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

Simon Gerrans and Philippe Gilbert enter the WorldTour season opener as the top favorites for glory Down Under

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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)

The route

Given that the race comes at the beginning of a long season that runs from mid-January to late October — and given that most riders are just coming out of the offseason with little or no racing in their legs — this tour is designed to be challenging but not overly taxing.

Historically the course has been generally flat to rolling, but more recently organizers have attempted to mix it up with more undulating stages and strategically placed, short but steep climbs.

There are valuable time bonuses that in past editions have decided the race. Each stage winner is awarded a 10-second bonus, with second place getting six seconds and third place getting four. At intermediate sprints, the top three riders earn three seconds, two seconds, and one second, respectively.

Opening Criterium: January 20, Adelaide (51km)
The weeklong event kicked off with the People’s Choice Classic criterium Sunday evening. Riders’ results don’t count toward the general classification as the one-hour high-speed contest is meant to get the local crowds in Adelaide excited for six stages of WorldTour racing to follow— and to give the riders a chance to warm up the legs. Last year’s winner André Greipel repeated on Sunday after a long-shot attack by the veteran Jens Voigt (RadioShack) opened the racing.

Stage 1: January 22, Prospect — Lobethal (135km)
The first stage takes the peloton over a lumpy course profile, up the steep Checker Hill, and finally to the finish on a 10km circuit. While it may well end in a field sprint, the profile looks challenging enough that a group could get away, but don’t look for much of a GC shake-up. Last year’s winner: André Greipel

Stage 2: January 23, Mount Barker — Rostrevor (116.5km)
This new stage promises exciting racing as it’s another undulating route that serves up a bang in the last 7km with the climb of Corkscrew Road. At 2.4km long and with an average gradient of 9.4 percent, it’s a short but hard climb that’s perfect for an on-form Schleck or Gerrans — or the rainbow-striped Gilbert — to launch an attack. Things stay interesting on the tricky descent, down which a few escapees could eke out enough time to contest the finish among themselves in Rostrevor.

Stage 3: January 24, Unley — Stirling (139km)
The third stage puts riders into the red zone from the gun as they go straight up the long, steady climb of Mount Barker. After spending the next few hours racing over rolling hills, the day winds up with yet another tough circuit finish. The last few kilometers are mostly flat, however, so a field sprint is likely. Last year’s winner: André Greipel

Stage 4: January 25, Modbury — Tanunda (126.5km)
The fourth stage presents the riders with the tough Kersbrook climb in the first 30 kilometers of racing, but the rest of the profile doesn’t appear to be all that selective. Of course a breakaway could change that and force teams to chase; a very hot day could make it a difficult go as well. Look for a bunch kick in Tanunda. Last year’s winner: Oscar Freire (retired)

Stage 5: January 26, McLaren Vale — Old Willunga Hill (151.5 km)
With the hilltop finish on Old Willunga Hill, which riders will climb twice, the fifth stage should prove the most decisive for the overall contenders and will likely dictate the final general classification. Willunga is a 3km ascent with an average gradient of nearly eight percent, and crosswinds are often a factor. If it’s raced as hard as it was last year — when Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) edged Gerrans in a photo finish for the stage win — the fireworks should make for a last thrilling battle for the race lead. Watch for positioning at the head of the race at the base of Old Willunga on the final climb; if any of the favorites are boxed back in the bunch, it will be nearly impossible to make up for it on the explosive climb. Last year’s winner: Alejandro Valverde (not racing)

Stage 6: January 27, Adelaide (90km)
The short stage is flat and all but guaranteed to wind up with a field sprint. For the race leader this should be more of a victory lap, albeit a fast one, unless the general classification is still tight. In that case, time bonuses along the route could make this a true nail-biter down to the final sprint. Last year’s winner: André Greipel

As there is no time trial and most stages have traditionally ended with big groups or field sprints, the winner has often been the most consistent daily finisher who capitalizes on time bonuses at intermediate sprints and finishes. For the most part, the list of winners bears that out, but with the new course changes, this year’s edition could very well see a nontraditional winner — like Gerrans a year ago.

The favorites

Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) ★★★★★ A two-time winner in 2006 and 2012, the Australian puncheur is looking to become the first rider to defend his title in Tour Down Under history. He will be well supported by a strong team that includes two-time winner O’Grady, 2011 runner-up Goss, and the new Australian road and time trial champion Luke Durbridge. Unlike with most of the other riders toeing the start line, we know that Gerrans is on good form at the start of the season, as he recently finished top 10 in the Australian road championship and is targeting a run at the hilly spring classics.

Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team) ★★★★★ The new road race world champion is a former stage winner at the Tour Down Under, but hasn’t raced in Australia since 2008 when he won the King of Mountains classification. Quite a lot has changed since then, and today, at least when he has good form, Gilbert is one of the most feared riders in the peloton. His violent accelerations — like the one he used to win worlds in September on a Cauberg climb similar to Old Willunga Hill — often leave others gasping in his wake, and he has a knack for knowing exactly when to strike. This year’s edition of the Tour Down Under will give him some good opportunities to go for stage wins and time bonuses. Old Willunga is custom made for Gilbert, who is hoping to arrive to the spring classics in position to erase the bad memories of 2012.

Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) ★★★ The 25-year-old Norwegian has long been considered the most talented up-and-comer in professional cycling, and while he has scored a number of impressive victories — including Ghent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Britain, and stages in the Tour de France — he has yet to fully confirm that talent with a major stage-race or classics win. In last year’s Tour Down Under, he finished seventh overall and won the points competition, and as a pure all-rounder Boasson Hagen, who can sprint and climb, this race suits him perfectly. With Bernhard Eisel and a strong team supporting him, this could be Boasson Hagen’s best opportunity yet to win Down Under.

André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) ★ The big German sprinter has won the race twice (2008, 2010) and collected a staggering 11 stage victories along the way. Over the past few seasons he’s gotten faster, too, beating Mark Cavendish in Tour de France sprint finishes. The improved Lotto team has been built around Greipel to get the him to the line first, so it’s likely to be the dominant leadout train that other sprinters will have to deal with. But to win the ocher jersey the Gorilla needs to stay vigilant and rack up enough time bonuses each day to counter the losses he’s sure to suffer on climbs such as Old Willunga.

Others to watch

Thomas De Gendt, Vacansoleil-DCM ★★
Maxim Iglinsky, Astana ★★
Tiago Machado, RadioShack-Leopard ★
Geraint Thomas, Sky ★
Rohan Dennis, Garmin-Sharp ★
Chris Sørensen, Saxo-Tinkoff ★
Wilco Kelderman, Blanco ★
Andrey Kashechkin, Astana ★
Giovanni Visconti, Movistar ★

How to follow in North America’s European correspondent Andrew Hood and tech editor Caley Fretz are on the ground in Adelaide, along with photographer Graham Watson. Watch for daily coverage from the WorldTour opener, including daily race reports, tech galleries, and video highlights. For all things Tour Down Under, visit our race page. Follow Hood and Fretz on Twitter @eurohoody and @caleyfretz, and @VeloNews.

U.S./Canada TV listings:
NBC Sports Network’s on-air schedule for the 2013 Tour Down Under (all times ET, subject to change):
Stage 1: Tuesday, Jan. 22 3:30 p.m.
Stage 2: Wednesday, Jan. 23 3:30 p.m.
Stage 3: Thursday, Jan. 24 3:30 p.m.
Stage 4: Friday, Jan. 25 3:30 p.m.
Stage 5: Saturday, Jan. 26 1:30 p.m.
Stage 6: Sunday, Jan. 27 12:30 p.m.

Sportsnet and RDS will carry television coverage in Canada (check local listings).

Notable social media:
Twitter hashtag: #TdU
Race Twitter: @tourdownunder
Facebook: Tour Down Under
Instagram: @tourdownunder

Live web video links:

Race website:
Race ticker:

Preliminary start list

Orica-GreenEdge (AUS)
1. GERRANS Simon (AUS)
3. IMPEY Daryl (RSA)
4. GOSS Matthew (AUS)
5. CLARKE Simon (AUS)
6. MOURIS Jens (NED)
7. O’GRADY Stuart (AUS)
Team Manager: WILSON Matthew (AUS)

BMC Racing (USA)
11. GILBERT Philippe (BEL)
13. KOHLER Martin (SUI)
14. LODEWYCK Klaas (BEL)
15. MOINARD Amael (FRA)
16. MORABITO Steve (SUI)
17. WYSS Danilo (SUI)
Team Manager: BALDATO Fabio (ITA)

Lotto-Belisol (BEL)
21. GREIPEL Andre (GER)
22. HANSEN Adam (AUS)
23. KAISEN Olivier (BEL)
24. HENDERSON Gregory (NZL)
25. ROELANDTS Jurgen (BEL)
26. SIEBERG Marcel (GER)
Team Manager: FRISON Herman (BEL)

Sky (GBR)
32. EISEL Bernhard (AUT)
33. ROWE Luke (GBR)
34. HAYMAN Mathew (AUS)
36. SUTTON Chris (AUS)
37. THOMAS Geraint (GBR)
Team Manager: ARVESEN Kurt

Radioshack-Leopard (LUX)
41. SCHLECK Andy (LUX)
42. BENNETT George (NZL)
43. DIDIER Laurent (LUX)
46. SERGENT Jesse (NZL)
47. VOIGT Jens (GER)
Team Manager: AZEVEDO Jose (POR)

Garmin-Sharp (USA)
51. FARRAR Tyler (USA)
52. HAAS Nathan (AUS)
53. BAUER Jack (NZL)
54. MORTON Lachlan (AUS)
55. HUNTER Robert (RSA)
56. DENNIS Rohan (AUS)
57. VON HOFF Steele (AUS)
Team Manager: VANBONDT Geert (BEL)

Saxo-Tinkoff (DEN)
61. SORENSEN Chris (DEN)
62. MIYAZAWA Takashi (JPN)
64. JENSEN Christopher (DEN)
65. BOARO Manuele (ITA)
66. CANTWELL Jonathan (AUS)
67. DUGGAN Timothy (USA)
Team Manager: GUIDI Fabrizio (ITA)

Blanco (NED)
72. BROWN Graeme (AUS)
74. RENSHAW Mark (AUS)
75. SLAGTER Tom-Jelte (NED)
76. TANNER David (AUS)
77. TJALLINGII Maarten (NED)
Team Manager: DEKKER Hendrik (NED)

Astana (KAZ)
81. GUARDINI Andrea (ITA)
83. AGNOLI Valerio (ITA)
85. PONZI Simone (ITA)
87. GUARNIERI Jacopo ( ITA)
Team Manager: ZANINI Stefano ( ITA)

Movistar (ESP)
91. ROJAS Jose Joaquin (ESP)
92. AMADOR Andrey (CRC)
95. HERRADA Jose (ESP)
96. MORENO Javier (ESP)
97. VISCONTI Giovanni (ITA)
Team Manager: ARRIETA LUJAMBIO Jose Luis (ESP)

Vacansoleil-DCM (NED)
101. DE GENDT Thomas (BEL)
102. WAUTERS Willem (BEL)
103. MARCZYNSKI Tomasz (POL)
104. MARKUS Barry (NED)
106. VALLS Rafael (ESP)
107. VAN HUMMEL Kenny (NED)
Team Manager: VAN POPPEL Jean Paul (NED)

Ag2r La Mondiale (FRA)
111. HUTAROVICH Yauheni (BLR)
112. CHEREL Mikaël (FRA)
113. APPOLLONIO Davide (ITA)
114. BAGDONAS Gédiminas (LIT)
115. BONNAFOND Guillaume (FRA)
116. KERN Julian (GER)
117. KADRI Blel (FRA)
Team Manager: BIONDI Laurent (FRA)

Lampre-Merida (ITA)
121. LLOYD Matthew (AUS)
122. CIMOLAI Davide (ITA)
123. FAVILLI Elia (ITA)
124. FERRARI Roberto (ITA)
125. MORI Manuele (ITA)
126. PIETROPOLLI Daniele (ITA)
127. STORTONI Simone (ITA)
Team Manager: VICINO Bruno (ITA)

131. BONNET William (FRA)
132. VEIKKANEN Jussi (FRA)
133. COURTEILLE Arnaud (FRA)
134. DELAGE Mickael (FRA)
135. DEMARE Arnaud (FRA)
136. ELISSONDE Kenny (FRA)
137. MANGEL Laurent (FRA)
Team Manager: MADIOT Yvon (FRA)

Omega Pharma-Quick Step (BEL)
141. FENN Andrew (GBR)
142. GRABSCH Bert (GER)
143. PAUWELS Serge (BEL)
144. PINEAU Jerome (FRA)
145. RABON Frantisek (CZE)
147. VELITS Peter (SVK)
Team Manager: VAN SLYCKE Rik (BEL)

Euskaltel-Euskadi (ESP)
151. IZAGIRRE Gorka (ESP)
153. OROZ Juan Jose (FRA)
154. ASTARLOZA Mikel (ESP)
155. BRAVO Garikoitz (ESP)
157. LOBATO Juan Jose (ESP)
Team Manager: DIAZ Alexander (ESP)

Argos-Shimano (NED)
161. KITTEL Marcel (GER)
162. AHLSTRAND Jonas (SWE)
163. CLARKE William (AUS)
164. DE KORT Koen (NED)
165. HUGUET Yann (FRA)
166. HUPOND Thierry (FRA)
167. TIMMER Albert (NED)
Team Manager: ENGELS Addy (NED)

Cannondale (ITA)
171. AGOSTINI Stefano (ITA)
172. SALERNO Cristiano (ITA)
173. WURF Cameron (AUS)
174. CANUTI Federico (ITA)
176. SAGAN Juraj (SVK)
177. VANDBORG Brian (DNK)
Team Manager: CONTE Biagio (ITA)

181. PHELAN Adam (AUS)
182. DEMPSTER Zakkary (AUS)
183. GIACOPPO Anthony (AUS)
184. HOWSON Damien (AUS)
185. KERBY Jordan (AUS)
186. SULZBERGER Bernard (AUS)
187. WATSON Calvin (AUS)
Team Manager: SANDERS Dave