Five things to watch at the Tour Down Under

GC clash expected to come down to closing-day finale on emblematic Old Willunga Hill after course redesign.

Photo: Getty Images

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And just like that, the 2019 WorldTour racing calendar opens this week at the Santos Tour Down Under.

The six-stage race around the Adelaide Hills has become an institution within Australian cycling, and since 2009, the opening race of the WorldTour calendar.

Heat, hills and intense GC battle usually between Australians highlight the race. Here’s what to watch this week:

Porte versus the world

The GC battle typically comes down to a fight between the Aussies. Though some big names are here in this year’s field, the early season race looks to be a shootout between Richie Porte, making his debut in Trek-Segafredo colors, and Mitchelton-Scott, led by defending champion Daryl Impey. The Aussie outfit always races on pride on home roads and has won four of the past seven editions. Porte won in 2017 and will start as the pre-race favorite.

“I think the course was a bit better suited for me two years ago,” Porte said. “It’s a fantastic race and a great way to start the season.”

Others expected to go well include Michael Woods (EF Education First), Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin), former winner Tom-Jelte Slagter (Dimension Data) and Diego Ulissi (UAE-Emirates).

The heat is on

It’s summer in Australia and that means heat waves in the south. Temperatures are expected to push north of 100 degrees Fahrenheit next week, which could provoke the “extreme weather protocol” on some stages.

Last year, organizers trimmed a circuit course by one lap in a move lauded by everyone. The decision didn’t change the outcome of the race, which ended as expected as a bunch sprint, and helped riders endure road-race temperatures that neared 120 degrees.

Forecasters are calling for warm temperatures for the opening stages, perhaps above 100 degrees mid-week, but slightly cooling off by the key climbing stages next weekend.

“We have all the protocols in place to deal with it,” said race director Mike Turtur. “It will be considered when and if it happens. It’s one of those things we cannot control.”

It’s ideal weather for a barbecue, but maybe a tad too warm for racing. Officials promise to be proactive about any oppressive heat.

Life in the fast lane: Ewan vs Viviani

The Tour Down Under always provides an interesting preview in the sprints. André Greipel holds the record stage wins with 18, but the Gorilla — now racing with French outfit Arkea Samsic — isn’t starting this year.

All eyes will be on Caleb Ewan, making his debut in Lotto-Soudal colors. The Aussie sprinter makes his high-profile move after a split with Mitchelton-Scott to the Belgian team and already boasts seven Tour Down Under stage wins on his palmares. He’ll be under pressure to win at least one stage.

“We haven’t had a lot of time to work on our sprint train,” Ewan said of his new team. “We’ll be using this week to work out the sprint train and hopefully win at least one stage.”

His top rival in the mass gallops will be Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-Quick Step), who won a stage last year to open what was a breakout season for the Italian sprinter. Both riders are expected to head to the Tour de France this year and should be battling in the sprints all season long. Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe), Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Merida) and Danny Van Poppel (Jumbo-Visma) will be also elbowing in for a win.

Sagan without the stripes

Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is back Down Under, starting the season for the first time since 2015 without wearing the rainbow jersey of the world champion. Even without the world champion’s stripes, Sagan will be the center of attention.

Sporting a new mustache, Sagan will use the heat and miles of the Town Down Under to ease into the 2019 season.

“We have been here a few weeks, so we are not worried about the heat,” Sagan said. “Will I win a stage? We will see. We will try, like always.”

His spring goals remain largely unchanged. He’d love to finally win Milano-Sanremo and he’s adding Liège-Bastogne-Liège to his calendar. The northern classics remain his central focus before a run at the Tour and the worlds. Right now, it’s all about putting some racing miles into his legs and trying to win a stage.

New course saves best for last

There are a few wrinkles to the course design that should heighten tension in the GC fight. Organizers have ditched the traditional finishing-day city criterium and moved the emblematic Old Willunga Hill to Sunday’s closing-day finale. That means the GC will come down to the wire and guarantee a wild atmosphere on the final climb to the finish line.

Stage 3 ends on a circuit course to Uraidla with six passages up a steep wall in the Adelaide Hills. It could prove decisive, but it all depends on how the race it.

“It just depends how it’s ridden,” Porte said. “It’s a pretty tricky, hard stage. If it’s a hot day and the peloton doesn’t feel like riding hard, it could also mean nothing.”

No matter what happens, the Tour Down Under always packs a punch with the fans. Thousands of avid cyclists pour into Adelaide for the week. Fans ride out to each day’s venue, take in the race and return to downtown Adelaide where the race hub features nightly video highlights, beers and barbecues.

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