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WorldTour-level Tour Down Under lacks star power

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — The 2016 UCI WorldTour kicks off Tuesday, but many are wondering where are all the stars.

Apart from the top Australian riders, this year’s Santos Tour Down Under start list is lean on star power. World champion Peter Sagan of Tinkoff, Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali, and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana are all headed to Tour de San Luis in Argentina instead. None of the top sprinters are in Adelaide, while Sky’s Chris Froome is headed to Australia — but he is racing in the Herald Sun Tour in February, not at the Tour Down Under.

What’s going on? Race director Mike Turtur defended the Tour Down Under’s start list.

“As organizers, we are extremely happy with the start list,” Turtur said Saturday. “The decision of riders and teams to their riders wherever they go is their decision. All we can do is put on a quality race and make the conditions the best we can. But as an organizer, I am delighted with the field we have this year.”

As part of the WorldTour, all 18 top teams are obliged to race, but they are not required to bring any specific riders. Teams and riders can cherry-pick the calendars that suit their specific goals. This year, the Tour Down Under seems to be the odd race out for a variety of reasons.

Every season has its quirks, and the return of the Olympics is tweaking the racing calendars across the peloton. Many top riders are making the Tour de France and the Rio de Janeiro Games their double target of the season, and perhaps don’t want to come out of the gate too hot with such a long season ahead of them. Tinkoff rider Alberto Contador, for example, isn’t racing until mid-February at the Volta ao Algarve.

The inclusion of Rio also means the world championships are nearly two weeks later. Another factor is heat, and the Qatar worlds are pushed back into mid-October, so sprinters and time trialists who will be favored for the rainbow jersey might be easing into the season this year.

“It’s going to be a long season,” defending Tour Down Under champion Rohan Dennis of BMC Racing said. “It will be difficult to find time to take a break. After the Tour and Rio, there are the worlds in Qatar. It will be about measuring your efforts.”

Marcel Kittel of Etixx – Quick-Step, André Greipel of Lotto-Soudal, Mark Cavendish of Dimension Data, and Katyusha’s Alexander Kristoff — all sprinters who have raced at the Tour Down Under — are debuting elsewhere this season.

Cavendish is racing on the track this week at the UCI World Cup in Hong Kong as he tries to improve his chances of winning a medal in the omnium in Rio. He will venture to Australia for the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Race on January 31.

Greipel, who holds the Tour Down Under’s record for stage wins at 16, skipped the race again this year in an effort to copy what was his most successful season ever in 2015. Team officials convinced Greipel to miss the race last year in favor of making a big push for the spring classics. After a strong spring, he won four stages at the Tour de France.

Another reason sprinters might be shying away from the race is that the Tour Down Under, especially since its inclusion in the WorldTour in 2008, has progressively become a more difficult race. With a hillier terrain and a deeper field, the Tour Down Under has transitioned from being a relatively easy sprinter’s race into a hotly contested, WorldTour-level event.

“Your Nibalis and Quintanas are going to San Luis because they want a relaxed start to the season, and Down Under is too competitive for what they want to do in January,” Orica-GreenEdge sport director Matt White told Rupert Guinness of the Sydney Morning Herald. “If they came to the Tour Down Under, they would probably get beaten.”

As a WorldTour event, race organizers also work under certain guidelines that can impact its ability to attract top riders. Races often pay top riders appearance fees and use a big part of their budget toward securing one or two marquee names. As a WorldTour race, however, organizers are obliged to pay a fee to all 18 top teams, meaning there might not be a lot left in budgets to pay high appearance fees. In contrast, non-WorldTour events can pay more money to a few select teams if they agree to bring their top riders.

“As a WorldTour race, we operate under that umbrella,” Turtur said. “Other events are a little bit freer in the market, and that allows them to do certain deals.”

The Tour Down Under organization has paid out appearance fees in the past and has caught heat despite seeing media interest and fan attendance surge when it paid Lance Armstrong $1 million to appear at the race in 2009, 2010, and 2011.

That’s not to say this year’s Tour Down Under has a weak field. Despite the absence of a few marquee names, the race sees quality riders across the entire peloton.

Joining defending champion Dennis at BMC is Richie Porte, making his WorldTour debut in his new jersey. 2012 Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Trek-Segafredo lines up for the second year in a row. Simon Gerrans headlines a deep Orica team while Geraint Thomas leads Sky.

“I’m excited to get stuck-in,” said Thomas, who’s starting his seventh Tour Down Under. “I haven’t raced since the Vuelta, and the Tour Down Under is one of my favorite races of the year.”

With a deep field but few marquee names, the 18th Tour Down Under starts Tuesday.