Things to watch out for at this year’s Tour Down Under
By John Thompson-Mills
Richie Porte on Willunga Hill during the 2018 Tour Down Under. (Supplied: Meaghan Coles Photography)
The world’s best cycling teams have rolled into South Australia for the Tour Down Under (TDU).
- The women’s tour begins today at Hahndorf at 10:00am
- The men’s tour begins on January 13 in Adelaide
- It will be the first time Willunga Hill is used for the final stage of the men’s tour
This year’s TDU will see male and female riders travel hundreds of kilometres throughout metropolitan and regional areas, in the first major international cycling race for 2019.
Here is a look at the riders and teams to watch, where to see to see the best racing, and what it takes to nail those brutal hill climbs.
TDU riders to experience heatwave
The Women’s Tour Down Under (WTDU) kicks off today with temperatures set to reach 30 degrees Celsius, and it will not get much better for both the men’s and women’s races in the coming week.
The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has forecast Friday to reach 39C before cooling down to 33C on Saturday.
It predicts Sunday will reach temperatures of 35C and 39C on Monday.
And conditions will be even more challenging for the men’s event starting on the Tuesday, with temperatures forecast to reach 41C on Tuesday and 42C on Wednesday.
Tour organisers have said they had not made any changes to the routes so far, but will monitor the heat over the weekend.
If it is above 40C, the community ride scheduled for the following Saturday will be cancelled like it was in 2018.
Who should you watch?
WTDU two-time defending champion Amanda Spratt said the field was the strongest yet.
Despite Spratt’s expansive abilities, and her strong Mitchelton-Scott team, the most serious threat is likely to come from an international rider.
Two-time WTDU winner Amanda Spratt is keen to build on last year’s success. (Instagram: Tour Down Under)
One stand-out is Italian superstar Elisa Longo Borghini, of Trek-Segafredo, who has won the Giro d’Italia, two one-day Tour of Flanders events in Belgium and Italy’s Strade Bianche Donne.
Another is South Africa’s Ashleigh Moolman Pasio, from Team CCC, who is an experienced rider with multiple national titles to her name.
In the men’s event, defending champion Daryl Impey is determined to make history and become the first male rider to win back-to-back tours.
This year though sees a course featuring three significant climbing stages — stages three, four and six — which may be too much for Impey and even three-time world champion Peter Sagan.
This could see a true climber emerge as the top man.
And if so, it is hard to go past Richie Porte, the 2017 champion and five-time winner on the fabled Old Willunga Hill.
British outfit Team SKY is the world’s premier professional cycling team and has had victories in six of the past seven Tour de France events.
Dutchman Wout Poels — who makes his TDU debut this year — was part of three of those wins and helped Chris Froome to victory in the 2018 Tour of Italy and 2017 Tour of Spain.
The 2013 winner, Tom Jelte-Slagter from Team Dimension, should also not be ignored.
On a four-stage race, a summit finish has every chance of deciding the race winner.
So, if you are following the WTDU, make sure you find a spot on Mengler Hill on Friday.
The first rider across the line might not become the overall winner, but you can guarantee the hill’s brutal slopes will sort out the contenders from the pretenders.
What makes Mengler Hill so tough? Well for one, it is at the end of the stage when everyone is already tired and the average incline is almost 10 per cent, meaning that for every 10 metres you ride, you ascend one metre.
Aldgate Valley Road
The Adelaide Hills offers an array of stunning vistas and, for cycling fans, adding racers to the view only enhances them.
If you’re looking for one of those atmospheric but less popular vantage points, then on stage three of the WTDU head for the hills hamlet of Mylor and make your way onto Aldgate Valley Road.
WTDU race director Kimberley Conte said you could see a decisive move there, as Spratt chases an unprecedented third TDU crown.
“She likes to attack, so watch out on Aldgate Valley Road,” Ms Conte said.
“If she attacks there, catching her could be very difficult.”
For the past five years, one name has dominated the climb of Old Willunga Hill.
Only Richie Porte has won there since 2014.
With Willunga Hill moving from the penultimate stage to the final one, the 2019 TDU will be decided here.
Tens of thousands of fans will cram onto the old hill’s three kilometre slopes, creating an atmosphere filled with cowbells, whistles, horns and raucous, incessant cheering.
So, what is the key to beating Porte on Old Willunga Hill? Two-time TDU winner Stuart O’Grady said it was “pretty hard” to beat someone who has trained all summer.
“Richie’s got it nailed,” he said.
“He does two accelerations, the first one is like a 95 per cent attack, just an initial jump at 1.2 kilometres to go.
“Most of them try to stay with him, but just as they come back, he goes again.”
Cycling fans line Willunga Hill during the Tour Down Under to cheer on the cyclists. (Supplied: Meaghan Coles Photography)
When Corkscrew Road was unveiled as a new TDU climb it sent shivers down the spine of cycling fans.
Five years later, with this devilish ascent back for a third time, not much has changed.
O’Grady said he remembered it all too well from his time in the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and described it as “short and brutal”.
“It’s a bit of iconic climb for Adelaide,” he said.
“In the AIS days we used to go up it 10 times in a training session.
“It’s just unique with the super steep corners.”
A decisive phase in the race will take place on this torturous stretch of bitumen, less than 9 kilometres from the end of stage four from Unley to Campbelltown.
The actual climb is 2.5 kilometres and the average gradient is 10 per cent, but there is a fair bit that sits on 14 per cent before flattening out a little in the final kilometre.
If you visit, you will be there for a good time, not a long time, as the fastest riders will summit the road in about seven minutes at speeds of almost 25 kilometres per hour.
Stage three ‘loop the loop’
A regular feature of race director Mike Turtur’s course design was the use of “laps”.
Stages in the Barossa Valley or Stirling in the Adelaide Hills often see the peloton navigate several laps on the way to the finish line, a great way for spectators to capture the action multiple times.
This year, stage three is a bonanza, with six gruelling laps of an Adelaide Hills circuit which passes through Piccadilly on the way to Uraidla with 55 kilometres raced.
The riders will climb an incredible 3,337 metres in stage three, 900 metres more than any other stage.
O’Grady recently rode the circuit, and likened it to “a mountain stage in the Tour de France”.
“For me it’s the hardest stage of any TDU I’ve seen,” he said.
“It’ll be hard to control that stage, so I can see a breakaway going.
“I think it will be the most decisive stage of the TDU where [we] could see the biggest upset.”
The TDU is part of the Union Cycliste International (UCI) World Tour — for the elite riders of professional cycling — but from its beginning 20 years ago, Turtur made space for developing local riders.
The UniSA team is the epitome of that policy and it is almost a guarantee that someone from the team will make the highlights reel.
Whether it is instigating an early attack, to winning stages or even the event itself as Pat Jonker did in 2004, UniSA riders are primed to add aggression to the peloton.
Jonker, who now works with the UniSA team, said its 2019 approach would be no different with the “strongest team” they have had in years.
“There’ll be the typical UniSA racing,” Jonker said.
“No regrets, they’re going to lay it down. The hotter the better. They’ll be aggressive.”
So, keep an eye out for the distinctive white jersey with the green and gold bands across the chest.
You are guaranteed some action.