The wait is almost over.
On Sunday (15), 133 of the world’s best riders will roll on to the streets of the Adelaide for the Down Under Classic, an hour-long, city centre criterium to whet the appetite for the six-stage Santos Tour Down Under stage race which begins two days later. RoadcyclingUK columnist, Matt Brammeier, will make his debut in the colours of Omega Pharma-Quick Step, alongside British newcomer to the WorldTour, Andy Fenn.
For fans of elite cycling, the start of the season can’t come quickly enough. The intoxicating mix of speed, drama, suffering, and glamour almost guaranteed by cycling’s crème is impossible to replace. News of closed-season transfers, rider race schedules for the coming year, and new parcours for the Grand Tours, serve only to increase the gnawing desire for racing.
This thirteenth edition of Australia’s only WorldTour event is not set to disappoint. Eighteen WorldTour teams will be represented, including three of the peloton’s ‘superteams’. Australia’s first WorldTour outfit, the GreenEdge team to be led by Stuart O’Grady, will make its debut with an all Australian line-up.
Sky directeur sportif, Sean Yates, will command a seven-man team that includes some of the squad’s highest-profile riders. The Norwegian, Edvald Boasson Hagen, who picked up two stage wins in the 2011 Tour De France, and Welshman, Gerraint Thomas, whose impressive season including overall victory at Bayern-Rundfhart, are among the squad’s A-listers assigned duties in Australia. Sky will also field three home riders, including Michael Rogers, who rode to overall victory in 2002, Matthew Hayman, and Christopher Sutton, who won stage six of the 2010 race. American, Danny Pate, who joined Sky with Mark Cavendish following the demise of HTC-Highroad, completes the line up. The British team will be eager to repeat the successes of last year’s Australian outing, where they took two stage wins, courtesy of Britain’s Ben Swift.
RadioShack-Nissan-Trek, formed from the merger of the Radioshack and LeopardTrek squads, will make their debut in Australia with a strong squad that includes Italian sprinter, Daniele Bennati, a man with 11 Grand Tour stage victories to his credit. German rider, Jens Voight, among the peloton’s most experienced and well-liked riders, is joined by countryman and Grand Tour stage winner, Linus Gerdemann. New Zealander’s Hayden Roulston, the national road race champion who has joined the squad from the collapsed HTC-Highroad outfit, and Jesse Sergent, complete the line up.
BMC will be led by 2008 world road race champion, Alessandro Ballan. The Italian, who joined the squad in 2010, will be under pressure this year to repeat his best form with the arrival at the squad of Belgian classics king, Phillipe Gilbert, and the Norweigan former world road race champion, Thor Hushovd. With Gilbert and Hushovd not due to start their seasons until the Tour of Quatar in February, the Tour Down Under would be a good place for Ballan to recover wining ways. Twenty-two year old Brit, Adam Blythe, who followed Gilbert to BMC at the end of the 2011 season, will celebrate a double debut, making his first appearance for BMC at his inaugural Tour Down Under. The Belgian rider, Greg Van Avermaet, who won the 2011 Paris-Tours, will also ride the Tour Down Under for the first time.
Many established riders will debut for their new teams at the Tour Down Under. Mark Renshaw, Cavendish’s lead-out man at HTC-Highroad, will race for the first time in the signature orange and blue of Dutch team, Rabobank. Renshaw surprised many by not following Cavendish to Sky, but the Australian, who won the opening stage of the Tour Down Under in 2008, and who in 2011 took overall victory at the Tour of Quatar as well as the fifth stage of the Tour of Britain, has determined to trust his own abilities, while freely admitting that beating Cavendish will be a tall order. Three-time world champion, Oscar Friere will make his debut for the Russian squad, Katusha, while feared German sprinter, Andre Greipel, likely to spearhead his nation’s bid for Olympic road race victory in July, pulls on the colours of Loto-Belisol for the first time.
Here’s the low down on the 2012 routes, with another chance to enjoy the racing from the 2011 Tour Down Under. The parcourse has changed for 2012, but the racing will be just as intense.
Stage One – Prospect to Clare
The opening stage from the Adelaide suburb of Prospect to Clare on the outskirts of Blyth, climbs steadily throughout its 149km, taking the riders to nearly 350m at about 85km, before dropping sharply and then resuming an uphill trajectory until 3km from the finish. A tough stage, with two sprints before the final 500m climb to the peak at Sevenhill, this present an opportunity for puncheurs able to make a decisive move before the pan flat 3km run in to Clare.
Stage two – Lobethal to Stirling
The second stage will see the riders roll out of Lobethal at 11am, bound for the finishing line in Stirling, some 148km away. A rolling parcourse spent entirely above 300m offers another chance for points in the Skoda King of the Mountains competition as the road rises to 500m a few kilometers before Lenswood. Beyond 80km, the route takes on a decidedly more jagged profile, before dropping sharply at Mylor and then climbing steeply in the final 10km to Stirling.
Stage three – Unley to Victor Harbour
Stage three from Unley to Victor Harbour could see a decisive break, with riders faced with the sudden and significant ascent of Sellick’s Hill after 40km, with points available at the summit in the Skoda King of the Mountains competition. The road continues to rise to nearly 300m for the next 20km or so as the riders head towards Mount Compass. Any rider still ahead of the bunch by 80km and blessed with iron nerve and considerable descending skills could find in the sudden and massive descent an opportunity to stay away. The final 50km features a mix of the pan flat and short, jagged climbs, that could disrupt a sprint train and provide a spring board for attacks from puncheurs.
Stage four – Norwood to Tanunda
Another day of steady climbing will see the riders hit the second category climb of Smith Hill just 30.8km after the departe from Norwood, before the road drops steadily for 30km and then rises again sharply to the King of Mountains kite flying at the 500m summit of Mengler’s Hill, the first of two category one climbs in the race. A brief plateau gives way to a rapid descent for about 30km to the finish line at Tanunda.
Stage five – McLaren Vale to Old Willunga Hill
Three laps from stage five’s McLaren Vale start point to the coast at Aldinga Beach and Port Willunga are a mere prelude to a final lap that will take riders twice to the 400m summit of Old Willunga Hill, the final first category climb of the race. This 151.5km criterium will be mostly raced on flat roads that feature two sprints, but it is the Tour Down Under’s signature climb that could make the difference today. An average gradient of 7.5 per cent will be tackled twice, with the summit hosting the finish on the second ascent. Those brave enough to use the descent as a springboard to the second lap could make a decisive move.
Stage six – Adelaide City Council Street Circuit
The riders return to Adelaide for the sixth and final stage, a 90km criterion composed of twenty, 4.5km laps around the city’s green lung. Pan flat in profile, and with many long, flowing straights, this stage has bunch finish stamped all over it. Any of the heavyweight sprinters registered for action in the Tour Down Under could seize the day here. Take your pick from Bennati, Greipel, Petacchi, or perhaps Renshaw.