Evans’ swan song part of Tour Down Under battle

The six-day race in South Australia gets underway January 20

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ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — Far away from the gloom of European winter, the 2015 UCI WorldTour clicks into gear next week in sunny Adelaide.

Despite its billing as the opener of the WorldTour, the Santos Tour Down Under remains very much an Australian affair. A few big names have made the trek to the southern hemisphere, including Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin), Lars Boom (Astana), and Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin), but for most of the European pros, the six-day race in and over the green hills of South Australia is little more than a race-speed training camp.

In no way does that suggest the racing is somehow easy. In fact, the race has progressively become harder over the past half decade, so much so that record-stage-winner André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), with 18 stages, decided to skip it altogether. The race is world-class, with an exemplary organization, perhaps the best on the WorldTour circuit, and the rowdy Aussie fans turn out in force that would make most European races jealous. But just as the Giro d’Italia is most important to the Italians, and the Vuelta a España is for the for Spanish, it’s only natural that the Australians take their home race very seriously.

Nearly every major Australia pro is lined up in Adelaide looking for home-road results. Richie Porte (Sky) looks to be in the form of his career, and will be the five-star favorite to win. Recently crowned national champion Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling), Nathan Haas (Cannondale-Garmin), Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo), Mark Renshaw (Etixx-Quick-Step), Adam Hansen (Lotto-Soudal), and Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) are among the starters.

“I’m in pretty good condition for early in the season,” Porte said. “It’s a long season, and the Giro and Tour are on my schedule, but I am pretty motivated to have a big season.”

Unfortunately for the race, defending champion Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) won’t be back. He snapped his collarbone training on a mountain bike last month, and his absence will leap a gap at the top of the pecking order. Orica has realigned its squad around stage-hunters, meaning it will be up to other teams to control the race.

“We obviously don’t have Simon, but we will have strength in numbers,” said Orica’s Cameron Meyer. “We have guys who will be up there challenging, including Simon [Clarke], Luke [Durbridge], and Michael [Hepburn]. We have a strong team, it’s just our tactics will change without Simon here.”

The January date makes it a challenge for Australian riders, who are under pressure for results and must be in decent race shape already in January, only to reload again for the European road season that can last until the world championships. It makes for a long season, but the Australian summer makes things a little easier.

The big story next week will be the final performance by 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans (BMC). His last event will be a one-day race in early February, but the Tour Down Under will mark Australia’s first Tour winner’s last stage race of his long and illustrious career.

“I am going to be focused on enjoying the race, rather than thinking about a result,” Evans said. “I’d rather be enjoying it, than leaving disappointed about some result. I want to feel pleased about what I’ve achieved in my career.”

Behind the Aussie storyline, there are some top names that will be in the thick of things to try to upset the Australian hegemony. Geraint Thomas (Sky) always goes well in January, while others, such as Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Tom Dumoulin (Giant), and Luis León Sánchez (Astana), a winner in 2005, could be in among the favorites.

The six-day course features a mix of opportunities for sprinters and a few key climbs to decide the GC. Time bonuses, which Gerrans used to nip away at Evans’ lead last year, always prove decisive.

Stage 1 will be one for the sprinters, but stage 2 gets things revving up with a rising finale into Stirling. There’s another uphill surge in stage 3 as well as challenging terrain in stage 4. Willunga Hill, with two passages in stage 6, typically gets the GC going into the final circuit race in Adelaide.

17th Tour Down Under (January 20-25)

Stage 1, January 20: Tanunda to Campbelltown, 132.6km
Stage 2, January 21: Unley to Stirling, 150.5km
Stage 3, January 22: Norwood to Paracombe, 143.5km
Stage 4, January 23: Glenelg to Mt. Barker, 144.5km
Stage 5, January 24: McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill, 151.5km
Stage 6, January 25: Adelaide-Adelaide, 90km

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