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Sprinters brace for season’s first battles

The Tour Down Under has emerged an important window for the sprinters to test their legs and their lead-out trains.

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ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — Winning early leads to winning often. At least that’s what the fast men in the bunch are counting on.

A fast start in Australia to open the elite men’s 2020 WorldTour calendar often sets the tone in the ever-competitive field of sprinters. And top names are bracing for the season’s first showdown at the Santos Tour Down Under.

“It’s important to win early,” said Sam Bennett, making his debut in Deceuninck-Quick-Step colors. “The earlier you can get that win, the easier it is to get into that flow and that rhythm.”

Ever since the Tour Down Under moved up to WorldTour status, the battle for points has served to heighten the early season pressure.

And this year’s Tour Down Under sees an extra layer of stress with a sprinter field filled with top contenders changing jerseys coming into 2020.

Bennett moves to Quick-Step after leaving Bora-Hansgrohe in a drawn-out contract dispute. The Irishman replaces Elia Viviani, who moves to Cofidis after three breakout seasons with the Belgian squad. Veteran sprinter André Greipel is back at the Tour Down Under with his move Israel Start-Up Nation.

Changes mean untested sprint trains and unfamiliar wheels. All three will be looking to hone their lead-out trains as well as hitting that first victory.

“This month is very important for us,” Viviani said. “If the train is working, good, if not, you make changes. It’s important to be ready for the most important goals. Compared to the last few years, some big names are here for the sprint. All the sprints will be really hard.”

Of the marquee sprinters in the field, Caleb Ewan is the top name back with the same crew, returning with Lotto-Soudal after moving to the Belgian team last year. Yet even his form will be a question mark after he skipped racing at the Australian nationals and the Bay Crit series, and eases into 2020.

So the question marks hanging over the first bunch sprints are many, but they will be quickly answered in the first finishing straight.

All eyes will be on Bennett and Viviani, who will spar for bragging rights. Quick-Step used Viviani’s strong start to 2019 to set the tone for its successful season, and Bennett knows the pressure is on.

Sam Bennett will be looking to impress in his debut for Quick-Step. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

“Joining a new team, you want to start off on a high, and you want to build the morale so the guys will have confidence in you,” Bennett said. “Quick-Step has always been a good sprint team, and I don’t want to be the first sprinter to come and not win. There’s always pressure, but it never compares to the pressure I put on myself.”

Viviani bristled at the suggestion he will ride off the wheel of his former teammates, and said he’s fully confident in the lead-out train Cofidis is building for him to take on 2020.

“Me on Bennett’s wheel, no? I will be on the wheel of my teammates. I believe in my team, so if I made the move it’s because I believe in the project,” Viviani said. “I know the winning mentality of [Quick-Step], but it’s not a battle between me and this team, it’s a battle to win and be across the finish line first.”

Other names elbowing toward the front will be Jasper Philipsen (UAE-Emirates), Giacomo Nizzolo (NTT Cycling), and highly touted Italian newcomer Alberto Dianese (Sunweb). World champion Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) and two-time defending champion Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott) will also be in the mix.

Another rider hoping to leave his mark this week is Greipel. The veteran German won the Tour Down Under in 2008 and 2010, and holds a record 18 stage wins. The 37-year-old only won once in 2019,

“I’ve won a lot of races in my career, and I don’t have much to prove, but I want to get back into the same shape as I was before,” Greipel said. “If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. We are just riding the bike. We cannot change the world. I really still enjoy it and hopefully it will turn out well this season.”

Racing kicks off with a critérium Sunday evening and the opener stage Tuesday.