We are very pleased to see the return of cycle racing in the new season and also the return of Joe Bishops colourful and informing reports. For those of you short of time Joe’s reports are the easiest way to stay abreast of what is happening in international road cycle sport.
Continental Race Report: The Tour Down Under
January, and the new racing season is upon us! The 2016 calendar looks set to be a thrilling one, with star rider transfers and new race routes – we’re in for a treat. And, what better place to start the new season than in the sun of Southern Australia in the Santos Tour Down Under. Every year, this traditional season-opener excites cycling fans all over the world with its extreme weather, sharp climbs, and small time gaps. This year’s edition promised to be no different, with extremely demanding terrain set over six unique stages. Pre-race favourite included last year’s winner Rohan Dennis (BMC), three time winner Simon Gerrans (Orica Greenedge), Tour de France revelation Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), fellow Sky rider Sergio Henao, and Richie Porte in his first race with his new team BMC, after leaving Team Sky at the end of last year. Going for the flat stages were the young Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan (Orica Greenedge), British rider Ben Swift of Team Sky, and Mark Renshaw sporting his new Team Dimension-Data kit – formerly MTN Quebeka.
The racing kicked-off with a stage that’s profile was as flat as a pancake, providing an opportunity for one of the sprinters to take an early season victory. A break of 3 riders went away, scooping up the available sprint and mountain points, but it was all in vain, as they were eventually caught by a peloton lead by Team Sky, who were hoping to set up a stage win for Yorkshireman Ben Swift. Alas, it was not meant to be: he finished seventh, behind an unstoppable Caleb Ewan. The win put Ewan in the famous Ochre (dark orange) jersey, albeit only for a day.
The competition heated up on stage 2, with a slightly lumpier profile that included an uphill sprint to the finish. Fan-favourite Adam Hansen (Lotto-Soudal) went off the front in a solo breakaway. Hansen is famous for his 13 consecutive Grand Tour rides, and he hopes to make it 16 by the end of this season. Despite this, he was inevitably caught by an Orica Greenedge-lead peloton. With one kilometre to go on the steady climb to the finish, British national champion Pete Kennaugh attacked, but was quickly caught. At 500 metres, a rubbing of wheels sparked a large crash in the fast moving peloton. Gerrans was caught up in the fall, ruining any dreams he had of a stage win, but due to it being inside the last 3 kilometres, he at least would get the same time as the winner on the day. Meanwhile, up ahead at the finish, a surprise winner emerged in Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff Saxo), who just pipped Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) to the line. Rohan Dennis rounded out the podium in 3rd. McCarthy took the ochre jersey, with Ulissi, Gerrans and Dennis behind him – 4, 5 and 6 seconds back respectively.
Stage 3 promised to be an exciting one, with a hilly course, including the steep Corkscrew Road climb just 5.7km from the finish. The peloton was generally settled before the climb, on which Richie Porte announced himself for the first time with an attack that only Simon Gerrans could follow. The pair were quickly brought back however. They weren’t together for long though, with Henao of Sky going clear with Michael Woods (Cannondale). Henao lead over the top, taking the mountains jersey, but the two were caught on the descent by a select group of favourites. Gerrans won the sprint, followed by Rohan Dennis, Woods, and race leader McCarthy, who lost his jersey as a result of time bonuses. Gerrans took the jersey, with McCarthy 3 seconds back and Dennis a further 2.
Stage 4 was another hilly one, but with a flat finish. Gerrans won for the second day in a row, with Brit, Ben Swift just missing out in second place. Gerrans strengthened his lead, going another 14 seconds clear of McCarthy, and 26 seconds ahead of Dennis. Meanwhile, Sergio Henao lay just outside the podium positions 28 seconds back. The next day was the one that would decide the race, and it included two climbs of the infamous Willunga Hill, on which Richie Porte had won for the past two years, so this presented an opportunity for him to win on the hill for a record third time. Sky lead up the climb, but that didn’t stop their ex-teammate Richie Porte from launching a searing attack with just two kilometres to go. Henao followed but couldn’t hold the pace, giving Porte a hat-trick of wins on Willunga Hill and more importantly, his first win for his new team BMC. Gerrans finished 17 seconds back, just holding onto his slim lead, and all but securing his fourth win in his home tour. Porte’s win elevated him to second on the overall standings, 9 seconds back, with Henao in third, 11 seconds behind.
The final stage was pan-flat, with 20 laps of a 4.5 KM circuit. Orica Greenedge controlled the race from beginning to end, partly so as to protect race leader Gerrans, but also to ensure none of his rivals nick time at the bonus second sprints. Caleb Ewan took his second stage win of the tour and a fourth for Orica Greenedge. Renshaw once again finished second. There were no changes in the overall standings and Gerrans won the race, with Porte and Henao joining him on the podium. It has to be said that if this race is anything to go by, we’re in for an enthralling season.