So with the women’s race now finished, it is time for the men to take centre stage over the coming week with the riders battling it out to take home Ochre. A race that has been dominated by the Australians in recent years, with the last 4 GC titles going to the home riders; expect to see some fast racing coupled with sweltering temperatures.
It might not have the best race route in the grand scheme of the cycling season but given its position as the season opener, I think most of us will take it!
After finally getting his hands on the GC win last year the King of Willunga (a.k.a Richie Porte) is back here to defend his crown along with a strong BMC team. In fact, the last 3 winners of the race are all riding for that outfit this year, which is very ominous for the rest of the field. However, they won’t have it all their own way and there are certainly some other riders out there who could challenge their dominance.
First, let’s have a quick look at what is in store for the riders over the six days of action.
I won’t bore you here though, as I’ll have plenty of time over the coming week to drain you with an in-depth route analysis of each stage. This will simply be more of an overview!
There are three stages that are most likely to have the biggest impact on GC, although that could change if the wind blows strongly on some of the more exposed days. We saw the women’s peloton battered by cross winds through the Barossa Valley.
Stage 2 is the first important day with the traditional finish in Stirling.
A rolling circuit that will see the peloton whittled down, some of the stronger sprinters will be happy to see that the organisers have reduced the number of laps that they will complete. Back in 2016 when Jay McCarthy won this stage, the riders had to contest with 6 laps, but this time it will just be 4. In theory, this should make it easier and see the stage switch from a puncheurs finish to more of a strong sprinters day. However, this of course all depends on how aggressively the teams race. If the fast men of the peloton are eliminated from the group then it is a great chance for the likes of Haas and McCarthy to pick up some valuable bonus seconds in their fight for GC.
Stage 4 will see the peloton tackle a new finish here at the Tour Down Under, featuring a climb that is well-known by the local Aussies.
Norton Summit is not a new climb for the Tour though, with it being used right at the start of Stage 4 in 2016. It took the riders roughly 11’30 to complete the climb that day but I imagine that time will be faster this year round given it’s position on the course. Once over the “summit” the riders will have 7.5km left but instead of a drop straight down, they’ll instead face a kilometre or so of false flat before an uncategorised ramp up Woods Hill Road. Could this be a launchpad for a late attack? With only 3.5km of shallow descending all the way to the line, it certainly could be.
Stage 5 will once again play host to the summit finish of Willunga Hill.
If the GC is still close at this stage, then it will all come down to the final ascent of Willunga. Porte has owned this climb for the past four years and he’ll hope to make it five in a row this time. Will it be enough for the overall title though? From a tactics point of view, it is much easier to ride a defensive race on Willunga than attacking one, as it is a difficult climb to make massive gains on. Although lil’ Richie might have something to say about that…
Given the recent form of the Australians at this race, they’ve won 6 out of the last 7 years, then it is really hard to back against them on their own turf.
Porte comes into the race as the bookmakers favourite and rightly so given his performances on Willunga the past few years. If everything is kept together on stages 2 & 4, with his opponents not gaining any bonus seconds, the race is his to lose. However, this is the least suited route to Porte for a while and I think he’ll desperately miss the Paracombe finish that we had last year. He might well win on Willunga again, but I don’t think it will be by as big a margin as he has done in previous years.
McCarthy will be waiting in the wings, hoping to capitalise on the new stage and sprint for some bonus seconds on days 2 and 4, feasibly giving himself a 20 second buffer going into Willunga. He’s a rider that I have grown fond over and one that I had backed when he took out the stage in Stirling in 2016. At the Aussie Nationals recently, he looked incredibly strong, sprinting away from the chase group in the closing few hundred metres. His trajectory in this race has been on the up as well, with a 4th in 2016 and a 3rd last year. Will he go one or two steps higher this time around?
Haas is a rider similar to McCarthy and he too will be looking to nab some bonus seconds on stages 2 & 4. With a winter move to Katusha, the former Dimension Data rider comes here in some good form with a 5th place finish in both the road race and time trial at the Aussie Champs. An attacking rider, he will no doubt give it a go on Stage 4 in an attempt to get clear. However, I sometimes think that he is too attacking; using up a lot of his resources before it is necessary. Will that be his downfall again?
Can a non-Aussie win?
Some might suggest Sagan has a chance, especially after his strong showing in today’s criterium. However, he will be here for training more than anything, possibly getting involved in a few sprints but nothing more than that.
Ulissi is a very solid finisher and will no doubt again be in or around the top 5 but I can’t see him having enough form early in the year to take the win. Yet, he is the type of rider who could well prove me wrong! His team-mate Rui Costa might be another to watch, he was flying at the start of last year.
Bernal arrives here as Team Sky’s best chance on paper, the young rider is truly exceptional. His form will be unkown but as we’ve seen with Henao in the past, Colombians seem to go well here. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go with the best on Willunga, but his lack of a sprint might let him down for the overall.
I’ll go for none of the above to win though.
Instead, I’ll suggest that Rohan Dennis will take home another Tour Down Under title.
The current Aussie TT champion blitzed away his opposition recently, putting over a minute into a very lean Luke Durbridge and almost two minutes into team-mate Porte, regaining his title with ease. He DNF’d the road race, but I think he was using that race as training more than anything else.
Almost have way through his “4-year GC plan”, this should be the year where he takes another step forward in that quest. He certainly looks very fit going by some of the pictures I’ve seen floating around social media over the past week. There has also been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between himself and Porte as to who the leader of BMC will be for the week, both downplaying their own chances and talking up their team-mate. First race mind-games!
With the introduction of the interesting finish on stage 4 this year I think it is very beneficial for a team to have two possible winners in their squad and I’m sure BMC will use that to their advantage. Norton Summit looks ideal for the powerhouse and Dennis certainly has the TT engine to attack and hold a gap, especially with Porte and possibly Gerrans behind marking out any efforts to close him down.
Being in Ochre going into Willunga means BMC will be able to ride a defensive race, and who wouldn’t want the King of Willunga himself to act as a super-domsetique for you that day?! Porte should be able to keep things together and Dennis won’t lose enough time to be toppled, with Porte even nabbing the bonus seconds away from his competitors on the line.
First race of the season so it would be rude not to have a flutter on the GC market. I tweeted it out a few days ago but…
1pt EW Dennis @ 20/1 with Coral/Ladbrokes.
Thanks as always for reading and any feedback is greatly appreciated. I hope you enjoyed my first men’s preview of the season. I’ll be back with daily stage previews of the Tour Down Under starting from tomorrow. Anyway,
Those were My Two Spokes Worth.