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What’s on the line for the TDU stars

Three-time World Champion Peter Sagan headlines the stars in attendance at the opening 2018 WorldTour race, the Tour Down Under.

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ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — And just like that, the 2018 WorldTour is ready to click into gear.

After what seemed to be a very short off-season, the racing season opens with a flourish with the Santos Tour Down Under, celebrating its 20th anniversary with a solid lineup of GC contenders and sprinters.

While some of the peloton’s bigger names have not made the long trip down to Australia, the 2018 WorldTour calendar opens with a solid field. Three-time world champion Peter Sagan, defending champion Richie Porte, former two-time winner André Greipel and Aussie fastman Caleb Ewan are among the big-name starters.

“We are excited about the quality of riders at the start line,” said race director Mike Turtur. “It’s a big milestone for the race. It’s 20 editions, and that’s significant. We look forward to a good race.”

The 20th edition of Australia’s biggest stage race follows a familiar pattern. Stages 1, 3 and 6 favor the pure sprinters, with stage 2 into Stirling just hard enough to tilt the bunch sprint in favor of riders like Sagan or Diego Ulissi. Stage 4 finishes atop a punchy climb to Uraidla that should tip the GC favorites, with Willunga hill on the penultimate stage to crown the winner.

The Tour Down Under has evolved into a dynamic week-long event that opens Sunday with a downtown criterium and also includes a gran fondo, daily parties at the race headquarters in Adelaide, and thousands of cyclists who pour in for the week.

Riders like the race for its good weather, relaxed ambiance, enthusiastic crowds, decent roads and medium-level intensity. The longest stage is 151.5km, so it’s not too hard or too long for such an early season race.

Here’s what the main protagonists are expecting this week:

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)

The three-time world champion has absolutely zero pressure and nothing to prove. His first major goal is still weeks away in the spring classics. He’s already been here for 10 days to stretch the legs and ease into 2018. The speedy Slovakian says he’s here to help Jay McCarthy in the GC and Sam Bennett in the sprints. Last year, the Tour Down Under was the only stage race where he didn’t win at least one stage in 2017. With three second places last year, don’t be surprised to see Sagan try to open his season with at least one win this week. It’s hard for Sagan to hold back when he sees the finish line.

“It’s nice to race here,” Sagan said. “It’s quite a calm race here. Nice weather, good people, same hotel. It’s a no-stress race, it’s very nice to start the season here.”

Richie Porte (BMC Racing)

The defending champion lines up with the strongest GC squad in the race. Former winners Rohan Dennis and Simon Gerrans are here to back him up, and ready to pounce if Porte suffers an unexpected setback. In his first race since crashing out of the Tour de France, Porte is motivated to get back into the winner’s circle. He hinted he’d be happy with another victory up Old Willunga Hill (where he’s won four times) if the overall doesn’t fall his way.

“As an Aussie, it’s the best race to win,” Porte said. “I’d love to win it again. My form is pretty good. I’m not sure if it is good as last year, but we’ll see. There’s not a big expectation to win again, but I’d love to win another one on Willunga. It would be a great way to start the season, with a big win.”

Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott)

Ewan enjoyed a breakout race last year, winning four of six stages en route to the points jersey. At 23, Ewan is looking forward to his Tour de France debut later this summer. With Mitchelton-Scott not lining up with a major GC contender, Ewan will have home-road pressure to win at least one stage, if not a lot more. The sprint field this year is deeper than last year, so those wins might come a little more difficult.

“I’ve got high expectations after the past few years,” Ewan said. “I won four stages last year, so I guess the expectation is going to be the same this year. I’m going to do my best, and hopefully, I will come away with a few stage wins again.”

André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal)

The Gorilla is back Down Under after skipping the past three editions. The 35-year-old German is a two-time overall winner, but those GC wins came back when the race was purely a sprinter’s course. Harder climbs have been added and that means riders like Greipel won’t be contending for the overall. The veteran German is hoping to get an early win on his palmares after a somewhat disappointing 2017 campaign that saw him only capture five wins and also fall short of winning a stage in the Tour de France.

“There are always plenty of occasions for the sprinters,” Greipel said. “It’s always a good start to a successful season, so I hope it turns out like this in 2018. There are no easy races anymore. There are no easy races. When you look down to all the riders, and the sprinters especially, it’s a decent field. It won’t be easy to win a stage. The sprints will be interesting.”