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Tour Down Under a high-speed dress rehearsal for season to come

Season opener is proving ground for new riders, new equipment across WorldTour.

PARACOMBE, Australia (VN) — Sam Bennett was feeling the heat ahead of the Santos Tour Down Under. Deceuninck-Quick-Step wins more than just about anybody, and the Belgian outfit’s new sprinter was under the gun to live up to expectations.

Bennett was the newest transfer to the “Wolfpack,” and he didn’t want to screw it up. As the peloton barreled toward the finale in stage 1, Bennett got on the wheel of favored pilot Shane Archbold before lead-out man Michael Morkov took over. The Irishman sprung to victory, seemingly more relieved than elated.

“I think the team has more confidence in me than I do in myself,” Bennett said. “I felt that pressure to get the first win. I didn’t want to be the first Quick-Step rider to leave here without a victory.”

Quick-Step had put the train through some dry runs during training rides leading up to this week’s season debut, but nothing beats real racing to work out the kinks.

And there’s no race on the calendar that equals the Tour Down Under when it comes to rolling out new equipment, working in new teammates, or smoothing out rough edges.

From Bennett fitting in at Quick-Step to Sunweb lining up with six of its seven starters riding in the young rider’s category, the Tour Down Under is a “meet-and-greet” event at 50kph.

“That’s part of the buzz every year at the Tour Down Under, everything’s new — new riders, new jerseys, new bikes, new equipment,” said race director Mike Turtur. “Being the season-opener is very important for our race.”

The 2020 transfer season was a busy one and for many teams, the Tour Down Under is the first chance for everyone to race together for the first time. Winter training camps are generally where riders and staffers meet up for photos and bike fittings, but there’s nothing better than racing to really click the season into gear and forge a sense of teamwork and camaraderie to carry momentum into racing season.

Bennett had no problems with his new Quick-Step leadout, with the Irishman winning stage 1. Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“This is a good chance for us to test our train and to get to know each other,” said Elia Viviani, who left Quick-Step to join Cofidis. “And if it’s not working, we can make some changes.”

Like any race, the Tour Down Under sees different ambitions across the peloton. Israel Start-Up Nation is here racing its first WorldTour race after making the jump to the top league, led by new recruit André Greipel. NTT Pro Team sees the arrival of new partner and sports manager Bjarne Riis. At Trek-Segafredo, Mads Pedersen is making his season debut in the rainbow jersey and getting used to the media attention that comes with it.

Some teams have so many new riders they brought everyone down to Australia even earlier than planned. EF Pro Cycling, for example, brought new riders Nielson Powless, Kristoffer Halverson, Jens Keurkeleire and Jonas Rusch a week ahead of most riders.

“We have four new riders to EF, and we’ve all been getting to know each other,” Powless said. “We’re having a great time together and keeping it pretty relaxed off the bike. It’s been really fun.”

Powless, making his debut this week in EF colors after two seasons at Jumbo-Visma, will race across the Australian summer season, with stops planned for the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the Herald Sun Tour. The intense block of racing is allowing him to get to know his new teammates and for them to know him.

Powless is a grizzled veteran compared to Sunweb, which has six of its seven starters under 25. The Dutch team is using the week to ease one of its top new recruits into what it’s like to race at the WorldTour level.

New equipment, nutrition and tactics can all be put to the test at Tour Down Under rather than relying on experience from training camps. Photo: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

“We have a very young team this year, the youngest in the WorldTour,” said Sunweb sport director Luke Roberts. “We’ve found this is a good race to bring some of our younger riders. There’s good racing, but it’s not as intense as some of the European WorldTour races.”

Roberts said the wider roads and shorter stage distances mean that WorldTour rookies can ease into the higher level of racing. This week, the team putting its promising Italian sprinter Alberto Dainese through the paces.

“You can already see that the WorldTour is faster and more intense than anything I raced at the U23 ranks,” said Dainese, 21, who kicked to 10th in the opening stage. “Racing here gives me confidence to see the team supporting me already in my first races.”

That doesn’t mean this week is a dressed-up training camp. Like Bennett, new riders often have immediate pressure to perform. Another feeling the pressure to deliver is Kenny Elissonde, who moved to Trek-Segafredo from Ineos. Trek-Segafredo brought a strong team to support Richie Porte, who won Thursday’s stage and moved into the overall lead, and Elissonde is expected to be there.

“This race is nice to get everyone working together here in Australia before we are going back to Europe. The biggest adaption for me coming here is getting used to the new equipment,” he said. “I don’t know if this race is with not too much pressure. This is a race that we are already here to win.

“It’s quite a nervous race here,” he continued. “People from the outside say, ah, it’s Australia, no stress, but this race is always decided by seconds. So it’s pretty nervous inside the bunch for position. It’s a real race and a good start to the season.”

The Tour Down Under rolls on. A race to start the season for new challenges for every team.