togs – confirmation that those blue collars do indeed make BMC's jerseys look bloody awful, that the Movistar kit perhaps isn't as bad as first feared, and that the daring revamps at both EF Education First-Drapac (etc) and Bora-Hansgrohe aren't as sartorial swag as initially expected (don't even get us started on those ridiculous pink POC mushroom helmets).

For all its multiple shortcomings, the Tour Down Under creates a buzz around this wholly pleasant corner of South Australia, with both riders and journalists rating it as one of the friendliest events of the season. And while we all want to see as much action as possible, the TDU is never going to be as much as a compelling race as it is a competitive training ride.

So, raise a glass of the amber nectar, wrap your laughing gear 'round that shrimp from the barbie, and enjoy the family-oriented, PR-friendly, vanilla season curtain-raiser – unless, of course, you're watching from the Northern Hemisphere, in which case there really is no need to set your alarm for 4am; simply watch the highlights package the morning after.

The Bore Down Under may not be the most riveting exhibition of cycling, but as an annual event which does exactly what it says on the tin, it's here to stay. She'll be apples. Now 20 years old, the next 20 will fly by. And by then, someone different may even be winning on Willunga Hill.

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