Australian riders look set to dominate the season-opening UCI World Tour race when the 2016 Tour Down Under begins in South Australia on Tuesday.
While most of the cyclists in the peloton will be riding their first event of the year, the powerful Australian contingent are race-fit, having already competed in their nationals earlier in January.
Defending champion Rohan Dennis, who stormed to his first major win when he beat Richie Porte and Cadel Evans last year, conceded his main competition would likely come from one of his fellow Australians.
“Simon Gerrans you can’t go past,” Dennis said.
“Obviously Richie Porte -– he’s always good, but he’s my teammate.
“There are always a couple more guys, Cameron Meyer and Nathan Haas. Australians in general are very strong.
“We’re fit and we’re used to the heat, being from Australia. That’s our biggest advantage.”
Orica Greenedge’s Gerrans, a three-time champion, in 2006, 2012 and 2014, was injured in 2015 and could not defend his title but said his vast experience at the Tour Down Under would only help.
“It’s a World Tour event and there’s a world class peloton here and everyone wants to make an impact on that first race of the season,” he said.
“Probably the greatest asset I have is that I’ve prepared well for this event so many times — just to have the preparation to win it a few times is a big advantage.
“But regardless of what I’ve done in the past, it’s a blank canvas when you come here and everyone’s on par.”
The six-day race gets under way on Tuesday with a 130.8 kilometre (81.3 mile) stage from Prospect in the north of Adelaide to Lyndoch in the Barossa Valley.
– Spectacular climb –
The race this year features many of the stages that have become famous at the Tour Down Under, including the double climb up Willunga Hill on the penultimate day and Wednesday’s uphill climb into the picturesque town of Stirling in the Adelaide Hills.
This year’s race also includes the spectacular climb up Corkscrew Road on Thursday, followed the next day by a testing 138km stage from Norwood to Victor Harbor on the Fleurieu Peninsula, where riders are regularly hit by strong crosswinds.
Race director Michael Turtur hailed the strength of the field despite the absence of some big names from the world of cycling.
While the tour has attracted a host of big names in past editions, current superstars such as Mark Cavendish, Chris Froome and Andre Greipel are notable absentees after electing to start their seasons elsewhere.
But Turtur said he was delighted to have a start list that included Dennis, Gerrans, Porte and Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas.
Orica Greenedge’s rising Australian star Caleb Ewan will lead the sprinters in the absence of Greipel, a multiple stage winner at the Tour Down Under.
“If any organisers throughout the world had our start list, they’d be pretty happy,” Turtur said.
“The decision of riders and teams to send riders wherever they go is their decision.
“But as an organiser, I’m delighted with the field we have this year.” – Agence France-Presse