The Tour Down Under resumes and there are some subtle changes from race organiser Stuart O’Grady who gets to run his first post-Covid event, in comes a prologue time time trial and out goes the Old Willunga summit finish.
As yet there’s no sign on social media of riders cuddling kangaroos so that looks like another tweak. Right now the women’s race is on and one more significant change is everyone is hosted in the Hilton Hotel, no dormitories for the women any more. Stage 3 today/tonight/tomorrow (Tuesday arvo for locals) is going to be the decisive showdown and features the Corkscrew climb in the final so if you want some action before the men’s race starts, tune in.
Prologue, Tuesday 17 January
A prologue, a novelty for the TDU. It’s road-bike only, no TT bikes because of the hassle of transporting them around the world only for a seven minute outing. The course has several corners as it works its way through the Oval park and along the river but it’s not as tricky as feared, riders can carry speed through the corners and most of the roads are wide, the toughest part looks to be the chicane-style bend towards the end.
- Forecast finish: 8.30pm / 11.00am CET / 10.00am GMT / 05.00am EST
Stage 1, Wednesday 18 January
A trip through the Barossa vineyards and a likely sprint finish in Tanuda. As the profile shows it’s not flat so several will be interested in the mountains points on offer twice and Menglers Hill can be just enough to make life hard for some sprinters.
- Forecast finish: 3.20pm / 05.50am CET / 04.50am GMT / D-1 11.50pm EST
Stage 2, Thursday 19 January
The coastal stage to Victor Harbor. The crossing of the Fleurieu Peninsula can cause trouble if the wind is up as it’s often on exposed scrubland. The race almost reaches the finish only to head out for a lap around Mount Billy and the Nettle Hill KoM point which is mainly on a big road north before turning at the top onto a backroad to go south and for the traditional finish in Victor Harbor, complete with the right bend-left bend in the final kilometre.
- Forecast finish: 3.30pm / 06.00am CET / 05.00am GMT / D-1 midnight EST
Stage 3, Friday 20 January
On paper the decisive stage of the race with the Corkscrew climb. The approach to the climb matters a lot as the race thunders down a gorge where riders will scrap for position, a nest of nerves to see who can hold their place and not brake. The climb doesn’t take its name from the local wineries instead it’s got several hairpin bends, a rarity for South Australia and an obvious draw for local cyclists. It’s 3.7km long and the gradient hits 10% with the bends towards the top as an ideal place to shake off riders. There’s a fast, twisty descent into town and a flat finish.
- Forecast finish: 2.30pm / 05.00am CET / 04.00am GMT / D-1 11.00pm EST
Stage 4, Saturday 21 January
The Willunga stage… only without Old Willunga Hill. There’s more vineyards and a likely sprint finish but watch out for any splits if there’s a breeze as the course changes direction abruptly making echelon-formation obvious and so creating a self-reinforcing phenomenon.
- Forecast finish: 2.50pm / 05.20am CET / 04.20am GMT / D-1 11.20pm EST
Stage 5, Sunday 22 January
No Willunga summit finish, instead it’s a hilly circuit with five climbs of Mount Lofty which isn’t that mountainous nor lofty, it rises for about 1.5km, then levels out and dips briefly before kicking up to the line again, on average it’s 2km at 7% and all on a wide road, it’s hard to make a stand out attack. Still, the difference here is that the final stage is not about one final climb but instead the accumulation of effort and if someone like Michael Matthews or Daryl Impey is in the lead here, whether they can be distanced. The multiple laps bring close to 2,500m of vertical gain and ensure we get the GC contenders together to dispute the final.
- Forecast finish: 2.30pm / 05.00am CET / 04.00am GMT / D-1 11.00pm EST
The race has time bonuses of 10-6-4 seconds for the first three on Stages 1-5. They’re crucial to the outcome of the race given the slender margins between the riders, plus there are 3-2-1 seconds at the intermediate sprints. The prologue this year will spread things out a touch though.
It’s always a difficult pick as the race is often finely balanced, a time bonus here, a split there and voila, there’s your top-10.
Jayco-Al Ula have two riders to cover the two paths to victory in the race. Michael Matthews has won opening time trials before, can handle short hills and and bunch sprints alike so he can place and take time bonuses as often as possible, all with team motivated for the win made up of Australians who have been training for this moment. The Corkscrew climb is going to be a big test, and the final stage to Mount Lofty as well. Here’s where Simon Yates comes in, handy in a time trial especially if it’s got corners and changes in pace and he can handle himself in a sprint among a small group and he excels on the climbs.
Ineos look like the big rival outfit. Ethan Hayter can do it all, from time trials to uphill sprints although his weakness can be scrapping for positions but we’re likely to see Geraint Thomas shepherding him down Cudlee and Kangaroo creek into the Corkscrew climbs. Luke Plapp is one rider whose form is a known quantity as he has just won the Australian road race title with a show of form and tactical sense while Magnus Sheffield capable of placing well in the prologue.
UAE bring a good team but have they got the hustle? Jay Vine was a surprise winner of the Aussie TT championships, proof there’s a lot more to him than the uphill only specialist. George Bennett is suited to the climbing parts of the race, he might have to take some longer range risks with someone like Yates. New signing Michael Vink is also said to be in great shape and the likes of Marc Hirschi and Alessandro Covi ought to win big this year but might be in service of others this week.
On paper Max Schachmann (Bora-hansgrohe) is the archetypal rider for this, great at short time trials, suited to punchy climbs, he’s won week-long stage races. But form’s unknown and just putting an end to the rotten luck of last year with injury, illness and mishap would be a booster. Jai Hindley a grand tour winner but how to scrap for the bonus seconds? Hard and he’s unlikely to just ride away.
Rohan Dennis (Jumbo-Visma) is a dark horse pick, form unknown and he’s won uphill finishes in the TDU before but jostling every day for time bonuses is harder work. Ben O’Connor (Ag2r Citroën) is always up for having a go, expect him to try on the Corkscrew and again on Mount Lofty.
Daryl Impey (Israel-PremierTech) no local but another southern hemisphere rider who has been able to train all summer and he’s long been suited to this kind of race, he’s won the Corkscrew stage on his way to the overall win in 2019. But he’s 38 now and won’t have it so easy. Corbin Strong could be one to watch, the Kiwi rider’s a finisseur who might be able to learn from Impey.
Among others Paddy Bevin (DSM) crashed hard in the criterium race at the weekend, Simon Clarke (Israel-PremierTech) has been sick with Covid so their chances are down. Geraint Thomas has been ill of late too and he normally doesn’t sandbag so he’s probably on team duties. Pello Bilbao (Bahrain) is a crafty rider but form after time in the damp Basque Country is unknown. Soudal-Quickstep have some solid riders but who stands out? EF Education have Alberto Bettiol and new signing Mikkel Honoré but by now we’re trying to imagine scenarios where some riders whose form we don’t know might sneak away for a win…
|Ethan Hayter, Michael Matthews
|Simon Yates, Luke Plapp
|Sheffield, Vine, O’Connor, Impey, Bennett, Hindley, Schachmann, Strong
TV: the local broadcaster is Channel 7 and its bogan offshoot 7 Two, with over four hours of coverage a day, including pre and post race chat… and a lot of ads. Sure bills have to be paid but outside Australia it’s on Eurosport/GCN in many countries with fewer ads, plus it’s on NBC Peacock in the US.
Note the finish times for each stage, they’re estimates as long as the wind isn’t blowing it’s been easy to tune for the final minutes of each day and catch most of the action.