The 2012 UCI WorldTour kicks off on Tuesday with the 14th edition of the Tour Down Under, boasting a strong line-up as the professional peloton seeks to shake off the winter rust and prepare for a long season ahead.
What kind of race is it?
Traditionally the Tour Down Under has been a sprinter-friendly race, primarily comprising flat stages with some relatively benign climbs. With little opportunity for the all-rounders to gain time on the hillier stages, the availability of time bonuses generally favours sprinters for overall victory, with the roll call of previous winners featuring identifiable sprint names such as Andre Greipel, Stuart O’Grady and Allan Davis.
The most recent winners of the race are:
2007: Martin Elmiger (AG2R Prevoyance)
2008: Andre Greipel (High Road)
2009: Allan Davis (Quick Step)
2010: Andre Greipel (HTC-Columbia)
2011: Cameron Meyer (Garmin-Cervelo)
Greipel (now with Lotto-Belisol) and O’Grady (GreenEDGE) are the only two-time winners of the race. Both will be present this year.
What happened last year?
The pre-race buzz focussed primarily on the retiring Lance Armstrong and the first confrontation between Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel since the latter’s move away from HTC-Highroad. However, although each of the first three stages finished in sprints, neither Cavendish nor Greipel claimed victory. Instead Cav’s HTC teammate Matt Goss took stage one, Sky’s Ben Swift was first in stage two and Rabobank’s Michael Matthews won stage three.
However, it was stage four which shaped the final general classification. Garmin-Cervelo’s Cameron Meyer won from a successful breakaway, establishing a decisive ten-second cushion. His main challenger Goss could only finish third on the following day’s one hilly stage of the race, with the climb of Old Willunga Hill before the finish denting his hopes. And in a tense criterium sprint finish on the final stage, Swift took his second win allowing Meyer to pip Goss for overall victory by two seconds.
1. Cameron Meyer (Garmin-Cervelo) 17:54:27
2. Matthew Goss (HTC-Highroad) +0:02
3. Ben Swift (Sky) +0:08
4. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) +0:09
5. Laurens ten Dam (Rabobank) +0:10
You can find stage-by-stage summaries of last year’s race on my other blog, The Armchair Sports Fan, here.
This year’s race
Although most of the stages look likely to end in bunch sprints, some minor tweaks to this year’s six-day parcours have tipped the balance back in favour of all-rounders. The two days most likely to shake up the order are stages two and five.
The second stage from Lobethal to Stirling is not overly taxing but is undulating throughout, which could enable a determined breakaway to escape. The final 8km features two kick-ups which might embolden a punchy all-rounder.
While the penultimate stage is a familiar one from McLaren Vale to Old Willunga Hill, taking in the eponymous final climb twice, it has been made significantly more challenging by moving the finish line to the hill summit, rather than the bottom of the descent. Pure sprinters will not win this stage. Indeed they are likely to be distanced by a considerable margin on the final ascent as the inevitable attacks begin.
For more details on the profiles of the climbs of the Tour Down Under (and indeed other major races), including 3D video walk-throughs, I would highly recommend a visit to Cycling the Alps’ website. It’s the next best thing to actually being there.
Who to watch
Although the big guns as far as the GC contenders for the Giro, Tour and Vuelta are concerned will not be at the Tour Down Under, there will be no shortage of top talent present. Cameron Meyer, now with GreenEDGE, will return to defend his title. However, he will not be considered one of the big favourites for the overall.
My top four to watch for the general classification is a pair of hard-man sprinters who can hang in there on the climbs and two Spanish all-rounders with considerable pedigree. Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen can both sprint and climb, and won two stages at last year’s Tour de France. 2011 runner-up Matt Goss is a good enough climber to minimise his losses on the climbs, in the hope of recovering any deficit with sprint bonuses. Rabobank’s Luis Leon Sanchez was the 2005 champion Down Under and is a four-time stage winner at the Tour. And, most intriguingly, 2009 Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) returns from a doping ban with something to prove, with a history of winning on punchy climbs such as Willunga Hill. My money’s on him to win.
As for the sprints, the race will see one of the strongest sprint fields outside of the Grand Tours, including Greipel, Matt Goss (GreenEDGE), Oscar Freire (Katusha) and a trio of top Italian fast men in Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD), Daniele Bennati (RadioShack-Nissan) and Alessandro Ballan (BMC).
If you’re angling for a long shot, look to one of a number of classics or breakaway specialists to try to get away on the rolling second stage. Possible chancers here include Paris-Tours winner Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM).
Finally, within the all-Australian GreenEDGE squad, look out for veterans Robbie McEwen (39) and Stuart O’Grady (38). It is probably asking too much for either of them to win a stage, but expect them to push hard to deliver one last hurrah. McEwen has stated he will retire in mid-season. O’Grady may not be far behind him, and as a local Adelaide boy he will want to put on a show (as he did last year, with a brave but futile attack on the final stage).
And if none of those grab you, how about following the fortunes of Vacansoleil’s Wouter Mol? Australian fans traditionally champion one lesser-known rider during the race, and the Dutch fourth-year pro (whose career highlight was an overall win at the 2010 Tour of Qatar) is this year’s pick.
Finally, here at VeloVoices we asked our Twitter followers to nominate random numbers which mean we will be following bib number 181: UniSA’s Steele Von Hoff. Look out for updates from us on his progress as the race progresses.
Of course, given the early stage of the season, the form book counts for little. Some riders will arrive in relatively poor shape as they look to peak for later in the season, while other lesser or younger pros will be closer to their maximum as they seek to impress. All this makes the Tour Down Under one of the least predictable stage races of the year, and therefore potentially one of the most exciting. The eventual margin of victory is unlikely to be more than a handful of seconds.
January 17th: Stage 1 – Prospect to Clare, 149km
January 18th: Stage 2 – Lobethal to Stirling, 148km
January 19th: Stage 3 – Unley to Victor Harbor, 134.5km
January 20th: Stage 4 – Norwood to Tanunda, 130km
January 21st: Stage 5 – McLaren Vale to Old Willunga Hill, 151.5km
January 22nd: Stage 6 – Adelaide City Council Circuit, 90km
The Tour Down Under starts on Tuesday 17th January and ends on Sunday 22rd. Daily highlights will be shown in the UK by Sky Sports at various times during the day, with live coverage of stages five and six.