By Rupert Guinness, The Australian
There’s been a lot of celebratory back slapping by organizers of the Jacob’s Creek Tour Down Under for signing up the world’s number one team to race.
So much so, some joked that they had beaten each other black and blue in the lead up to tonight’s start to the 757km event, the stage one criterium in the Adelaide suburb of Glenelg.
The 47km stage ended in a popular home win for the estimated 54,000-strong crowd that lined the tight 1.88km circuit. In balmy conditions that saw temperatures in the mid seventies, it was won by NSW’s Graeme Brown (United Water). South Australia’s Stuart O’Grady (Credit Agricole) and Italy’s Fabio Sacchi (Saeco) were second and third.
However, with the long and hilly road stages ahead, Brown — a member of Australia’s Olympic team pursuit squad — will likely soon lose the yellow jersey he’ll wear at tomorrow’s start.
In fact, by luring the mighty Italian Mapei squad for Australia’s premier road race, many are wondering if organizers may also have inadvertently assured that there will be few winning spoils to be shared.
Anyone who has seen Mapei race will testify that they love nothing more than beating up the opposition — wherever, whenever and however they get the chance.
Sure, other teams do to. Such as the U.S.-based Mercury team which last year topped the tally of season wins by any team with a score of 86 — though, most of those were in U.S. races.
However, setting Mapei apart is that most of their 84 wins last year were claimed in Europe, where the hardest and most prestigious races are contested.
With a season roster of 40 riders and an annual budget of more than $10 million, Mapei has a constant arsenal of fresh-leg power to send to races anywhere in the world. Such as the Tour Down Under where Mapei’s eight-man team includes three Tour de France stage winners in Belgium’s Tom Steels, and Italy’s Stefano Zanini and Daniel Nardello.
Adding to the team’s strength is Australia’s Michael Rogers, who last year led the race for two days after winning stage two and is making his debut for Mapei. Tonight, his new bosses could not have been happier with his first appearance in Mapei colors. He spent 30 minutes on the attack, winning the first sprint after 10 laps, and taking third in the second at 20 laps to secure second place behind Brown in the points competition.
And with five stages left — tomorrow’s 142km second leg is from Norwood to Murray Bridge — it’s no wonder some rivals and observers are mooting fears of a Mapei monopoly.
Rogers failed to finish last year’s race due to a crash on the last stage in Adelaide. But the ACT rider is rated as a serious challenger for overall victory. Buoyed by an extra year’s experience, he faces the next days knowing that the likes of Steels and the rest are prepared to celebrate his arrival to Mapei with home-race success.
In return, Rogers has pledged to play his role in helping set up Steels, if not Zanini, for the bunch sprints in which the Belgian specializes. “He’s got to be one of the most down to earth guys I’ve met … like Shane Kelly,” said Rogers of Steels. “I’ll be ready to do all I can for him here and in Europe.”
Steels, who won two stages in last year’s Tour, is one of the world’s fastest and most aggressive sprinters, as is Zanini who won the last leg of the Tour into Paris. But Rogers’s notorious strength to fuel the Mapei train as it unleashes a leg-sapping tempo in the lead-up to the sprint finishes is vital to their winning hopes. Rogers’ knowledge of the local roads near the finish will also be vital to ensure either rider secures the best and safest position.
In tonight’s criterium, he attacked on the seventh of 25 laps. Interestingly, it was Brown who was one of the first protagonists. He tested the peloton’s intent with a surge at the beginning of lap 4. But it was reeled in by American Bobby Julich (Credit Agricole) as he did a turn of pace to string out the peloton.
This is Julich’s first appearance in the Tour Down Under, and his second in Australia since competing in the Commonwealth Bank Classic with Motorola five years ago. Shortly before the race started, he vowed to make the 2001 season pay dividends for his recent poor years. And he rode brilliantly tonight for O’Grady, leading him throughout the final two laps for the sprint.
“This time I plan to have a good year,” Julich said. “It’s great to be here. It’s also great that I have finally been able to have a good spell between seasons. I’ve had two months off and that’s given me time to rest and get my head together a bit.”
With points and no time bonuses on offer at the sprints, Rogers was the first to profit. His solo attack left him clear to take the first six points on offer on the first sprint. His break never saw his lead gain more than 17 seconds, though. Then on lap 11, he was joined by Australian, and former tri-athlete, Kristjan Snorrason (Uni), know to his teammates as “Snoz”.
Two key names pitifully off the back at the time were Tour de France stage winners Jeroen Blijlevens (Lotto) and Salvatore Commesso (Saeco).
Magnus Backstedt (Credit Agricole) was at the core of their demise. He led the chase and on lap 19 — one lap before the second sprint — they were caught.
Brown won that from Rogers’ brother Peter (Sunsmart). Meanwhile, Rogers took third.
Dual Olympic champion Robert Bartko (Telekom) of Germany, O’Grady and Julich were all prominent in the final laps of the stage.
Meanwhile, for the Cipollini-less Saeaco team, Bagio Conte and Fabio Sacchi tried to impress despite Cammesso’s absence. With one lap to go, Linda McCartney riders were 1-2-3 at the front of the pack, while Brown and O’Grady were fourth and fifth respectively.
Sadly for Linda McCartney their hopes of leading out Ciaran Power fell short. Instead Brown and O’Grady profited. And ultimately, it was Brown who profited best — winning the biggest race of his career to claim the yellow jersey.
TOUR DOWN UNDER, Australia. January 16-21.
Stage 1, Glenelg criterium; 1. Graeme Brown (Aus), United Water, 47km in 1.00.03 (46.9 kph); 2. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Credit Agricole; 3. Fabio Sacchi (I), Saeco Macchine Per CafÈ; 4. Ciaran Power (Irl), Jacob’s Creek-Linda McCartney; 5. Fabien De Waele (B), Lotto Adecco; 6. Nicolas Jalabert (F), CSC-World Online; 7. David McKenzie (Aus), Jacob’s Creek-Linda McCartney; 8. Hendrick Van Dijck (B), Lotto Adecco; 9. Lado Fumic (G), University of South Australia; 10. Alexandre Chouffe (F), Big Mat; 11. Kristjan Snorrason (Aus), University of South Australia; 12. Russel Van Hout (Aus), University of South Australia; 13. Danilo Hondo (G), Telekom.
Sprint classification; 1. Graeme Brown (Aus), United Water, 16 pts; 2. Michael Rogers (Aus), Mapei-Quick Step, 8; 3. Peter Rogers (Aus), Sunsmart-Mitsubishi, 4; 3. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Credit Agricole, 4; 5. Fabio Sacchi (I), Saeco Macchine Per CafÈ, 2; 5. Crescenzo d’Amore (I), Mapei-Quick Step, 2.
Note: the sprint jersey is awarded to Michael Rogers