Tour Down Under 2011: Who will win?
The presence of three of the world's fastest riders - Mark Cavendish, Tyler Farrar and André Greipel - promises to take the 2011 edition of the Tour Down Under (January 18-23), Australia, to a new dimension.
Traditionally offering a warm and easy start to the year, a quick glance down the start list of this year's race shows that Cavendish (HTC-Highroad), Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo) and Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) have brought along rock-solid support teams.
With time bonuses awarded to riders finishing in the top three on each stage, and with the majority of short stages lending themselves to bunch finishes, it's a race dominated by sprinters. It's an early chance for the fastmen to tuck away a few wins and take psychological advantage over their direct rivals.
Non-sprinters will have their chance too. Stage five features two passes of Willunga Hill and could favour a well-timed attack to allow a select group of riders to build a significant time advantage over the sprinters.
Here we rate the chances of the overall favourites and make some rash predictions on who will do well.
Andre Greipel (Germany - Omega Pharma-Lotto)
Overall position last year: First, plus three stage wins
Greipel is the defending champion from 2010, having also won the race in 2008. But - and it's a very big but - this was when he was riding for Highroad/HTC and directly benefitting from the squad's well-drilled lead-out train. This year he will be riding against them - and former team-mate Cavendish - in the sprints. Greipel will undoubtedly be hoping to get some badly-needed wins for Omega Pharma-Lotto and take the early upper hand against verbal sparring partner Cavendish.
Andre Greipel: Rider Profile>>
Mark Cavendish (Great Britain - HTC-Highroad)
Overall position last year: Did not ride
This is Cavendish's first visit to the Tour Down Under. Last year, the Manxman had a less than great start to his racing year, with his form curtailed by a serious tooth infection. The stages are short, and his HTC-Highroad team has been built around him. All of Cav's top lead-out men are present and correct - Mark Renshaw, Bernhard Eisel, Matt Goss and Hayden Roulston... At least half the team were on hand to help Greipel win in 2010, so any notion of Cavendish losing out to Greipel's knowledge of the race can largely be discounted. Even if Cavendish is running at 80 per cent of capacity, that'll still be good enough to takes some stage wins. Will it be enough to beat Greipel overall? Maybe not. Will Cavendish use the race in a psychological points-scoring battle against Greipel? Almost definitely. Watch out for the one-liners.
Mark Cavendish: Rider Profile>>
Tyler Farrar (USA - Garmin-Cervelo)
Overall position last year: Did not ride
Merely by dint of number of wins, Farrar is ranked as the lesser of the three big sprinters against Greipel and Cavendish. This could play to his advantage. Like Cavendish, Farrar has a very strong team backing him and all bar New Zealander Julian Dean are from Australia. Farrar will be looking to take some scalps and set the agenda for the early season races, and his team will be keen to wind it up for the home crowd. With wins at the 2010 Giro and Vuelta, Farrar has the knowledge that he can beat the best. Here's a chance to prove he's right.
Tyler Farrar: Rider Profile>>
Lance Armstrong (USA - RadioShack)
Overall position last year: 25th
What could be better than bowing out of your international career with another win. Seven-times Tour de France winner Armstrong has stated that the 2011 Tour Down Under will bring to a close his return from retirement - which started at the TdU two years previously in January 2009. Hefty appearance fee aside, Armstrong will surely be gunning for at least one stage win and could be in with a chance of taking the overall if he can make a lone attack stick. Sound far-fetched? He very nearly did just that at last year's race after launching an attack on stage four. His form is unknown - he's been training hard but pulled out of a triathlon in New Zealand blaming a knee injury. With no Tour de France to think about, this could be Armstrong's last hurrah. And a chance to flick the finger up at Jeff Novitzky and the trolls.
Lance Armstrong: Rider Profile>>
Greg Henderson (New Zealand - Team Sky)
Overall position last year: Third
Sky's solid option for overall hope is Henderson, third overall last year and winner of the one-day TdU warm-up Cancer Council Classic. Alongside 2010 stage winner Australian Chris Sutton, the Antipodean pair gave Sky a flying start to the squad's opening season. With the media pressure off them this year, the squad's strong TdU line-up may be able to step up a notch and Henderson is the likely man to take the honours.
Robbie McEwen (Australia - RadioShack)
Overall position last year: Fourth
Despite off-season team worries after the implosion of the Pegasus team, evergreen Aussie McEwen has landed a deal with Armstrong's RadioShack outfit. He fared well at last year's TdU, using his unrivalled racing experience and consistency in bunch finishes to work his way up to fourth overall. In such fast company he'd do well to finish with the same result this year, but can't be discounted.
Robbie McEwen: Rider Profile>>
Michael Rogers (Australia - Team Sky)
Overall position last year: 24th
Rogers was a TdU winner nine years ago in 2002. A switch from HTC to Team Sky for 2011 and an openly stated aim for short stage races rather than grand tours could point towards Rogers having a serious dig at the overall. Stage five, with two ascents of the Willunga Hill, could provide the launchpad for the non-sprinters to gain some serious time on their rivals. Will Rogers be among them?
Stuart O'Grady (Australia - Leopard-Trek)
Overall position last year: 69th
O'Grady won the inaugural TdU in 1999 and then again in 2001. A quiet end to the 2010 season after being dismissed from the Vuelta by former Saxo Bank boss Bjarne Riis won't have helped O'Grady's preparation, but he is new squad Leopard-Trek's lead man in its first ever stage race. And the race is on his home roads. Expectation will be great.
Luke Roberts (Australia - UniSA-Australia)
Overall position last year: Fifth
Riding for local outfit UniSA having been left high and dry without a top-level ride after the failure of the Pegasus team to secure a ProTeam and then Pro Continental berth. Having placed fifth last year for Milram, Roberts' big disadvantage will be his relatively inexperienced team that simply can't compete against the best in the world. Sometimes being the underdog can work to your advantage and Roberts has the class to place well on fast stages - and will be looking to catch the eye of team directors in the hope of a late signing for the 2011 season.
Juan Jose Haedo (Argentina - Saxo Bank)
Overall position last year: 111th
Whilst the big-name sprinters are watching each other like hawks, there may be an advantage for riders such as Haedo or Saxo Bank team-mate Baden Cooke (11th last year) to sneak in and take a good result. He's supported by Australian new sensation Richie Porte, which will help.
Allan Davis (Australia - Astana)
Overall position last year: 88th
Last year's 88th place was a shadow of 2009's overall TdU win for Davis. Can he regain his form?
Jose Rojas (Spain - Movistar)
Overall position last year: 23rd
Movistar's fastman Rojas fronts the new-look team formerly known as Caisse d'Epargne.
Gerald Ciolek (Germany - Quick Step)
Overall position last year: Did not ride
Ciolek is Belgian team Quick Step's most likely man to succeed in bunch finishes. Or would that be Italian Francesco Chicchi? Can't decide.
We've probably got it all wrong, so tell us who you think will win in the comments box below.
Tour Down Under 2011: Related links
Tour Down Under 2011: Cycling Weekly's coverage index
Tour Down Under 2011: Start list
Farrar heads Garmin-Cervelo's Down Under assault
Cavendish to face Greipel Down Under with in-form Goss
Cavendish to start 2011 Tour Down Under
Farrar to ride Tour Down Under