21/01 - Stage 1 - Nuriootpa to Angaston - 135 km.
After the sprint 'prologue’ in People’s Choice Classic , it's now time for the real Tour Down Under to start. Andre Greipel won the opening stage last year but with a climb close to the line and a slightly uphill finish, it won't be easy for the strong German to repeat that performance. Menglers Hill (see detailed profile of the climb by holding the mouse over it on the stage profile) comes with only 15 km to go and its 2.5 km of an average gradient of nearly 7 % could make a huge impact on the race if the GC riders decide to make it interesting. Tour Down Under will most likely come down to a matter of bonus seconds and by getting rid of the sprinters, fast riders like Simon Gerrans will have a good chance of getting an early advantage.
However, it won't be easy to drop the sprinters despite the steep gradients towards the top of Menglers Hill. There is a false plateau of 3 km before the fast descent begins and the GC riders really have to go all out if they want to fight for the stage win. With 2.4 km to go, the riders turn right in a 90° turn. From here it's slightly downhill again which will make for a very fast run-in. With 1.5 km to go, the road starts to kick up. The gradients aren’t tough but it’s enough to favor fast riders like Simon Gerrans over the other GC contenders.
GreenEdge is the team to beat
I would imagine a break to get away early on the stage. Drapac and UniSA will be eager to show their colors and get up front and if GreenEdge is smart, they will put a rider in the break as well. Everybody will be looking to GreenEdge for controlling the stage but if the Australian team can get a rider like in-form Luke Durbridge up front, they can sit back and wait for the final. If GreenEdge doesn't managed to put a rider in the break, the whole peloton will expect them to start the chase. They have the number 1 favorite for the overall victory and riders like Simon Gerrans, Daryl Impey, Matt Goss and Michael Matthews all have what it takes to win a stage like this one. It could easily turn out that GreenEdge’s biggest problem will be deciding whom to pull for in the final. If the sprinters can't keep up, Gerrans will be the man to bank on and with Impey to do the leadout, the Australian champion will be very tough to beat. Just ask Peter Sagan.
Naturally, the other teams know it will be hard to beat GreenEdge today and hopefully we will get to see fireworks on Menglers Hill. Riders like Francesco Gavazzi, Anthony Roux and Fabio Felline won't be able to beat the top sprinters in a typical bunch sprint but they are all fast enough to win without the company of Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel. The same goes for Diego Ulissi who might also have a crack at the overall classification if he bags a stage win early in the race and gets the bonus seconds.
In case of a bunch sprint
Last year, Elia Viviani won a somehow similar stage in Dauphiné. He managed to stick to the front over the final climb and he may have what it takes to do it again. Viviani wants to start out this season in style and he’s already in very good shape. Of course, Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel will do whatever they can to regroup after the climb and if the riders up front can't work together, we may end up getting a bunch sprint after all. Right now, Kittel is the best sprinter in the world but it’s still very early in the season and the final climb could even out things between him and Greipel. Last year, Lotto-Belisol went to Australia early in order to get used to climate and work on their leadout train. It paid off. Greipel won all three sprint stages and not surprisingly, the team decided to repeat last year's winning tactic. However, in People’s Choice Classic, Kittel showed he doesn’t necessarily need a leadout train. He has an impressive kick for big rider like him and in the unlikely event of both Kittel and Greipel fighting for the stage win, it will be very difficult to pick a winner.
Two young outsiders
My personal outsider for the stage win is Caleb Ewan. He’s in great shape right now and he doesn’t seem impressed by the company of stars like Greipel and Kittel. He finished third in People’s Choice Classic after the two Germans and he even said it was ‘a bit disappointing not to take the win’. That’s a man on mission! Ewan is only 19 years old and he shouldn’t have problems staying in the front peloton over the top of Menglers Hill. He doesn’t have a strong team like GreenEdge to position him in the final and his lack of experience may be against him. However, if Ewan is up there fighting for win in Angaston, he won’t be easy to beat.
Also, look out for another youngster; Julian Alaphilippe. He was right up in the mix in People’s Choice Classic when he tried to set up Mark Renshaw. Unfortunately for OPQS, Renshaw lost the wheel of Alaphilippe. However, the young Frenchman showed he’s in good shape already and the final climb is only in his favor. He might even fancy an attack if he sees an opportunity like he did in Florence at the U23 World Championship last year. Hopefully for Alaphilippe, with a better outcome.
For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv