The 2015 season is finally about to start. Tour Down Under is the first World Tour race of the year and, as always, we can expect six days of great and intense racing in Australia.
The Tour Down Under course has changed a lot since its beginning when it was a race made for the sprinters. However, the fast riders still have a lot of opportunities to make their mark on the race. The opening stage is expected to end in a bunch sprint and so is stage 2 on the classic uphill finish in Stirling even though this most likely will be a sprint within a reduced peloton.
A new addition to the race this year is the steep finish in Paracombe on stage 3. About 1.2 km with an average gradient of nearly 10 % await the riders with the finishing line just 300 meters after the top. This will be the first big fight between the top contenders for the general classification. Tour Down Under usually comes down to bonus seconds. Each day there are 10, 6 and 4 seconds to the first three riders on the stage. Therefore, grabbing a stage win is of huge important if you want to win the race overall.
Stage 4 should end in a bunch sprint but due to an undulating profile, we might see a breakaway make it all the way in Mount Barker. The GC riders will most likely try to save their legs for the uphill finish on Willunga Hill the next day. This is where the race finds its winner. The well-known climb is 3 km long and has an average gradient of around 7 %. Willunga Hill never fails to produce excitement until the very end.
The final day of the race is a criterium stage in Adelaide. 20 laps of 4.5 km will make for a fierce fight between the top sprinters. There are two intermediate sprints on the way, each offering 3, 2 and 1 seconds to the first three riders. We might see the overall contenders fight for every second in order to move up in the GC.
Last year’s winner, Simon Gerrans, broke his collarbone in December and won’t be able to repeat his impressive performance from 2014. Instead, Cadel Evans (second overall last year) will be aiming to win his first overall title in Tour Down Under in his last attempt. Starting with number 1 on his back, Evans will be able to count on great support from his BMC team. Especially with the likes of his fellow countrymen Rohan Dennis, who might be a contender himself if something happens to Evans, and the U23 time trial world champion Campbell Flakemore who finished 4th in the Australian road championships earlier this month. Not to forget the strong American, Peter Stetina. Evans has always packed a solid sprint within a reduced group. If he can manage to get in the contention on stage 2 in Stirling, where he has made top3 before, he will be off to a very good start due to the time bonuses. However, it won’t be easy for the Australian veteran to win this year’s Tour Down Under.
To me, the number one favorite is Richie Porte. Last year, he missed out on the first stages, losing too many seconds to take back despite a brilliant performance on Willunga Hill when he soloed away from everybody else. This year, Porte looks much stronger. Recently engaged, Porte started out his season in style when he won the Australian time trial championships. After a poor 2014 season, Porte is eager to prove himself this year. If he avoids any incidents, I doubt anybody will be able to follow him on the climbs. Team Sky sends a very strong team to support the Tasmanian with Pete Kennaugh and Geraint Thomas. Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if Geraint Thomas managed to make Top5 overall as well.
On the level just below Cadel Evans and Richie Porte, we’ll find riders like Tom Dumoulin, Nathan Haas, Tiago Machado and Michael Rogers.
Tom Dumoulin had an outstanding season last year and he’s just getting started. The young Dutchman is Giant-Alpecine’s designated rider for the general classification and due to his fast finish, he might be able to score some bonus seconds along the way, which will increase his chances of making it to the overall podium significantly. Even though he’s not a climber, Dumoulin has proven capable of coping with the kinds of climbs we’ll see in Tour Down Under. Finishing 5th in Tour de Suisse and 3rd in Eneco Tour last year shows this with all clarity.
Cannondale-Garmin’s Nathan Haas is another very serious contender for the GC. Last year Haas finished 5th overall. This time, he aims to make one better. “I have unfinished business with that podium”, is how Haas explained his ambition for the race. The course suits the 25 years old very well and he can count on strong support from teammate and former Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal, who could also be a dangerous rider for the general classification.
Usually, Orica-GreenEdge sends a strong contender to their home race. However, without Simon Gerrans, I doubt they will be able to make a top overall result this time. Daryl Impey is their best card to play but I can’t see the South African following the very best riders on Willunga Hill.
For more Top10 candidates look to Luis León Sanchez, George Bennett, Gorka Izagirre, Jarlinson Pantano Adam Hansen and Kristijan Durasek. The last two years I’ve picked Tom-Jelte Slagter and Diego Ulissi as my jokers for the overall classification. The combination of being strong on the climb and very fast on the line is essential to do well in Tour Down Under. This year though, I don’t see a strong outsider fitting this description.
Instead, my two best jokers are the Italians Giampaolo Caruso and Domenico Pozzovivo. Caruso had a very good season last year, being inches away from winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège, finishing 15th overall in Vuelta a España and winning Milano-Torino. Statistically, Caruso doesn’t do too well this early in the season but he’s very motivated to start out in a good way this time. If the Sicilian is up for it, he could turn out to be the big surprise this year.
It may not be fair to categorize Domenico Pozzovivo as a joker. Usually, he should be up there with the top favorites in a short stage race with two uphill finishes. Unfortunately, Pozzovivo broke his leg in August last year. He made a heroic comeback in the last Italian one day races of the season, but afterwards he admitted it might have been too early to get back on the bike. It’s uncertain how well Pozzovivo has been able to train during winter and, for him, there is no need to dig too deep if he’s not ready yet. The pint-sized Italian has his eyes fixed on other races in the first part of the season. Still, if Pozzovivo feels good, clearly he will try something on the uphill parts.
Despite being the most winning rider in the history of Tour Down Under, we won’t get to see Andre Greipel on the start line this year. Instead, another German will be take the headlines. Marcel Kittel is arguably the best sprinter in the world. However, after taking part in the race the last two years, Kittel is still without a win. He won People’s Choice Classic last year but he was never even close to winning a stage in the Tour Down Under. His best result so far is 6th place on stage 4 in 2013 (won by Andre Greipel). This lack of results may also be why Giant-Alpecine has decided not to focus 100 % on the sprints this year. As already mentioned, in Tom Dumoulin, they have a very strong contender for the GC. Still, with Albert Timmer and Koen De Kort to lead him out, Marcel Kittel will definitely be the top favorite for bunch sprints.
On paper, the biggest threats to Kittel should be Giacomo Nizzolo, Barry Markus, Mark Renshaw and the fast Lampre-Merida trio Davide Cimolai, Niccolo Bonifazio and Roberto Ferrari. Personally though, I have high hopes for Steele Von Hoff, riding with local UniSA-Australia team in the race. Von Hoff recently won the Australian criterium championship. His motivation is sky high and especially stage 1 and 6 suits him very well.
Movistar always do well in this race. They may not have a top contender for the GC but in Juanjo Lobato they have a very strong candidate for the sprints. I have already mentioned Mark Renshaw but Etixx-Quickstep have Gianni Meersman too for the fast finishes. I also have to mention Heinrich Haussler. The German-Australian feels stronger than ever, which he proved earlier this month by outsprinting Caleb Ewan to win the Australian road race. Wearing the Aussie champion jersey, I’m sure we will get to see Haussler near the very front on stage 1, 2, 4 and 6. He also has a strong team to support him.
For other fast riders look to Chris Sutton, Greg Henderson, Rudiger Selin, Samuel Dumoulin and Drapac’s duo of young Wouter Wippert and Australian veteran Graeme Brown.
As it’s now custom for the World Tour stage races, there will be daily stage previews of all the Tour Down Under stages again this year. Each preview will be online in the evening (CET) prior to the stage. The preview of stage 1, however, will already be online on Monday morning.