Preview: Fifth stage remains key to Tour Down Under win

Old Willunga Hill — and Lance Fever — remains the highlight of the Santos Tour Down Under

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By Anthony Tan

The 2010 Santos Tour Down Under begins this Sunday, January 17 with a 51-kilometer criterium.

A year ago it almost scared a newly un-retired Lance Armstrong half to death with its high-speed corners, but he should find the 30-lap opener somewhat easier this time round. Although not counting towards the overall classification of the Tour Down Under, it’s embarrassing more than anything for a rider to be dropped before the race begins for real on Tuesday.

Starting from, going through and finishing in, this year’s Tour Down Under traverses familiar towns, terrain and territory. In light of bigger fish to fry in the season ahead, nothing overly taxing or brutal for this time of year – but hard enough if you want to make it so.

With all stages under 150 kilometers long, days in the saddle have been designed to be lively and no more than 3 1/2 hours in the saddle. In a carbon copy of previous editions, it is the penultimate fifth stage that will invariably determine the final overall winner.

Davis was a popular winner in 2009. Photo: Graham Watson

On that Saturday, January 23, two ascensions of the race’s main obstacle, Old Willunga Hill – a 3km drag with a 7.5 per cent pitch – must be tackled and overhauled before what is often a withered-down group contesting the sprint in Willunga after 148km. The following day, a 90km circuit race in downtown Adelaide is all that remains.

Until the 2008 race, past editions of the TDU have been won by a rider with overall abilities – Stuart O’Grady (1999, 2001), Michael Rogers (‘02), Patrick Jonker (’04), Luis León Sánchez (’05), Simon Gerrans (’06) and Martin Elmiger (’07).

But, coinciding with the promotion of the event’s status to UCI ProTour level, there has been no race-defining breakaway that goes early in the peace, which had the effect of narrowing the list of potential winners to no more than a dozen before the much anticipated battle up Old Willunga Hill.

Instead, with an equal number of strong teams compared to just four or five ProTour outfits pre-2008, the racing has been more controlled, and by consequence, a little less exciting, with editions since witnessing bunch sprints every day.

Sure, the winner still needs to be able to climb well, as HTC-Columbia’s Magilla Gorilla, André Greipel, duly did in 2008, followed by Allan Davis last year, who recently bailed QuickStep for Astana after just one season.

Following the 2009 TDU, there was talk of the UCI inspectors on hand to evaluate its ProTour worthiness – the most notable being ProTour manager Alain Rumpf –prompting the organizers into a subtle course change, either with the inclusion of a short time trial and/or a summit finish. However, with little change to the stage route in 2010, it was obviously decided to stick with the old rather than risk experimenting with something new.

Still, one element that remains unchanged is the variation in riders’ form at this time of year. While the teams may be equally strong on paper, the collective strength of the individuals within will likely determine who is in a position to steal a stage win or, come January 24, grab the overall title.

This, of course, had no effect on the estimated three-quarters of a million rabid, flag-waving Armstrong acolytes in 2009 that most likely would have been content with seven criteriums in a row – so long as Lance was in the pack.

Anthony Tan will be covering the Tour Down Under for an eighth time in 2010

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