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What to expect at the Tour Down Under

Andrew Hood previews the annual WorldTour opener, which has perhaps the best field in the race's 19-year history.

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ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — It’s the Aussies vs. the world in the 2017 WorldTour opener, the Santos Tour Down Under.

After back-to-back second places, Richie Porte (BMC Racing) is the five-star favorite to win the GC that’s eluded him the past three years. Nipping at his toes will be some elite international riders, top among them Esteban Chaves (Orica – Scott) and Sergio Henao (Sky), in what organizers are calling the best GC field ever in the race’s 19-year history.

“Look, I’d love to win the race,” said Porte, who’s won the Old Willunga Hill stage three years in a row. “I haven’t raced in five months, so you never know where the form is. I’ve been in better shape, and I’ve still finished second. There is no lack of motivation to race here.”

Chaves and four-time champion Simon Gerrans will co-lead Orica, with Jay McCarthy (Bora – Hansgrohe), Tom-Jelte Slagter and Michael Woods (Cannondale – Drapac), Robert Gesink (LottoNL – Jumbo), Jarlinson Pantano (Trek – Segafredo), Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), Nathan Haas (Dimension Data), and Geraint Thomas (Sky) among the other favorites.

The Tour Down Under has gradually become more challenging since it gained WorldTour status, and a pure sprinter hasn’t won the race since 2010. The inclusion of the challenging Paracomb climb in stage 2 should be a race-breaker.

“It’s the new queen stage of the race, and that will be the real selection of the race,” said four-time winner Gerrans. “It’s not a course that suits me as well as the previous editions. Having a second uphill finish makes it tougher, because I am usually limiting my losses up Willunga.”

Orica will likely back whoever comes out on top in stage 2 between Gerrans and Chaves, and then try to take it to BMC and Sky. Time bonuses are always key, with Old Willunga Hill on Saturday as the final shot.

Behind the GC battle, the sprint stages will see Orica’s Caleb Ewan looking to bolster his stage tally, with double world champion Peter Sagan of Bora making his debut with his new team. The pair already clashed in Sunday’s Critérium, with Sagan riding in support of teammate Sam Bennett. Sagan will want to leave Australia with a win if he can.

Six stages loop around the South Australia region, with a mix of rolling hills, city flats, and punchy climbs that make this an ideal season-opener. Stages are typically about 50km shorter than the longer European races, while summer-like weather makes the race one of the most popular among riders in the peloton.

Oppressive summer heat could be a factor this week, however, with temperatures expected to climb into the high 90s on several days. Rain might be possible later in the week, but that shouldn’t stop the fans from showing up en masse.

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