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Preview: Gerrans aims to become first three-time Tour Down Under winner

This week’s Santos Tour Down Under, January 20-27, is the first of 29 races in the UCI WorldTour, and with a harder course than in years past, it should pit sprinters such as André Greipel of Lotto-Belisol against puncheurs like defending champion Simon Gerrans of Orica-GreenEdge as they compete for the leader’s ocher jersey.

“It’s not a sprinters’ race anymore,” race director Mike Turtur told Fox Sports in Australia. “We’ve got three days for all-rounders and three days where the sprinters should figure.

“The significant change is obviously Corkscrew on stage two, which is going to be really important… the extra laps around Stirling, which make a tougher day, and of course the hilltop finish again at Willunga.”

Among several big names showing up fresh from the offseason, including world road champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) and Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard), Gerrans returns to defend his title in his home tour. If he succeeds, he’ll become the race’s first three-time winner.

With an opening criterium and six stages of WorldTour racing, the Tour Down Under is billed as the largest bicycle race in the southern hemisphere, and it’s certainly the biggest sporting event in South Australia. For 2013, organizers have added a new stage route, starting in the city of Mount Barker, that takes riders up the steep Corkscrew Hill. They have kept the uphill finish on Willunga Hill for the penultimate stage, which should decide the general classification.

Almost every day of racing features challenging rolling courses that should encourage breakaways and put the sprinters’ teams under pressure — especially if it’s very hot and there are crosswinds, which are common during the summer in Australia. Each team will be vying for an important early-season stage victory and valuable UCI points.

If winning in January is any indication of how riders might perform in the spring races back in Europe, Gerrans stands as one example. After taking the Down Under title last year, the Orica puncheur took his first major classic, Milan–San Remo, six weeks later. Gerrans’ compatriot and teammate Matthew Goss became the first Australian to win Milan–San Remo after finishing second in the Tour Down Under in 2011.

Brief history

Since it began in 1999, the Tour Down Under has risen in size and stature. Once a stage race dominated by sprinters, organizers have worked in recent years to vary the course routes and terrain to attract better quality fields and marquee riders. That is clearly reflected in the 2013 edition with half the stages offering non-sprinters an opportunity to shine.

Two highly publicized participations by Lance Armstrong, in 2010 and 2011, helped bring worldwide attention to the race. After Armstrong admitted doping in a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey last week, there have been reports in the Australian press that some Tour Down Under sponsors and contributors are considering suing the disgraced cyclist for reparations.

Australians have won seven of 14 editions of their home tour, and there have been three two-time winners: Stuart O’Grady (Orica) in 1999 and 2001, Greipel in 2008 and 2010, and Gerrans in 2006 and 2012.

Noteworthy in Tour Down Under history is the 2006 edition, which saw four consecutive days of racing with temperatures over 107 degrees Fahrenheit (42 Celsius) that melted the roads. In 2000, the tour featured a 180km stage, the longest to date. And in 2012, Orica (then-GreenEdge), Australia’s first top-tier professional cycling team, debuted at the Tour Down Under and won the overall title with Gerrans in the leader’s ocher jersey.

The 2011 edition saw the race’s largest crowd attendance with more than 780,000 people watching the race in person, but even last year’s race saw numbers close to that.

Previous winners

1999 Stuart O’Grady (AUS)
2000 Gilles Maignan (FRA)
2001 Stuart O’Grady (AUS)
2002 Michael Rogers (AUS)
2003 Mikel Astarloza (ESP)
2004 Patrick Jonker (AUS)
2005 Luis León Sánchez (ESP)
2006 Simon Gerrans (AUS)
2007 Martin Elmiger (SUI)
2008 André Greipel (GER)
2009 Allan Davis (AUS)
2010 André Greipel (GER)
2011 Cameron Meyer (AUS)
2012 Simon Gerrans (AUS)

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