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Tour Down Under: Five riders who can beat the Aussies

Andrew Hood breaks down the field and takes a look at who can derail the Australians at the annual WorldTour debut.

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — It’s no surprise that in nearly two decades of the Santos Tour Down Under, Australian riders dominate the palmares.

In 18 editions, Aussies have finished on top 11 times. Just as the Italians ramp up for the Giro d’Italia or the Americans for the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour Down Under since its inception in 1999 has developed into the race all top Australians want to win. That makes sense, because the Tour Down Under is their Tour de France. The race is held in the peak of the Aussie summer, just days after the national road and time trial championships, and has rightly delivered its own special sense of prestige among national riders.

A glance down the results sheet sees the nation’s best riders on the winner’s list, from Stuart O’Grady and Michael Rogers in its earliest years to Rohan Dennis and four-time winner Simon Gerrans of late. Since the race started to include harder climbs over the past five editions, only Tom-Jelte Slagter (now on Cannondale – Drapac) in 2013 has been able to stop the Australians.

For the race’s 19th edition, Aussies are once again leading the GC favorites list, with Richie Porte and Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing), Gerrans (Orica – Scott), Nathan Haas (Dimension Data), Jay McCarthy (Bora – Hansgrohe) and Cameron Meyer (UniSA – Australia) among the home-road favorites in the six-day WorldTour opener.

After finishing second the past two years in a row, Porte looks to be the man to beat. But rather looking over his shoulder to a compatriot, it could well be an international rider looking to elbow his way to the highest step of the winner’s podium when the race ends January 22.

Here are the five international riders who can topple the local favorites next week:

Esteban Chaves (Orica – Scott)

TDU best: Debut
Perhaps the most dangerous rider to Australia’s grip on the GC is Esteban Chaves, who will start as co-leader with Gerrans. The Tour Down Under has grown into a duel between Orica and BMC over the past few years, and the explosive Colombian gives Orica an extra card to play. Gerrans has won three out of the past five editions, but the team will likely back whoever comes out on top following the Paracomb climb in stage 2. That climb and the two passages up Old Willunga Hill in stage 6 are ideal for Chaves’ explosive style. Hot off a breakout 2016 season, with podiums in the Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a España, and the Giro di Lombardia, Chaves could well leave the Aussies in his rearview mirror. And that would be just fine for Orica – Scott.

Sergio Henao (Sky)

TDU best: Third last year in debut
Another explosive Colombian who could derail the Aussies is Sergio Henao. The Tour Down Under often comes down to a chess match over time bonuses, but Henao on a good day has the explosiveness to open up a gap and make those bonuses ineffectual. Like Porte, Henao hasn’t raced since his heartbreak crash at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics last summer, so it’s hard to say if he will roll into Australia guns-a-blazin’ or not. If he does, this year’s TDU podium could have a heavy Spanish accent.

Robert Gesink (LottoNL – Jumbo)

TDU best: Sixth in 2014
The skinny Dutch climber usually likes longer, steadier climbs, so he might not have enough pavement in the Adelaide Hills to do the damage he’d like to try to win. Following a healthy finish to his 2016 campaign, including his first career grand tour stage win at the Vuelta a España, Gesink can still surprise if the favorites are caught napping. Gesink can strike early, demonstrated by his victory at the 2011 Tour of Oman, and will want to keep the momentum of last year roaring into 2017. He’s a longer shot for the win, but among the pure climbers, Gesink is the most dangerous next week.

Michael Woods (Cannondale – Drapac)

TDU best: Fifth last year in debut
Another rider with the right profile for the Adelaide Hills, the explosive Canadian should go even better than in his impressive WorldTour debut last year in which he finished fifth in Australia. His team once again will be backing the former runner, who will be keen to prove his showing last year was no fluke. The franchise won the race in 2011 with Meyer, and counts former winner Slagter as a co-captain. Woods will aim to win a stage and climb onto the podium. The short, punchy climbs are ideal for his explosive style, and a more confident and experienced Woods should not be underestimated.

Ruben Fernández (Movistar)

TDU best: Fifth in 2015
Spain’s Movistar franchise is hoping this is the year Fernández steps up for a breakout season. The former winner of the Tour de l’Avenir, Fernández does well in the summer heat of Australia, riding to fifth in his TDU debut in 2015 and sixth last season. A strong showing Down Under is important for Movistar in its season-long quest for WorldTour points, so expect to see Fernández on sharp form.