Santos Tour Down Under 2016: preview – the course and contenders

Where will the first WorldTour race of 2016 be won and who by?

Some 108 days after Vincenzo Nibali brought down the curtain on the 2015 UCI WorldTour season with victory at Il Lombardia, the 2016 campaign will kick off with the Santos Tour Down Under on Tuesday January 19.

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The traditional season-opener has attracted its usual mix of high-profile riders looking to test the legs after the winter break, Classics men beginning their preparations for spring and GC hopefuls keen to start the season with a bang.

Rohan Dennis sealed overall victory at the Tour Down Under in 2015 (pic: Tour Down Under)

An intriguing mix of stages awaits as we get to take a look at the WorldTour peloton for the first time this season – new kits, new signings and all.

The Tour Down Under is a race of fine margins and last year’s edition was won by Rohan Dennis, just two seconds ahead of Richie Porte. Both line up together for BMC Racing for the 2016 race after Porte left Team Sky.

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That winning margin was comprehensive compared to previous editions, mind – Simon Gerrans beat Cadel Evans by a solitary second in 2014, and his 2012 victory over Alejandro Valverde was even closer than that.

Gerrans will again be in contention this time out, having missed last year’s race through injury, while a healthy British presence means there’s plenty to entice fans on these shores from their beds for an early start.

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Who are the riders set to shine, and where will the race be won? Read on for our comprehensive preview.

Tour Down Under 2016 route

As ever, the course has been tinkered with slightly from last year’s race, which saw Dennis claim the race lead on the hill-top finish at Paracombe and hold on to his advantage despite Porte’s stage win on Willunga Hill.

Willunga Hill will again be the focal point of the race, with a double ascent of the three kilometre climb (average gradient 7.6 per cent) awaiting on the penultimate day.

Willunga Hill is likely to be pivotal again, featuring twice on stage five – the day the race will be all but won (pic: Sirotti)

Porte has actually been victorious on the climb, in the colours of Team Sky, in the last two editions but on both occasions could not eke out a large enough winning margin to move top of the GC.

With Paracombe not featuring this year, however, that may change – the winner on Willunga Hill may well be crowned champion.

There are still plenty of other chances to seize control of the race, though, in particular stage three, which finishes with the climb of Montacute and a rapid descent into Campbelltown. Cadel Evans was victorious there after a late attack in 2014.

Stage one should favour the sprinters, while stage two’s uphill finish into Stirling is one for punchy riders – Michael Matthews, Diego Ulissi, Tom-Jelte Slagter and Juan-Jose Lobato count themselves among the former winners there, which is an indicator of the type of rider it suits.

Stage four, from Norwood to Victor Harbor, is also likely to end with a bunch sprint – unless someone can get away over the Port Elliot climb with about 20km to go.

That sets things up for a decisive stage over Willunga Hill before the circuitous finale in Adelaide wraps things up on Sunday January 17.

Tour Down Under 2016 favourites

Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE)

Having missed last year’s race through injury, home favourite Simon Gerrans starts this one as a big favourite.

The 35-year-old Orica-GreenEDGE man already has three overall victories to his name in this race, having won the first edition in 2006, before giving GreenEDGE a winning start to life in the WorldTour peloton in 2012 and then triumphing again in 2014.

Simon Gerrans is back and bidding for a fourth Tour Down Under victory (pic: Sirotti)

With the race decided on such fine margins, his ability to snatch bonus seconds on the sprint finishes and compete with the best over the hills certainly gives Gerrans an undoubted edge.

However, Caleb Ewan will start as the race as the team’s primary sprinter, so it may be harder for Gerrans to snaffle the bonuses he needs.

Nevertheless, it is easy to see why the bookmakers have installed Gerrans as favourite and he’ll be the man to beat as far as the rest of the peloton are concerned.

Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing)

Defending champion Rohan Dennis will roll out wearing dossard number one with the man he beat to victory last year, Richie Porte, now among his team-mates.

Dennis, 25, has already tasted success in his home country this season after storming to the Australian national time trial title and will be keen for more success to kick off 2016.

Rohan Dennis starts as defending champion, but may find himself supporting team-mate Richie Porte (pic: Sirotti)

He may also yet again benefit from BMC Racing’s two-pronged attack – last year, the GC men were marking team-mate Cadel Evans as Dennis made what proved to be a race-winning move on Paracombe.

However, Porte ultimately is the man to beat on Willunga Hill and Dennis – despite being defending champion – may find his role changes to that of supporting his new team-mate.

Until then, Dennis is a contender in his own right, as he not only proved at last year’s Tour Down Under but also at the USA Pro Challenge in August where he grabbed overall victory.

Richie Porte (BMC Racing)

Should Dennis not manage to defend the title he won last year, you can guarantee team-mate Porte will not be far away from the top step of the podium.

Twice a stage winner on Willunga Hill, the former Team Sky man has a huge opportunity to kick off his BMC Racing career with overall victory in his home country.

Richie Porte will be looking to kick off his BMC Racing career in winning fashion (pic: BMC Racing/Continuum Sports)

As he has found in the last two editions, however, victory on the penultimate stage is not a guarantee of overall success.

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Much will depend on how both he, and his chief rivals, do on earlier stages where bonus seconds and small splits in the bunch can make a big difference.

BMC Racing boast a strong squad for this race, with Alessandro de Marchi also among their numbers, but it is their two Australian stars in Dennis and Porte who will be fighting at the sharp end of the season opener.

Geraint Thomas (Team Sky)

Away from the home favourites, Geraint Thomas is one of five Brits in Team Sky’s line-up and has been on the podium in this race before.

In fact, he wore the ochre jersey in 2013 before Tom-Jelte Slagter pipped him to overall victory but this is a new, much stronger Geraint Thomas.

Geraint Thomas starts what could be a big year down under (pic: Sirotti)

The Welshman is set to forego any ambitions in the Spring Classics in favour of a strong season chasing GC results and this is his first opportunity.

Thomas can climb with the best, as he proved at last year’s Tour de France, and without Porte to support has the chance to make a mark for himself on Willunga Hill.

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British champion Peter Kennaugh, former Town Down Under third-place finisher Ben Swift, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe will also fly the British flag for Team Sky, making for a strong line-up – particularly with Salvatore Puccio and Sergio Henao completing the seven.

This could be a very big season for Geraint Thomas, and success Down Under would be the perfect way to kick it off.

Jack Bobridge (Trek-Segafredo)

Given the fine margins the Tour Down Under is so often won by, it is not improbable the winner could be simply an opportunist, who takes a chance at the right moment.

And as opportunists go, newly-crowned Australian national champion Jack Bobridge is certainly a man who falls in that category.

Jack Bobridge is back on the WorldTour with Trek-Segafredo (pic: Sirotti)

Having soloed to victory in the Australian national road race, Bobridge will hope for success when racing in the gold and green bands on home soil.

Back in the WorldTour after being signed by Trek-Segafredo in the winter, Bobridge is one of four new faces in the team’s line-up, alongside Peter Stetina, Kiel Reijnen and Ryder Hesjedal.

All will be looking for – and on their day are capable of – making a big early impression, but it’s Bobridge who has previous in this race.

Last year, the Australian bolted clear of the peloton on the first stage and stayed clear – winning the stage and bagging the first ochre jersey.

His challenge ended in Paracombe, but his focus back then was form for his ultimately unsuccessful UCI Hour Record attempt.

Bobridge has no such distractions this time out – but he will be a marked man, even if he doesn’t concede time to the other contenders on the hillier stages.

Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida)

Another man with previous in this race is Diego Ulissi, who returns to the race he finished third at in 2014.

The Lampre-Merida man made a strong return to the peloton after his nine-month doping suspension for acting negligently when taking too much of the asthma drug Salbutamol.

Diego Ulissi made a winning return to the peloton in 2015 (pic: Sirotti)

Cleared of deliberate wrongdoing, the Italian immediately set about making up for lost time with a Giro d’Italia stage win and top-ten finishes at the Tours of Slovenia, Poland and Abu Dhabi.

Ulissi proved his versatility with a stage win into Stirling at the 2014 Tour Down Under, and the punchy uphill finishes that often feature in this race certainly suit him.

His overall hopes will depend on how he does on the tougher stages, but Ulissi is certainly capable.

Others to watch

With plenty of flatter stages, there will also be opportunities for the fast men to make their mark, and there’s interest on the British front too.

Adam Blythe will roll out for Tinkoff for the first time – the Brit, representing his fourth team in four years, may hold sprinting ambitions of his own but the Tour Down Under is more likely a form finder before he joins world champion Peter Sagan’s supporting cast for the Spring Classics.

Britain’s Adam Blythe makes his Tinkoff debut in Australia – his fourth team in four years (pic: Sirotti)

Otherwise, while Mark Cavendish may be busy in Hong Kong at the Track World Cup, it will be a first chance to see how well his new team-mates Tyler Farrar, Reinardt Janse van Rensburg and Mark Renshaw work together at Team Dimension Data.

All three, alongside Edvald Boasson Hagen and Bernie Eisel, could conceivably play a huge role in Cavendish’s sprint train this season.

Steele von Hoff, meanwhile, was a stage winner here last winner and races again for the UniSA-Australia as he prepares for a debut season with ONE Pro Cycling.

Steele von Hoff celebrates his sprint victory in Mount Barker last year – the Australian has joined ONE Pro Cycling for 2016 but will once again start his season by racing for UniSA-Australia at the Tour Down Under (pic: Tour Down Under)

Von Hoff, alongside fellow Aussie Matt Goss, will be among the sprinters looking to put the British UCI ProContinental team on their map in their first season in pro cycling’s second tier.

Among the other riders debuting for new teams is Marko Kump at Lampre-Merida. The Slovenian sprinter, 27, returns to the WorldTour after amassing 18 victories for Continental Team Adria Mobil in 2015 and will be keen to prove he can make the step up.

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