Make no mistake, this is the best start list in Tour Down Under history. We could not be more excited. Here are the 5 riders to watch when the race kicks off.
Words - Tom McQuillan Photo credit: Santos Tour Down Under / Regallo
The defending champ
The defending Tour Down Under champion is Orica-GreenEdge’s Simon Gerrans. Probably Australia’s most successful male cyclist since Cadel Evans’ Tour de France win in 2011, ‘Gerro’ has won the Tour Down Under four times, as well as great European one-day classics like Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Unfortunately the two stage wins and overall victory he took at last year’s TDU was the pinnacle of Gerrans’ season, as he struggled with form and injury for much of the rest of 2016. Gerrans isn’t the best at any one discipline of cycling, but he’s a great all-rounder, capable of gaining valuable bonus seconds in the sprint stages and hanging in with all but the best when the roads point upwards.
Forget Chris Froome, the biggest star in cycling right now is Peter Sagan. After a 2016 season in which he wore the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, finally won a big one-day classic at the Tour of Flanders and beat the best sprinters in the world to take his second world title in Qatar, the Slovakian arrives in Australia as the undisputed #1 rider in the world. As if that wasn’t enough, he and his wife did a video tribute to Grease when they got married, so you can guarantee your mum will love him.
All eyes will be on him in the TDU’s sprint stages, and although he’s saying that he’s not coming in with great form, we’ll be extremely surprised if he doesn’t leave Australia with at least one stage win. He could be an outside chance to win the race overall as well – he won the much hillier Tour of California in 2015, and should be picking up bonus seconds at intermediate sprints and stage finishes on almost every stage. Failing that, he may support Irish sprinter Sam Bennett in the sprints – he did a power of work for him in Sunday’s People’s Choice Classic.
The crowd favourite
This year marks the first participation at the Tour Down Under for 'Aussie' Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott), and the diminutive Colombian will be expected to attract bigger crowds of fans than anyone not named Peter Sagan. If you've ever watched Orica's excellent Backstage Pass videos, it's not hard to see why - he appreciates his teammates, is humble in both defeat and victory and genuinely seems to love nothing more than racing his bike. He’s cycling’s equivalent of a happy puppy.
The little man with the giant smile had a career-best year in 2016, finishing second in the Giro d'Italia, 3rd in the Vuelta a España, and winning the one day classic Il Lombardia. Although his major season goals for 2017 lie further down the road, don't be surprised if Chavito is in the mix on the stage to Old Willunga Hill - he's reportedly been training the house down to try and deliver a win for his team's Australian sponsor.
The young sprinter
World champion Peter Sagan will be the man everyone is trying to beat in the sprint stages, but the man who dominated the bunch kicks at last year’s Tour Down Under is Orica-Scott’s Caleb Ewan. The New South Welshman won two stages of last year’s TDU and wore the leader’s jersey for a day, though aside from a win in the Vattenfall Cyclassics last August his European season was less successful. He’s announced that he’ll target the sprints at Giro d’Italia in 2017, and a stage win or two at the TDU would be the perfect way to get some wins under his belt early. His win at the Australian Criterium Championships and Sunday’s People’s Choice Classic certainly suggests that he’s in good form, but beating Sagan in a head-to-head sprint is another matter. One way or another, we can’t wait to see them in action.
Our pick for the win
BMC Racing’s Richie Porte has finished second overall in the two most recent editions of the Tour Down Under, and has won the crucial uphill finish to Old Willunga Hill the past three years on the trot. He also finished fifth in some big bike race around France last July. After a couple of years of almost getting to the top step of the podium, we’re tipping him to finally take the ochre jersey in 2017.
Racing gets under way on Tuesday 17 January. Check your local guides for TV coverage and we'll be keeping you up to date with race reports and news.