8 things we learnt after the Tour Down Under

1. Dutch Cycling may have another star on its hands

Tom Slagter won the Ochre Jersey, surprised many, and catapulted himself into cycling’s big league. After finishing the Willunga Stage a close second to Simon Gerrans, the Dutchman declared that the parcours of the whole race “was made for me. It’s perfect.” Slagter now joins teammates Bauke Mollema, Robert Gesink, Steven Kruiswijk and Wlico Keldermann as standard bearers for a newer,cleaner era of Dutch Cycling. Likened by some to Joaquin Rodriguez, the diminutive Slagter has the kind of explosive climb that will bring him much one day success.

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2. Blanco hit the ground running

Results in Adelaide have given Blanco more points in one week than they ammassed in 5 months as Rabobank in 2012. The entire team were superb, with aggressive, positive racing, strong results and a good team spirit. The Aussies on board, led by a rejuvenated Graeme Brown, did their bit too. David Tanner led out Slagter in Stirling, Mark Renshaw almost snatched victory from Andre Greipel on the final stage, and Jack Bobridge was active in the KOM competition. A great start for a team with money in the bank, for now, but no name on the shirtfront.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Greenedge are more comfortable in their own skin

Pressure? What pressure? The Orica-GreenEDGE team arrived with fanfare, and public expectation, but left with a stage win, some promising signs and a sense of calm amongst the team. Simon Gerrans delivered on Willunga but it wasnt a tour solely about results as it was 12 months ago. This year was about building. Building Matt Wilson as a DS. Building the Mouris/Impey/Goss train. Building Luke Durbridge into a real threat in week stage races. And I think they’ll be pretty pleased with the outcome. The confidence gained from Gerro’s win eased the angst felt after Stage 2 where Simon Clarke admitted that the team had “screwed up”, and now with a good start both here and in San Luis the team

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will head toward the European season in high spirits.

 

 

 

 

4. Lotto’s sprint may be unbeatable

The way Lotto handle the sprints is a thing of beauty. The power. The precision. The trust. The intelligence. They are making the High Road train look shabby. If Lotto deliver Greipel as they plan at 200m he is unbeatable. Andre is in the prime of his career and is blessed with a group of teammates with believe in him totally. And vice versa. Greg Henderson is in “world’s best lead out territory” and the battles throughout 2013 between Greipel and Cavendish will be epic.

5. Adam Hansen is Australia’s most underrated rider

Maybe not in the cycling fraternity, but in the wider sporting world. 3 Grand Tours completed in 2012. Pivotal member of the aforementioned Sprint Train, decent climber, hard man, good bloke, leader not a follower. Hansen is a class act.

6. Andy Schleck has a lot of work to do

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Pre-race Andy said that it was about just being on the bike and racing again. He also admitted that he was nervous. 7 days later, he’d lost 16 minutes on the Stirling stage, got dropped in the first 500m of Willunga’s first circuit, and abandoned the street circuit at halfway, before riding home and not making the teams presentation. Not the greatest return for the

2010 Tour champ. Jens Voigt said that “Andy needed a kick up the arse midway through the week, and after today (Sunday) he needs another one. Schleck is targetting being at full tilt in April for the Ardennes. On this showing that is highly unlikely. All’s not lost for Radioshack though. Their old guard may be failing, but in Hermans, Bennett and Machado, they have a talented group.

 

7. The Tour Down Under should stay in Adelaide

There have been more noises of the race going elsewhere but let’s be honest. Could it work elsewhere? The riders love it. Great weather, same hotel, short transfer, good racing. The race works in South Australia. Why change? That’s not to say we can’t have another UCI race around this time, and the great challenge is for the organisers to work with the new UCI Oceania President Tracey Gaudrey, and the men behind the Sun Tour in Victoria, to allow that race to complement the TDU.

8. We place way too much importance on the Tour Down Under

And I’ve done it myself! But it is the first race of the year. Every rider’s modus operandi is different. Every rider’s condition is different. We read so much into a performance or a result, but in the context of a 10 month season, what happens in Lobethal in January is forgotten by the time we get to Lyon in July. Let’s enjoy the Tour Down Under for what it is.

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Tour Contenders Narrow to Two

It’s so close you can almost taste it.  July in France.  Le Tour.  Yellow jerseys.  Late nights. Gate and his cheese.  The month of the year when everyone suddenly talks about bikes.

There’s added interest this year of course.  Cadel Evans triumph last year captured the imagination, with over a million Australians watching in the wee hours, all the papers putting a bike rider from Katherine on the front page, and thousands lining the streets of Melbourne to welcome him home.  Add to this Australia’s own team Orica-GreenEDGE, making a Tour debut, and you feel that this will be the biggest one yet from an Aussie perspective.

But on the bike, the race looks more and more likely to come down to a battle between two riders.  Evans goes in as second favourite to Brit Bradley Wiggins, having the season of his life.  Third favourite? At this stage, Daylight.

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Wiggins dominance in 2012 is total.  He took out Paris-Nice in March.  disappeared into training camps, returned in April to dominate the Tour of Romandie.  Took off again to Team Sky’s high altitude camp on the Canary Islands, and has bossed the field in the Dauphine, the classic barometre of Tour form.  Wiggins has looked in control amongst a strong Sky unit on the climbs, and crushed a top quality field in the Time Trial, to take the yellow.

Evans, in contrast, has had a difficult time of things in 2012.  Illness has blighted his campaign after early season success in Corsica at the Criterium International.  He was, by his own admission below par at two of his pet events, Tirreno-Adriatico and Romandie.  But this week Evans has shown that he is on the right track.

Victory on Stage 1, and time taken on the downhills prove that Evans is physically strong, and is mentally fresh.  The time trial performance was not terrible, but suffered in comparison to Wiggins.  There’s room for improvement there.

The other contenders are not faring so well.  Vincenzo Nibali has been touted as a podium shot, but the Italian had a poor Tour of California, and was dropped early on the major climb of the Dauphine.  Major improvement is required.

It’s been a bad few weeks for the experienced riders. Basso blew at the Giro as did Frank Schleck.  Chris Horner lost his California Crown, Dennis Menchov has barely been sighted at the Dauphine and Sammy Sanchez crashed and struggled on.  Vuelta Champ Cobo also pulled the pin early.  Over at The Shack, Andreas Kloden hasn’t ridden much and at Omega-Pharma Levi Leipheimer is on the comeback path from a broken leg.

Things look brighter amongst the next generation.  Robert Gesink produced a stellar ride on Mount Baldy to claim the California crown, and his Rabobank team boast two more young guns in Bauke Mollema and the hugely impressive Wilco Kelderman.  Gesink was a major let down in last years Tour suffering from injury and mental fatigue, but the signs are, the young Dutchman is ready to take the next step.

Over at Lotto-Belisol, there’s quiet optimism over the form of Jurgen Van Den Broeck, who has been in the lead group at the Dauphine all week.  The Belgian was a casualty of the early carnage last year but looks ready to take a top 5 spot.

And then there’s Andy. Andy Schleck should be a favourite.  The, now, 2010 Tour winner, and multiple runner up is in the prime of his career, let things at Radioshack are not good.  There talk all year long has been of a fall out between the Schlecks and the man expected to take them to the next level, new DS Johan Bruyneel.  Bruyneel himself has thrown out various incendiary comments to the media about the Schlecks.  Whether these were designed to motivate them or not, the effect has been disasterous.

Andy’s form is atrocious.  He has abandoned three of his nine races this season, and failed to crack the top hundred during his seven active stages of the Dauphine.  There was a crash and talk of a knee problem but all is not well in the Schleck camp.

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While physical ailments are the public excuse, it appears that its a fragile mind rather than body that is taking it’s toll on Andy.  From the very public criticism of his time trialling from all and sundry, to Bruyneel’s barbs, to the idea of tackling the Tour without his favourite DS Kim Andersen in the car, Andy appears to be falling apart mentally.  As exhilarating a climber as there is anywhere, Schleck version 2012, is a shadow of his former self.

There are even suggestions that Radioshack will head to the Tour without the brothers who, essentially, created the team.  Unthinkable a few months ago, with just three weeks to go, it seems very possible that Bruyneel will build his GC team around Kloden, Horner and Fuglsang. Personally I think the Schlecks will start in Liege, but it would be a miracle to see either on the podium in Paris.  whatever happens over the next 3 weeks, I’m expecting a messy divorce later this year.

Which brings us back to the start.  Evans versus Wiggins.  BMC versus Sky.  Australia versus Britain.  Wiggins is in the form to win the Tour.  Evans probably isn’t.  But where will each rider be in 5 weeks?  Can Wiggo hold this phenomenal form right through to Paris?  We know that Evans can, and will build over the next few weeks.

The course suits both in a way.  Wiggins will take big time on Cadel in the TT’s, but there are enough short steep finishes, and dizzying descents for Evans to claim time, much as he did in last years race and this week’s Dauphine.

And then there are the teams.  Team Sky have resembled US Postal this week with a crushing display of strength at the head of the peloton.  But next month they may be compromised by the inclusion of Mark Cavendish.  Expect Cav and Bernie Eisel to join the core of the Dauphine squad.  This is a complication BMC don’t have, now that Thor Hushovd has ruled himself out of the race.  BMC, Phillippe Gilbert and all, will ride for Evans 100%.

Whatever happens, the emergence of Wiggins as favourite will change the dynamic of the race.  Every other team have to attack if they want to win the race.  If it comes down to the final Time Trial, then Wiggins will take the crown.  It promises to be an exhilarating three weeks.