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WorldTour kicks off this week with Santos Tour Down Under

The 2015 UCI WorldTour kicks off this week in Australia with the 17th edition of the Santos Tour Down Under.

A six-day stage race in and around Adelaide, the TDU has grown in the past few years, and the parcours has developed along with it. Heavyweight sprinters have won the overall, but these days, a hillier route favors the more capable climbers in the peloton.

Simon Gerrans won the 2014 edition, but his absence due to a broken collarbone will make what is already a very open race even more unpredictable.

The route

After a one-day prelude event, Sunday’s People’s Choice Classic in Adelaide, the first WorldTour race of the year begins in earnest on Tuesday with a mostly flat 132.6km stage from Tanunda to Campbelltown that should highlight the sprinters.

The 150.5km second stage starts in Unley and concludes with an uphill finish in Stirling, probably not steep enough for any serious separation, but perhaps a place for the punchier GC contenders to bid for bonus seconds at the line.

Stage 3, a 143.2km leg from Norwood to Paracombe, finishes with a short but steep climb that is new to the TDU. It will almost certainly see gaps appear in the bunch as the climbing specialists try to take advantage of one of their few opportunities to get clear of the pack.

Stage 4, which covers 144.5km from Glenelg to Mt. Barker, ends with a flat finish that will make a GC battle unlikely.

And then there’s Stage 5, the traditional queen stage of the Tour Down Under — the 151.5km leg from McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill, which will be scaled twice.

At 3km with an average grade exceeding 7 percent, Old Willunga will inevitably see a showdown among the top climbers, though it has often been the case that the stage winner does not get enough of a gap to overcome GC rivals whose victory bids are padded with time bonuses. It is important to finish well here, but consistent performance on the other five stages of the race is likewise crucial.

The sixth and final stage is a 90km circuit race in the heart of Adelaide that will favor the pure sprinters.

Regardless of the stage profiles, it is important to be near the front at every finish line in the Tour Down Under, as the dearth of long mountain climbs makes the battle for bonus seconds critical.

Riders to watch

Sifting through the startlist to pick out the major race favorites can be difficult because the position of the Tour Down Under on the cycling calendar makes form and motivation a major unknown for a number of those in attendance, especially for non-Australians who are not coming off of nationals week like the home riders are.

Still, plenty of big names, Australian and otherwise, stand out.

Having taken an impressive victory in the Australian ITT national championship, Sky’s Richie Porte has proven to be in blazing form this January. There is no time trial in the TDU, and Porte doesn’t have a great finishing kick to nab time bonuses, but given his ability to climb at an elite level that might not matter. He looks ready to put it on the line here and it will be hard for his rivals to keep him in check when the road goes up. The versatile Geraint Thomas makes for a great support rider or potential alternative.

Cadel Evans leads a strong BMC team. This will be Evans’s last WorldTour event before he retires in a few weeks, and he’s never won this race, so he should be motivated to go full gas (especially after missing out on the victory here last year by one second). Even at age 37, he’s still got a nice finishing kick to pick up the all-important bonus seconds, making him dangerous.

Orica-GreenEdge will take on its home race with several strong riders, with Daryl Impey looking like the best option. Impey is deadly in a reduced sprint, and if he can gain an early advantage of time bonuses, he might have what it takes to hold on over the harder climbs. Simon Clarke and past winner Cameron Meyer will be strong teammates.

Cannondale-Garmin is another team with options. Ryder Hesjedal and Alex Howes are well-rounded riders who could mix it up on a variety of stages, but Nathan Haas could be the best man on the squad for this race. He is another rider who will hope to win the bonus seconds game, and he showed his speed in last year’s race on his way to fifth overall.

Giant-Alpecin’s dual threat of Tom Dumoulin and Simon Geschke could get involved in the GC battle if both riders are in good enough form to mix it up. The same is true for Katusha’s Tiago Machado and Giampaolo Caruso. Tinkoff-Saxo’s Michael Rogers and Lotto-Soudal’s Adam Hansen will look to get clear of the peloton at any opportunity. AG2R’s Domenico Pozzovivo would prefer harder climbs, but he cannot be counted out. Astana’s Luis Leon Sanchez won here in 2005 and his variety of skills makes him an outside contender.

On the list of fast men likely to be gunning for stage wins, sprinting superstar Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin); talented Italians Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek Factory Racing) and Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida); and home riders Mark Renshaw (Etixx-Quick Step) and new Australian road race champ Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) stand out.

Podium predictions

It cannot be overstated how difficult it is to predict the outcome of this race given how little is known about the form of so many starters.

But Porte will enter the Tour Down Under as the favorite and it’s hard to overlook him as the most probable overall winner, given his recent display of fitness and his elite uphill talent.

Impey, always a danger in the hilly one-week events, and Evans, in his last WorldTour race, look well positioned to round out the GC podium.

Editor’s note: You can read an in-depth edition of this preview at Dane Cash’s VeloHuman website.