Tour Down Under preview

Something old, something new

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — Once again, the storybook-pretty Adelaide Hills will be alive with the sound of bicycle wheels, as the fourteenth edition of the Santos Tour Down Under, the first of 28 stops on the UCI WorldTour calendar, gets going Sunday in the South Australian capital.

Since it became part of the package we now know as the WorldTour in 2008, the success of the Tour Down Under has made it a bellwether for the calendar’s expansion outside its traditional European homeland.

In 2010, the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec and GP de Montréal were included, and last year, the Tour of Beijing added — notwithstanding considerable criticism, mind you, given it was the first time the event was held, and in a country not known for its cycle racing culture. Channeling the resources of Tour de France organizers ASO, the Beijingers managed to pull it off … sort of.

The presence of Lance Armstrong, who made the Tour Down Under (TDU) his comeback race in 2009, no doubt turned the event into a draw-card, as economic impact more than doubled between 2008 and 2009, from $17.3 million to $39M. Likewise, media coverage ballooned over the same period, from $43M to $226M.

Nobody expected it, not even the man himself, but last year’s TDU turned out to be Armstrong’s cycling swansong.

On 16 February 2011, a mere three weeks after he pinned on his final race number Down Under for Team RadioShack, he chose to make his retirement known with, unusual for the brash Texan, little to no fanfare, awarding a brief interview to a wire service reporter from the Associated Press. “I can’t say I have any regrets. It’s been an excellent ride,” he said simply.

In more ways than one, it marked the end of an era.

One of those ways was the existential hierarchy that no longer exists, whereby an entire team is centered around and bows to one man — Armstrong’s 91 wins in 16 pro seasons being more than the combined total of his fellow 14 retirees in 2011 pays testament to that.

Compare that with the last season of HTC-High Road, the most winning team in the peloton, whose 42 wins were shared among 14 riders, even though it felt like Mark Cavendish won ‘em all. The cruelest part, however, is that they are no longer around, and like owner Bob Stapleton, we’re still scratching our heads as to how it could be.

Similarly, there is no longer one headline act — Cavendish, Cadel Evans, Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Horner et al. all exert a certain pull in various countries around the world. Though perhaps now, fans are drawn to the racing, rather than to see any one rider per se; a healthier option for the future of our sport.

Still, race organizers love throwing a big name into the ring. And this year, TDU organizer Mike Turtur (also president of the Oceania Cycling Confederation) has managed to lure two: in his day, the indomitable Eddy Merckx, and Tour de France race director, Christian Prudhomme. ASO has been appointed by the TDU to manage the international broadcast distribution of the event. Both won’t be riding, of course.

But two-time champion (2008, 2010) André Greipel will, riding for his new Lotto-Belisol team. As will three-time world road champ Oscar Freire (Katusha), also riding in new colors; Canadian sometimes grimpeur, Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo); the precocious Edvald Boassen Hagen; evergreen Italian, Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD); lead-out man turned lead man, Mark Renshaw (Rabobank); and the elephant in the room, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), where in the organizers’ press release, they forgot to mention the not insignificant fact that, for his involvement in Operación Puerto, the Spaniard is making his way back after a two-year suspension.

In total, there will be 18 ProTeams of seven riders each, and one composite Australian national team, also seven strong, making for a compact 133-rider peloton.

The big names heading Down Under

And the TDU marks the debut WorldTour race for nascent ProTeam, GreenEdge. They will unveil their new colors and begin their much-anticipated maiden voyage that will culminate in their showing at the 2012 Tour de France, marking a historic, and arguably long-overdue, Australian first.

For the septet they’ve sent to South Australia, anything less than a stage win will likely be regarded as a failure by sports director, team manager and financial backer, Matt White, Shayne Bannan and Gerry Ryan, respectively – including the rest of Australia. So, no pressure.

Begins with the old…

As for the course itself, it’s a case of something old, something new. And it begins with the old, the show starting Sunday with an exhibition-style race in Adelaide’s East End: a 51km criterium on a longish 2km circuit.

Times do not count towards the overall classification but the winner does receive the leader’s ochre jersey. After a day’s hiatus, the race kicks off for real in Prospect, a suburb in Adelaide’s north.

A profile that basically depicts a 149km haul uphill (though with a touch under 400 meters elevation change and a downhill run to the finish, it’s nothing overly onerous), the first stage of the TDU proper is likely to result in a bunch gallop.

Stage 2, 148km from Lobethal to Stirling, boasts a far bumpier route. History has shown the triplet of circuits around Stirling can, and may, split the peloton. The drawn out, uphill finishing drag is generally too burdensome for the pure sprinter, who usually hangs on for dear life in an effort to not lose time. It tends to be the most rousing stage before the likely denouement Saturday around the township of Willunga.

Stage 3 is another tried and true journey: Unley to Victor Harbor. A reasonably difficult 134.5km, but for the in-form sprinter, not troublesome enough to dislodge or break them.

History repeats itself again on Stage 4, a 130km traverse from Norwood to Tanunda, in spitting distance of the world famous Jacob’s Creek winery. With the GC men readying themselves for what lays ahead, opportunists can gain time over their more fancied rivals, and then attempt to preserve their gains the following day, like Cameron Meyer did on a similar stage last year en route to overall victory.

…And ends with the new

D-Day at the TDU comes on Stage 5, 151.5km from McLaren Vale to Old Willunga Hill. Yes, folks, you heard right: for the first time ever, a summit finish atop an ascent that, more than ever, is set to decide the overall race winner.

Tackled twice, the first will be more of a ‘softening up’ than anything, setting the scene for a fever-pitch assault on the ochre jersey later in the day. Just three kilometers long but with a 7.6 percent average gradient, there is enough of a bite in this climb for the light of legs to angelically dance their way into race leadership.

With a number of past editions decided by a matter of seconds, the sixth and final stage in Adelaide City tends to be anything but a procession.

2011 champion Meyer’s two-second margin over Matthew Goss was the equal second-smallest margin in the race’s history, and just 10 seconds separated the top five overall. (In 2003, Mikel Astarloza and Lennie Kristensen finished on the same time of 17 hours, 17 minutes and 45 seconds; Astarloza was declared the winner on a count-back, having placed better in more stages than his Danish rival.)

Time bonuses, which riders and fans appear to either love (generally, the avant-garde) or hate (invariably, the purists), will once again form part of the overall time equation. Throughout the week, for 1st-3rd at the intermediate sprints, 3-2-1 seconds are awarded, with 10-6-4 seconds for 1st-3rd at the finish, respectively.

In years gone by, such a system has worked in favor of the sprinters, but never has there been a hilltop finish in the race, which may place them out of contention and thus make time bonuses irrelevant.

Realizing life in advertising was nothing like Mad Men and buoyed by the Olympic Games in his Australian hometown of Sydney, Anthony Tan turned his back on a lucrative copywriting career in 2000 in pursuit of something more cerebral. Combining wordsmithing with his experiences as an A-Grade club racer and an underwhelming season competing in Europe, a career as a cycling scribe beckoned… More than a dozen Grand Tours and countless Classics later, it’s where he still is today. He has been a contributor to VeloNews since 2006. In 2010, he won Cycling Australia’s media award for best story. Follow him on Twitter: @anthony_tan