Blanco – the team formerly known as Rabobank – entered 2013 under a cloud of uncertainty, but started the season in the best possible fashion as Tom-Jelte Slagter won a stage and claimed overall victory at the Tour Down Under. The 23-year old, in his third season with the team, had never previously won as a pro.
As is traditional, the race started with a gentle flat stage. Predictably, the Australian UniSA development squad featured prominently, as Jordan Kerby launched a solo break. Equally predictably, the first rider to bridge across from the peloton was RadioShack’s Jens Voigt – at 41, more than twice Kerby’s age. But most predictable of all, Lotto Belisol bossed the finish. Andre Greipel didn’t even need Greg Henderson‘s final lead-out, freewheeling home nearly three lengths ahead of Arnaud Demare (FDJ) and Mark Renshaw (Blanco). It was the fourth time Greipel has won the opening stage here.
There was no sprint the following day, thanks to the 2.4km, 9.4% Corkscrew Road hill 7km out. UniSA’s daily escapee, Calvin Watson, was one of a four-man break which lasted until shortly before the climb. A succession of attacks including one by Kitty-fave Andrey Amador (Movistar) provided the launch-pad for Sky’s Geraint Thomas to attack solo over the summit. The Welshman was caught on the descent by Javier Moreno (Movistar) and RadioShack’s George Bennett and Ben Hermans, but jumped from the back of the group 400 metres out to propel himself to victory and into the leader’s ochre jersey.
Thomas had no problem defending his lead on the uphill finish of a rolling third stage, finishing fourth as Blanco’s Tom-Jelte Slagter held off Matt Goss (Orica GreenEDGE) and world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC). The Dutchman kicked with 350 metres to go to register his first pro win. Earlier, reigning Vuelta king of the mountains Simon Clarke (GreenEDGE) and the unrelated William Clarke (Argos-Shimano) had led the majority of the stage.
Friday’s stage saw Greipel claim a record 13th TDU stage with a sprint as dominant as his previous one. The early going was notable for the unusual sight of the rainbow jersey initiating the day’s break, with Gilbert and UniSA’s Damien Howson surviving until the final 8km. The finish was marred by two crashes in the last 2km – predictably, the first one took down a couple of riders from the ever crash-prone Euskaltel Euskadi.
The queen stage on Australia Day was fittingly won by Aussie Simon Gerrans (Orica GreenEDGE). Last year’s overall winner had been gapped on stage two to spoil his GC chances, but a victory on his national day helped soften the blow. Prominent in the day’s two key breaks were Giro podium finisher Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil) and Lotto’s Jurgen Roelandts, who fractured a vertebra in a crash on stage one last year.
However, the real racing did not commence until 3km from the summit finish on the second ascent of Old Willunga Hill. A three-man attack including the dangerous Tiago Machado (RadioShack) was never allowed more than a few seconds’ leeway until third-placed Javier Moreno leapt out and went over the top of them, only to be passed in turn by Gerrans inside the final kilometre. Despite a late attack by Slagter, the Aussie kept cool and accelerated out of his slipstream with 150 metres remaining to take the win. With the main pack, including Geraint Thomas, some way back, Slagter moved into the ochre jersey with an all-but-insurmountable 13-second advantage.
Slagter avoided incident on the closing 90km city circuit stage to rubber-stamp overall victory. The early laps were animated by the usual breakaway (which included Old Man Jensie) and an all-out effort from Sky to get Thomas the four bonus seconds he needed to jump from fifth to third overall. He was duly first and third – mission accomplished. Oh, and Greipel won the sprint – his third of the race, 14th Down Under and the 100th in his career – but that’s hardly news, is it?
Analysis & opinion
Well, that was a tasty little aperitif of a race. It had a bit of everything: Jens Voigt attacking, Andre Greipel flying, Euskaltel Carrots picking themselves off the ground. Some things never change.
The race parcours has become progressively harder in recent editions, and this year was no exception. Once a sprinters’ race, it’s now more like a six-day Milan-San Remo. Two-time champion Greipel will always win stages but he’ll never bag the overall again.
Speaking of Greipel, Lotto Belisol look to have improved an already excellent sprint train over the winter. They made a big statement by physically dominating the opening and closing stages, but I was most impressed with their adaptability on stage four. Into a headwind, Sky and FDJ duked it out under the flamme rouge but both burned out and Lotto waited until 500 metres to assert themselves. When Greipel and a Cavendish-led OPQS finally meet, it’s going to be titanic.
Former fellow-HTCer Mark Renshaw is one of the riders I’m watching this season. After a miserable 2012 he’s desperate to establish himself as a front-line sprinter. All his hard work over the off-season produced a third (stage one) and a second (stage six). Not bad, by any means. He will take encouragement from that, but he really needs a win for his own confidence sooner rather than later.
Race winner Tom-Jelte Slagter announced himself as a rider to watch. The 23-year old will be familiar to fans of the Giro, where last year he pushed Joaquim Rodriguez all the way on the climb to Assisi. The Dutchman certainly thrives on medium climbs such as Willunga Hill: he was sixth on Green Mountain at the Tour of Oman and again at the Great Wall in the Tour of Beijing. He could be a dark horse in the Ardennes in the spring.
Despite running out of gas on Willunga Hill, Geraint Thomas showed enough to suggest he may one day follow in Wiggo’s footsteps and become a GC contender. Like Sir Bradley – that still sounds odd, doesn’t it? – his track background is in time trials and team pursuits. Indeed the two were teammates in Britain’s gold medal-winning team pursuit squad at the Beijing Olympics. With his full focus now on the road, let’s see how he goes. A top 20 placing at a Grand Tour is a reasonable first objective but he won’t be given that latitude at Sky this year. Maybe he’ll get a crack at a lesser race like the Algarve. Give him a year or two to learn his road-craft and then we’ll see.
Finally, a nod to Robbie McEwen‘s guest stint as a race co-commentator. I thought he was terrific: articulate, insightful, straight to the point and refreshingly cliché-free. He’s now working as a technical advisor for Orica GreenEDGE, but if he ever decides to pursue a full-time commentary career he will be just as entertaining behind a mike as he was on the bike.
1. Tom-Jelte Slagter (Blanco) 18:28:32
2. Javier Moreno (Movistar) +0:17
3. Geraint Thomas (Sky) +0:25
4. Ion Izagirre (Euskaltel Euskadi) +0:32
5. Ben Hermans (RadioShack Leopard) +0:34
6. Wilco Kelderman (Blanco) same time
7. Gorka Izagirre (Euskaltel Euskadi) +0:36
8. Daniele Pietropolli (Lampre-Merida) s/t
9. Tiago Machado (RadioShack Leopard) +0:38
10. Jussi Veikkanen (FDJ) +0:41