Will you watch because it’s your last chance to see Lance race (outside the U.S., that is)? Or do you want to see your first glimpse of the much-anticipated toe-to-toe battle between Mark Cavendish and André Greipel, and whether guys like Robbie McEwen, Tyler Farrar and Allan Davis stand a chance? Or are you a pro in need of respite from the interminable cold of Europe and desperate for base miles?
Indeed, South Australia’s almost certain sunshine beats a hellish northern European or North American winter hands-down. And presented with a course not overly challenging compared to what the peloton faces later in the season, it’s as good a reason as any why teams travel so far for the eight-day event, with riders scrapping for a place to come to Oz.
In 2011, the 13th edition and the opening UCI World Tour event, the Santos Tour Down Under (TDU) boasts quite possibly its best-ever line-up.
The Novitzky investigation and Alberto Contador’s ‘did he or didn’t he?’ questions still linger but with a new year brings new hope that just maybe, we may see a Tour de France without a doping scandal.
In the World Tour’s maiden voyage, we’ll get our first glimpse of the 18 teams that made the cut to be awarded a ProTeam license, plus what is essentially the Australian national team; an allowance that carries on from the ProTour where the national team of the race’s home country can be invited to compete.
Unlike last year where the team of 2009 road world champion Cadel Evans got to race, no wildcard invitations have been offered to any Professional Continental teams. In December, TDU race organizer Mike Turtur did say he had a spot in waiting for the team from Pegasus Sports, but with the eleventh-hour pullout of its principal backer and according to the UCI, an insufficient bank guarantee and imbalanced budget to satisfy the requirements of its licensing commission (team CEO Chris White says otherwise) sadly for Australian cycling fans, they’ll have to wait at least another year before an Aussie ProTeam comes to fruition.
The Pegasus polemics and its consequences saw 25 riders without a contract including the two Robbies, McEwen and Hunter. But some last-minute Tweets with Armstrong, who was soon on the phone to RadioShack manager Johan Bruyneel, saw the pair handed a lifeline. It seems McEwen and ‘the Boss’ have patched things up since July 2002 when he famously told Armstrong, “Shut your mouth or I will fill it with my fist,” adding then that the rift had been going on for “around two years.” According to one version of events, Armstrong became incensed when McEwen instigated a breakaway when the former was taking a toilet break. Now they can take their toilet breaks together.
We’ll also get our first glimpse of what has so far been mostly a battle of words between former teammates turned bitter rivals: Mark Cavendish, the world’s fastest sprinter, and André Greipel, the man who believes he can become the world’s fastest, or at least the very best.
It’s far from a WikiLeaks secret the two aren’t the best of friends; Cavendish said as much in his autobiography, Boy Racer. In fact, what’s been most surprising is that the pair lasted as long as they did on the same team (Greipel joined T-Mobile in 2006, Cavendish the following year before the team went under the stewardship of current owner, Bob Stapleton, in 2008). Greipel, exasperated at consistently being excluded from marquee races including Milan-San Remo and the Tour de France, finally left at the end of last season to join Omega Pharma-Lotto.
But what everyone really wants to know hasn’t been sufficiently — and certainly not conclusively —answered: with equal team support, just who is the best?
The TDU will give us our first glimpse of what should be an enthralling season-long battle between the pugnacious Cav’ and André der Gorilla that is set to climax when the pair go head-to-head at the Tour de France. Sounds delicious; can’t wait for the Aussie appetizer.
The overall route of the TDU has changed little since its inception and 2011 is no different. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
Santos Tour Down Under race schedule
Sunday January 16: Cancer Council Classic, 51km
Tuesday January 18 – Stage 1: Mawson Lakes – Angaston, 138km
Wednesday January 19 – Stage 2: Tailem Bend – Mannum, 146km
Thursday January 20 – Stage 3: Unley – Stirling, 129km
Friday January 21 – Stage 4: Norwood – Strathalbyn, 124km
Saturday January 22 – Stage 5: McLaren Vale – Willunga, 131km
Sunday January 23 – Stage 6: Adelaide City Council Circuit, 90km
Total distance (excluding Cancer Council Classic): 758km
What is more or less a warm-up race and does not count towards the overall standings, the Cancer Council Classic is a 51 kilometer evening criterium around Adelaide’s Rymill Park, comprising 30 laps of a 1.7km circuit on the edge of the South Australian capital. Last year Team Sky made a spectacular debut when New Zealand’s Greg Henderson and local lad Chris Sutton went 1-2 down Rundle Road, the pair reversing their placings on the final stage. Problem was, they never really got any better than that the rest of the season. In Survivor-speak, can they outwit, outplay and outlast HTC-HighRoad and Omega Pharma-Lotto this time ‘round?
After a day’s break, on Tuesday 18 January a tried and true route from Mawson Lakes to Angaston kicks off the actual race for the overall TDU title. Before the race went ProTour in 2008 the opening day often saw a race-defining breakaway — though now with teams so evenly matched and the overall race invariably decided by a smattering of seconds expect to see a beefed-up bunch sprint. (Perhaps this writer should refrain from using the word ‘beef’ for the time being…)
Wednesday we go way out west to the new stage 2 start town of Tailem Bend before 146km in the saddle. A mountain prime at Dawesley Hill marks roughly the halfway point but with 75km of virtual downhill to the finish in Mannum, it’s likely a question of which sprinter will prevail.
A classic course follows on stage 3 from Unley to Stirling as the peloton grab their first taste of the Adelaide Hills (don’t get the wrong idea, now; this ain’t no Alps or Pyrenées). A lung-busting, drawn-out uphill drag-race ends the 129km stage — last year’s first three were Manuel Cardoso, Alejandro Valverde and Cadel Evans. For the sprinters going for the overall it’s more a case of staying up front than vying for glory.
After four stages in the 2010 edition, André ‘the Gorilla’ Greipel had won three out of four and all but secured the overall title. This year’s start in Norwood is the same but instead of Goolwa the finish is in Strathalbyn and with a nice false-flat rise to the line this presents speedy scrappers McEwen, Allan Davis — the only guy to have ridden all 12 editions previous — and Garmin-Cervélo’s up-and-comer Tyler Farrar their best opportunity of the race.
If a non-sprinter is to knock the fast-men off their blocks, the penultimate 131km leg around McLaren Vale incorporating the short but tough 3km climb of Old Willunga Hill — to be tackled twice — is it. In 2010 the formidable trio of Evans, Valverde and 2005 champion Luis Léon Sanchez almost did just that, but the best laid schemes of mice and men … Three kilometers out, Evans’ virtual leadership had evaporated. But in a nail-biting finale, Sanchez sailed off solo and held on to win the stage, moving to second overall where he would finish.
Should one wish to trump the ochre jersey on the final Sunday in Adelaide, he’ll most likely need to be within five seconds of the race lead with legs as fresh as Napoleon’s horses before battle. Twenty laps of a 4.5km circuit around parklands downtown are all that remain before the thirteenth TDU champion and inaugural leader of the World Tour is decided.
Unlike the redundant ProTour let’s just hope, over time, this will become a competition people will care about.
Editor’s note: Anthony Tan will be reporting for VeloNews at the Tour Down Under in 2011, for what will be his ninth time at the race.