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Tour Down Under preview: Sprint aces will look to draw first blood

The 2011 professional cycling season kicks off tomorrow (Sunday) with the Tour Down Under, the opening event of the new UCI World Tour. It is the 13th time the race has been held, and this year’s edition boasts its strongest ever line-up, with 2010 winner André Greipel going up against former HTC-Highroad teammate Mark Cavendish in the start of what promises to be a year-long battle for the unofficial title of the world’s fastest sprinter. And there is also the small matter of this being the last outing for Lance Armstrong, seven-time winner of the Tour de France.

The contenders

The key battle in this year’s race is likely to involve Greipel and Cavendish. Having spent four years in the British rider’s shadow, the German finally left HTC-Highroad at the end of last year to join Omega Pharma-Lotto so that he could have the opportunity to go head-to-head against Cavendish in cycling’s most prestigious races.

Cavendish will go head-to-head with Greipel for the first time in Adelaide (image courtesy of highroadsports.com)

It is an open secret that the pair were not friends during their time as teammates, having fallen out at the 2008 Giro d’Italia. How could they be when they are regarded by many as the two pre-eminent out-and-out sprinters in professional cycling? Greipel has claimed he is Cavendish’s equal, while his rival hit back by saying Greipel only wins “shit small races”.

Having won the Tour Down Under in both 2008 and last year (when he also won three stages), Greipel has the advantage of familiarity with the course, although he will not have the benefit of HTC-Highroad’s powerful lead-out train. He is likely to be led out by former HTC rider Adam Hansen and Belgian Jurgen Roelandts.

So far, Greipel has played down expectations for this year’s race:

My goal? To win a stage, the rest is extra. It is always strange when you come to the first race of the season, no one knows anyone’s condition. It is the same here, we have a new team and we need to see how each other is riding.

Cavendish himself has never competed in the event before, but that is unlikely to be a major hindrance to him. He will be supported by a strong team which includes key lieutenants Mark Renshaw, Bernhard Eisel and Matt Goss. The overall win will probably be a low priority for him – his key objective is likely to be stage wins and the opportunity to put Greipel firmly back in his place.

Beyond the headline battle, other riders likely to be in contention for both stage wins and the overall include Astana‘s Allan Davis (the 2009 winner), Garmin-Cervélo‘s Tyler Farrar and 38-year old veteran Robbie McEwen, now riding for RadioShack. Sky‘s Greg Henderson (third in 2010) may also feature in the mix, while other Australians to look out for include Uni-SA‘s Luke Roberts (fifth last year), Stuart O’Grady of Leopard-Trek (the Schleck brothers’ new team) and Sky’s Michael Rogers.

Armstrong will ride off into the sunset (again) after the TDU

The sideshow

The Tour Down Under will also be the final professional bike race for seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, at the event which marked his comeback from retirement in 2009.

The 39-year old claims to be in excellent condition, saying that he isn’t intending to fly halfway around the world just to sit in the pack. But it is difficult to see how he can be 100% motivated for what is effectively a week-long swan-song.

However, it is possible that, despite never really being a sprinter, he may still feature prominently in some of the stage finishes, either for personal glory – given all his work for cancer, what price him going for a win in the pre-event Cancer Council Classic warm-up race? – or as a lead-out man for McEwen:

We have never had a top sprinter, so it will be a new experience for us. I hope we can do him justice and support him.

Also, while most other riders will come to Australia in relatively mediocre shape, looking to build form and fitness to peak later in the year, such concerns are irrelevant for Armstrong – it is all or nothing here. A stage win may be too much to expect, but I wouldn’t entirely discount him either.

The course

This year’s race largely follows the same itinerary as in previous years: flat road stages, no major climbs and no time trials. In other words, a sprinter’s paradise, with most stages tailor-made for bunch sprints. It will be a major surprise if one of the leading fast-twitch men does not finish with the ochre jersey of the overall winner.

Sunday evening sees a 51km criterium, the Cancer Council Classic, around 30 laps of Adelaide’s Rymill Park. Effectively a warm-up event, results here do not count towards the overall standings.

After a day’s break, the race proper starts on Tuesday with a 138km stage from Mawson Lakes to Angaston, one of three days (stages one, two and six) which will inevitably finish with the sprinters’ lead-out teams swallowing up any surviving breakaway and jostling for position in the final five kilometres.

The only days likely to see the sprint trains derailed come in the middle of the race. Stage three (Unley to Stirling) takes the race into the Adelaide Hills, culminating in a lactic acid-inducing uphill drag which last year was won by Footon Servetto-Fuji‘s Manuel Cardoso (now with RadioShack). The following day sees another rising finish in Strathalbyn, while stage five requires the riders to tackle the tricky three-kilometre climb of Old Willunga Hill twice in the final 45km. It is the one big chance for a non-sprinter to make a break stick and climb the overall standings.

Stage 5 represents the only realistic chance for a climber to snatch glory

The last stage comprises 20 laps of a 4.5km circuit of downtown Adelaide, where we can expect one final showdown between the top sprinters, with the overall title potentially still at stake.

Coming as it does at the very beginning of the season, the Tour Down Under cannot be regarded as a reliable barometer for the rest of the year, but you can be sure that Cavendish and Greipel, not to mention the other leading sprinters present, will be keen to draw first blood in what promises to be an explosive start to the 2011 season.

Tour Down Under stages

January 16th: Cancer Council Classic, 51km

January 18th: Stage 1 – Mawson Lakes to Angaston, 138km

January 19th: Stage 2 – Tailem Bend to Mannum, 146km

January 20th: Stage 3 – Unley to Stirling, 129km

January 21st: Stage 4 – Norwood to Strathalbyn, 124km

January 22nd: Stage 5 – McLaren Vale to Willunga, 131km

January 23rd: Stage 6 – Adelaide City Council Circuit, 90km

The Tour Down Under starts on Sunday 16th January and ends on Sunday 23rd. Daily highlights will be shown in the UK by Sky Sports.

Link: Tour Down Under official website

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

7 Responses to Tour Down Under preview: Sprint aces will look to draw first blood

  1. Sheree says:

    A great summation as always. The season starts here and thank goodness, it’s been a long winter! After today’s all Australian podium in the criterium, I’m looking forward to the Cav v Greipel v Anyone else match starting Tuesday. Anything to take my mind off Villa’s position in the Premiership.

    • Tim says:

      It seems like a very long time since the Worlds, doesn’t it?

      A shame about the crash near the end yesterday, which neutered the final somewhat – the Sky boys had no one to lead out and ran out of puff, and Goss didn’t even need Renshaw. Interesting that Robbie came out of nowhere to snatch third – he seems in good nick, and if this is going to be his last season as rumoured then he will dearly love a win somewhere this week. Maybe one of the uphill finishes if he can time his run right -stage three or four?

      Cav vs Greipel – pure speed versus brute power – will be fascinating to watch, although obviously we can’t read too much into January form. Lance made a good point, though, when he said we should enjoy this week because we won’t see such a quality sprint field again until July. If nothing else, we will miss his ability to deliver a killer soundbite when he hangs up his helmet.

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