ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) —André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) stormed to victory Sunday to close out a week of racing that opened the 2013 WorldTour with the Tour Down Under.
Greipel is synonymous with TDU, winning a record 14 stages and two overall titles. This year’s course, however, saw the inclusion of the Corkscrew climb in stage 2, the “anti-Greipel” ascent. Race organizers didn’t want another sprinter to win the GC.
Despite the Corkscrew, Greipel picked up where he left off, winning three of six stages and the criterium last weekend to leave Australia with his suitcase stuffed with trophies and prize money (not to mention valuable UCI points).
The six-day race brought the season’s first major racing, with world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and Andy Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard) both focused on hitting form for the spring classics.
Team Sky looked to be heading toward overall victory with Geraint Thomas until they ran into the spritely talents of second-year pro Tom-Jelte Slagter (Blanco Pro Cycling). The Dutch former speed skater sprang to life up the Old Willunga Road and will leave Adelaide brimming with ambitions.
The week saw plenty of story lines — here are a few:
The week’s revelation was Dutch flier Slagter. The 23-year-old won his first pro race in stage 3 and then attacked into the leader’s jersey up Old Willunga Hill to claim the overall. That’s heady stuff for the whippet-thin three-year pro from Groningen.
“It’s been a great week. I had never won a pro race, now I’ve won a stage and the overall,” he said.
“When I came down here, I was hoping for a top-10. I hit some good early season form. I am surprised as anyone that I won.”
The Ardennes will be his first major goal before starting either the Giro or Tour later this season. His last name means “meat-cutter” in Flemish, so the team already has a nickname for their budding star: T.J. Slagter, aka “The Butcher.” They’re hoping he’ll be cutting up the field for years to come.
Schleck has a long way to go
At the other end of the GC was Luxembourg’s grand-tour star Schleck, who started Sunday’s finale second-to-last.
Grounded by injury since breaking his coccyx in last year’s Dauphiné, Schleck couldn’t catch a break. After struggling all week, Schleck punctured early in the circuit race and never managed to regain contact.
The DNF didn’t shake Schleck too much, however.
“I’ve had a good few weeks here in Australia. My main goal was to come back into the bunch and start feeling like a bike racer again,” Schleck said at the start line Sunday.
“I am feeling like a bike racer again. The goal is to be ready for the Tour. I am confident in that.”
The irrepressible Jens Voigt
The German ended the week as he began, on the attack.
Voigt delighted the crowd when he was in the day’s main breakaway in the People’s Choice criterium last weekend to open what will likely be his final season with trademark aggression. After riding in support all week, he tried his luck again in Sunday’s circuit race, attacking early to try to gobble up the intermediate sprints.
At 41, Voigt vows to go down swinging: “I like helping the young guys, but I want to keep racing hard at the top level. I do not want them saying Old Jensie didn’t know when to stop.”
Geraint Thomas, king of the road
Team Sky may be all about Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins right now, but Thomas provided more than a few hints in Australia that he will be a man for the future.
After riding to Olympic gold on the track in London, Thomas came to Australia intent on getting rid of his “track fat.” A stinging attack over the Corkscrew climb and then a sublime sprint out of a four-man group delivered the double.
He lost the GC up Old Willunga Road, but fought back onto the podium by taking back time in two mid-race bonus sprints to bounce from fifth to third.
“Yesterday was very disappointing, and we looked at the results and we realized there was still a chance of getting third. We didn’t want to just give up and throw it away,” Thomas said.
“Traditionally, no one really bothers on the last day. We were up for it, balls to the wall. I think it topped off a really good week. We’ve had a good laugh, we got a win and a few places. For the first race of the year, we can all be happy.”
Forget Armstrong, let’s race
The race was overshadowed somewhat by the Lance Armstrong scandal and its continued fallout, thanks to his televised confession to doping and the UCI’s belated support for a “truth and reconciliation commission.”
Few were keen to talk about Armstrong’s toxic legacy. And when they did, there were few kind words for the disgraced Texan.
“I would like it if he would just go away. I am so tired of hearing about Lance Armstrong. He did what he did, he had a lot of glory, and caused a lot of damage to the sport,” said Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp).
“I think the biggest favor he could do would be just to go away. Stop giving interviews. Stop tweeting pictures of himself with yellow jerseys. Stop stirring the pot. Just stop.”
Greipel’s train not in vain
Sunday’s win was Greipel’s 14th at the Tour Down Under and the 100th of his career. That’s an impressive haul for the Gorilla, who now boasts the most formidable train in the peloton.
Lotto-Belisol brought its A-team to the Tour Down Under and it proved unbeatable, winning the criterium and three stages.
“When we put Greipel in the right position with 200 meters to go, he’s hard to beat,” said Greg Henderson. “When you start behind (Greipel), you’re almost guaranteed to finish behind him.
“We want to keep it going. The ambitions are the same as last year. If it’s a bunch sprint, we want to be competitive.”
Turning the Corkscrew
The addition of the short, very steep Corkscrew climb in stage 2, with its maximum grades of 15 percent, saw the Tour Down Under tip away from the sprinters, who have long held sway here.
Organizers decided they wanted to spice up the GC battle, and last year added a finish up Old Willunga Road. This year, they added the Corkscrew, a spectacular hill in the Adelaide Hills that proved the race-breaker.
A nasty crash on the technical descent spoiled the GC chances for many, but the climb proved to be a valuable addition to the race. It’s sure to be back next year.
‘Phil-Gil’ ready to rock
Debuting his rainbow stripes, Philippe Gilbert (BMC) was the star attraction during the week., and promises to honor the rainbow jersey with aggressive racing all season long.
A minor spill coming down the Corkscrew descent derailed his GC ambitions, but Gilbert answered by going on a no-hope attack in a flat stage two days later.
He coasted through the rest of the week, with the goal of being in top shape for the classics.
“It’s been a good week. I knew it would be difficult to win a stage here because the Aussies have been racing a lot,” said Gilbert.
“My goal is to be in top form for the Ardennes. I would love to win Milan-San Remo, Flanders and Liège. Just like [Eddy] Merckx.”
Gerrans saves face
Orica-GreenEdge started with all the pressure as the defending champions on home roads. But Simon Gerrans saw his GC hopes torpedoed early when he succumbed to asthma early in the week and he couldn’t follow the pace over the Corkscrew.
A few days later, he was feeling better and Orica-GreenEdge decided to throw everything at Willunga Hill. Second last year to Alejandro Valverde, Gerrans got it right this year, sweeping first through the final left-hander to have a clear shot at the finish line with Slagter trailing his wheel.
The stage was GreenEdge’s first in two years.
“It was great to get the win with Gerro,” said teammate Stuart O’Grady. “The GC was lost, so we put in a big effort to win the stage. We made sure we covered the moves and controlled the stage to put Gerro in position to try to win the stage, and then it was up to him.
“To win the stage on Australia Day, in front of so many people, that’s right up there with winning a stage at the Tour de France.”