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Battle in hills to spice up Tour Down Under

Two uphill finales could take the air out of the battle for time bonuses in the WorldTour opener

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — The Adelaide Hills aren’t the Alps or the Pyrénées, but they’ll be adding just enough spice to keep things interesting this week at the Santos Tour Down Under.

Time bonuses are often decisive in winning the WorldTour opener, but two hilltop finales might add just enough vertical heft to the six-day battle under the summer Australian sun to decide the winner.

Two stages should decide the race: the Paracomb summit in stage 3 and the Old Willunga Hill to end the race in stage 6. The addition of Paracomb means the importance of time bonuses might be muted, but riders will still be scrapping for every second in each stage. Sprinters will have their chances, in stages 1, 4 and 5. Stage 2 into Stirling is a heavier classics-style course with a grinding uphill finale.

The same familiar faces are back to fight for Australia’s top bragging rights. Since its inception in 2012, Mitchelton-Scott has won the race five out of the past eight editions. It returns with two-time defending champion Daryl Impey and 2018 Vuelta a España winner Simon Yates as co-leaders. As always, they’ll be lining up to win.

“I don’t feel the pressure to do the three-peat, of course it would be great to do it,” Impey said. “I will take it day by day. There are new riders and new ambitions, and teams have worked out different strategies. Paracomb changes things. I’m ready for it, and that’s what I hope I can do.”

The Tour Down Under typically comes down to a brawl between Mitchelton-Scott and whichever teams the other top Australian riders are on. So this year, Ineos and Trek-Segafredo, with Rohan Dennis and Richie Porte, respectively, are lining up ready to race.

Porte has won the emblematic Old Willunga Hill summit finale a record six times in a row. Yet during that run, he’s only managed to win the overall title once mainly due to time bonuses.

“I’d love to, it’s easier said than done,” said Porte, four times a GC runner-up. “I’ve trained well, and I have a super team as well. I’ve done everything I can to control where I am. There’s always a surprise packet in this race.”

The pressure is always on the Australians to perform on home roads. In the early days of the race, the local riders had an advantage because they were in the middle of their summer racing calendar and their fitness was naturally higher. As the race has gradually become harder and as the general level of the peloton continues to increase, the battle for the spoils is harder than it’s ever been.

Rohan Dennis, making his debut in his new Ineos colors, won in 2015 while racing with BMC. Ineos/Sky has never won the Tour Down Under, and brings a team ready to perform.

“I am fit this year, but not quite 2015 fitness,” Dennis said. “I want to get to know how the team works in a race situation, because I am new here, and every team is different. If I am not going well, maybe Pavel [Sivakov] or Dylan [Van Baarle] can go for it.”

Cooler temperatures and sporadic showers welcome the peloton, meaning that the race should not be facing any complications from bush fires that have ravaged other parts of Australia. In fact, officials said this week could see the coolest temperatures in race history, with none of the extreme heat that sometimes swamps the peloton expected during the week.