Off to a good start Down Under

The Tour Down Under is almost upon us and with it the beginning of the 2010 cycling calendar. Traditionally the curtain raiser for the year was always Het Volk (now Het Niewusblad). However in recent years the season has been stretched across the calendar by new events which precede this traditional opener which doesn’t take place until the last week of February. The Tour Down Under and the Tours of Qatar and California are all new events which take place before Het Nieuwsblad (although the Californian Tour has since been moved to May). For a lot of riders January and February is too early to start top level racing and prefer to wait until later to start their season. The UCI seem to have developed a penchant for globalising this traditionally European sport, so perhaps it is no coincidence that these three events are in three separate corners of the globe, all outside Europe. So I ponder whether these new early season races are a good thing for the sport of cycling.

Obviously for the fans having only two months without racing rather than four is a welcome change. The long winter months spent on the indoor trainer waiting for a race day to talk about can be torturous. The fact that this barren spell has been considerbaly shortened is great for the cycling enthusiast. Indeed, for the roadside fan these early season races provide ample opportunity to get up close and personal with their favourite riders. In these events, the riders tend to be less insulated from the general public than during a Grand Tour. Although it must be said in the last two years that the Tour Down Under has been somewhat hijacked by Lance Armstrong and his entourage. But while attention is turned to the Texan, the rest of the peloton sit idly by as ideal prey for autograph hunters. Of course there is an argument that because the races appear so early in the season that the riders aren’t trying very hard with most of them merely tuning themselves for more arduous tests later in the season. While this is true for some of the riders, try telling riders like Allan Davis and Levi Leipheimer that these races are just for training. The Tour Down Under for Davis and the Tour of California for Leipheimer are both major season goals for them. They both approach the 2010 season as returning champions in their home events and will both be going all out to retain their crowns. Rest assured, there will be plenty of riders who will want to challenge them for top spot on the podium. There will be no shortage of interesting racing.

The provisional startlist for the Tour Down Under is now available and there are some big riders due to race starting with the Cancer Council Classic this Sunday. There will be two former Tour de France winners in Lance Armstrong and Oscar Pereiro, the latter will be lining up for the first time for Armstrong’s previous team Astana. Current Vuelta champion Alejandro Valverde will be there despite his ongoing court case. There will be two former Tour Green jersey winners, Robbie McEwen and Baden Cooke. Making their debuts for their new BMC Racing team will be George Hincapie and current World Champion Cadel Evans. Other big names taking to the start line will be Gert Steegmans, Jens Voigt, Graeme Brown and former overall winners André Greipel, Stuart O’ Grady, Michael Rogers, Luis Léon Sanchez and Martin Elmiger. There will be fierce competition between the sprinters to take the Ochre leaders jersey and with it the first Pro Tour race of the season.

Apart from  overall victory in the race there is plenty more at stake for a number of teams. With the addition of Team Sky, Radio Shack and the revamped BMC Racing to the pro ranks, the race to gain wild card places at the Tour de France in july will be more hotly contested than ever. Each of the teams vying for one of these sacred wild card spots will want to lay down a marker early and announce that they are a strong squad, a force to be reckoned with and will be worthy of a place at the Tour. The Cervélo Test Team were perfect exponents of this attitude when they made their debút at the Tour of Qatar last year. They didn’t win the race overall and they only won one stage thanks to Roger Hammond, but they blew the race apart day after day by taking huge turns at the front of the peloton. This resulted in plenty of television exposure and also handed them 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th places in the G.C. at the end of the week. But most importantly of all, it was an announcement that Cervélo were an organised team ready for action and who didn’t need a year to get settled within the peloton. They were ready right now. Cervélo went on to have an excellent year with six different riders winning stages in Grand Tours, including Irishman Philip Deignan. Team Sky, Radio Shack and BMC Racing will all want to emulate what Cervélo did last year and start their seasons with a bang.

With no time trials and very few hills, the Tour Down Under is most certainly a race for the sprinters. Simply take a look at last year’s results to confirm this, each stage came down to a bunch sprint. This year the sprinters will be sniffing around for overall success once more and there will be plenty of teams who feel they have they man it takes to win the overall prize. Astana, Columbia, Katusha, Saxo Bank, Caisse D’Epargne, Rabobank and Garmin will all be trying to control the race so they can put their man in the best place for the final sprints. Couple this with the aforementioned goals of Sky, Radio Shack and BMC and there will be plenty of action. I feel that starting the season early is an excellent opportunity for riders to get into their stride for the season and for fans to quench the thirst for racing that builds over the winter months and I think we’re in for a great week of racing.

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