The Tour Take | Tour Down Under Preview
Here we are… the start of another year. What will the 2019 cycling season bring? The Sky’s falling, the sprinters are playing merry-go-round with their teams, and every man and his dog’s heading to the Giro. But before we get to all that, the Tour Down Under is back and better than ever, with the Willunga Hill skirmish moved to the final day.
Willunga's transition from the main course to dessert is the big route-themed talking point. But the week still kicks off with the traditional entrée of the People’s Choice Classic. Though it won’t count for the overall standings, it's placed as the year’s first rendezvous between World Tour Sprinters means there’s a fair amount of bragging rights up for grabs.
There’s a big field of elite sprinters coming too; the biggest name is Peter Sagan, as fans everywhere are expected to line the roads just to catch a glimpse of the great man racing in a jersey that isn’t the rainbow stripes (it’s a pretty rare occurrence, the Sag Wagon’s our early tip to win Worlds this year). He won the People’s Choice Classic last year too, and his form is as evergreen as it gets, so expect him to be near the front here too.
The most interesting name though? Caleb Ewan (especially for this home crowd). Ewan’s moved from Mitchelton-SCOTT to Lotto Soudal in search of greener (and more symbiotic) pastures. It’s the biggest-year-of-his-career-2.0, and a good performance here should help lube up the transition. The best man usually wins in a grand tour, and the strongest man usually wins at Flanders, but in a sprint, it’s not always the quickest guy that wins the race. So often it’s the best-drilled unit (see: Deceuninck-QuickStep), and there’s usually kinks that need to be ironed out in a sprinter’s first year with a team. A win or two here would just help everything move along.
Ewan, Sagan and the other sprinters should be fighting out on Stages 1 and 2 and potentially 3 and 5. Who are those other sprinters? 2019’s most winningest man, Elia Viviani is making the trip, now with the full backing of Deceuninck-QuickStep due to Fernando Gaviria’s departure. Phil Bauhaus has joined Bahrain-Merida from Team Sunweb in search of more sprint opportunities, and he’ll be looking to make an impression here too.
The GC Battle will all come down to Willunga on the final day, but before that, the peloton will have to negotiate the hellish Corkscrew on Stage 4. The twisting 2.1km climb averages 9%, with sections around 14% coming in the middle. Topping out with 5km to go, a fast snaking road leads down to the finish in Campbelltown.
Two days later, Willunga waits, ready to crown this year’s king. The 3km climb at 7% is always the crucial point of the race, and this year should be no different. A fast climb, we’ve seen the climbers come out to play here, but the more versatile fast man is usually able to limit their losses. It’s one of the great things about the TDU as a whole; the route’s winnable if you’re a Daryl Impey or a Richie Porte.
Both those two men return this year, both looking for their second overall win at the race. Porte’s been the champion of the Willunga stage in every race since 2014, but it was only 2017 where he was able to take the overall victory too. The scales are tipped slightly in his favour this year with the return of Corkscrew, and he’ll have to make use of the steeper inclines to get time back on Impey.
The South African Impey will have his work cut out but will undoubtedly pick up bonus seconds on the lumpier stages 3 and 5. If he can stay within touching distance of Porte up corkscrew, he’s in with a chance.
Who else to watch? There are a few other past winners here, Cam Meyer presents a second option for Mitchelton-SCOTT if Plan Impey goes awry. Tom-Jelte Slagter’s was one of cycling’s next big things when he won the TDU in 2013, however, he hasn’t had a great deal of success since. He did return to the overall podium here last year though, and clearly enjoys the race. He’s likely the third option behind teammates Michael Valgren and Ben O’Connor, both of whom could be sneaky chances. O’Connor had a breakout 2018 Giro but might lack the explosive power to take advantage of the shorter climbs here. Valgren’s got explosiveness coming out the wazoo, and he’s proven his versatility.
Michael Woods’ palmares is growing after a successful 2018 in which he took a World Championships medal and a Vuelta stage win. He’ll be one of the frontrunners next week, and the early favourite to win on Corkscrew; he’s previously said that his previous life as a runner means he likes steeper inclines.
Our tips? Porte to win on Willunga and take the Overall, Woods wins on Corkscrew, Ewan and Viviani take a sprint each, with Sagan mopping up the lumpy stages.
See you back at the social club,