by crankpunk. this article first appeared on The Roar.
Here we go! The World Tour is about to kick off with a bang in Nuriootpa in less than a week.
It will deliver us cycling fans from the long, dreary winter and its dearth of international road races, booting us off in 2014 towards a spring that includes, as it ever does, those tantalising and always delicious Classics.
There may be a case to support the claim that non-Aussie cycling fans are even more excited about the Tour Down Under than the Australians themselves.
At least Aussies have been enjoying blue skies for the past few months, able to ride and race away to your heart’s content and to watch some high-calibre racing, such as the Bay Classic Series and the recent, hotly contested national road race.
For most of the rest of the world? Cold, miserable, and nothing on the telly involving human-powered two wheelers is what they get spoon fed for these long, dark winter months.
Oh yeah, and you got the added enjoyment of thrashing my countrymen at the cricket, a sport that I couldn’t give a toss about really… unless we’re winning, that is.
Anyway, back to cycling.
Though now firmly established on the World Tour calendar and a huge success in terms of its popularity with Australian cycling spectators, the Tour Down Under comes so early in the season that it encounters a peloton whose members are in varying arrays of race readiness.
The Australian pros are in very good condition as a result of the previously mentioned national championships having been held just recently, with Cadel Evans and Simon Gerrans in particular looking extra sharp.
Gerrans will be in his first outing in that Australian champion’s jersey, something some thought Cadel wasn’t too fussed about after he stated that the jersey “doesn’t count for much” in the Sydney Morning Herald last week.
Evan’s manager was angered enough by the fallout from the comment, with some questioning Cade’s patriotism, though any doubts that the fans themselves had turned on Australia’s only winner of the Tour de France were distinguished immediately when he appeared on the start line in Buninyong.
His ride itself also proved that he wasn’t there just to make up the numbers, and he fell just short of taking the title.
Can he win the 2014 TDU? I’m going to say no.
He ran out of gas at the nationals, and though it was just by a sliver, it seems indicative of a rider who is always very, very good but who is aiming to peak later in the year.
I can’t see him sustaining the top form needed to win here over the duration, can’t see him going for the time bonuses on offer and don’t think he’d have enough in the tank to defend a slender lead up the final climb on the last day.
Simon Gerrans though is another matter entirely. The Orica-GreenEDGE rider has already won the race twice, raced to a stage win last year and will have the added incentive of wearing the Aussie colours before a home crowd too.
The 33-year-old is an absolutely cracking rider, a real ‘pro’s pro’, and he’s shown in the past that he is a rider capable of several peaks over a season, being good in January, again in April and then again in July.
He’s my favourite this time around, with the strongest team in the race behind him, just shading Belkin and Sky on that score. There’s little mistaking OGE’s ambition here to take the win.
Richie Porte gets a chance to lead a tour team, perhaps in preparation this time for the Giro in May, and he rode to a very handy third of course last week behind Gerrans and Evans. Unlike those two, who are both excellent one day riders (with Cadel also obviously being a hell of a stage rider too), Porte gets better as the days go on, and he’ll be looking to do the same next week.
Sky have such depth in numbers these days that just about any team they send out looks capable of defending a lead, and with Bernie Eisel and Geraint Thomas on the TDU squad, backed up by Ian Stannard and Chris Sutton, Porte is a real danger.
Of the other obvious choices, Robert Gesink springs to mind, backed up on his Belkin team by Jack Bobridge who had a decent ride at the nationals.
Gesink is what could be described as a mercurial figure though – the odd time he is brilliant, yet more often than not he disappoints. Time for him to shake that tag, I think, and this would be a good place to start.
In truth though he needs bigger climbs than this year’s race has to offer, so a win is I feel beyond him.
Four more riders to watch out for, the first being Jens Voigt.
No chance for the win, I just wanted to mention him because a) this is his last year; and b) I, like all sensible cycling fans, think he’s just brilliant. No other words really, just brilliant!
‘Shut up legs’, et cetera.
Next is Caleb Ewan. Can I write WTF here?
Well I did anyway.
Seriously, how good is this kid? Cadel Evans has taken him under his wing and Matt White believes he has a shot here at the overall, and if ever a rider was short on confidence, it’s not Ewan: he’s already talking of taking on Andre Greipel next week.
“To be exposed to that level of racing will be good,” Ewan said recently. “If you could beat him [Greipel] it would be a pretty big confidence boost. Maybe that is a bit too far fetched for now, but I will have a go.”
And though Ewan won’t be racing for OGE at the TDU, if his chances for the win are waning we may see him adding his support to Gerrans if necessary. Such a move certainly wouldn’t harm his career.
Next up, just mentioned, Andre Greipel. A hat-trick for the big guy? It’s a definite possibility, without any really troubling hills or hill repeats this year.
However, a better chance for the win and a greater threat to Gerrans comes in the bequiffed form of another German, Marcel Kittel. This guy is good and getting better all the time, and he has less bulk to drag up that final day’s climb than Greipel.
He has the flat speed to take wins too and to be in the mix for the bonus seconds.
Kittel has something of Tom Boonen about him I feel, if that is not too much of a stretch.
He’s lightning fast now but has a lean muscularity rather than bulk, much like Boonen.
Of course, Boonen by Kittel’s age had won far more and he is one of the greatest one day riders of any generation, but there are similarities.
He would be my favourite were it not for Gerran’s ride at the nationals and for the fact that last year he was invisible. On paper he looks a real threat, but is he just here to build form? Or did he bring his firecrackers?
We shall see, very soon indeed.