World Champion Peter Sagan will headline the Tour Down Under beginning in South Australia on Tuesday but the Slovakian has downplayed his chances of winning the UCI season-opening event.

The 26-year-old from the German Bora-Hansgrohe team had a stellar 2016, claiming three stages in the Tour De France before winning the world championship in Qatar in October.

He last rode the Tour Down Under in 2010 when he was at the beginning of his career and admitted that he did not know what sort of form he was in this year.

“For sure, my goal is not to crash, and come out of this race in good shape,” he said.

“It’s the first race, good weather, and it’s already important to take the race rhythm in the legs.”

Sagan said his team would be riding for Australian Jay McCarthy, who finished fourth last year and recently came 11th in the Australian titles.

“We have Jay McCarthy here and it’s a big race for him,” Sagan said.

“We want to help him for the GC (General Classification), and we will see what the legs can do.”

However, Sagan, who came to Adelaide early to acclimatise to the heat, wasn’t entirely ruling out his chances, particularly on Wednesday’s second stage into Paracombe and the penultimate stage featuring two climbs up the notorious Willunga Hill.

“I saw the stage two finish (which comes after a climb up Torrens Hill Road), and it’s not impossible, but very hard in this period of the season,” he said.

“We will also see about Willunga — I remember that from 2010.”

Most of the early race favourites are Australians who have just finished their national championships in the neighbouring state of Victoria and who are used to the hot conditions forecast for the next week.

BMC Racing has two contenders in Richie Porte and Rohan Dennis, while Orica-Scott’s four-time winner and defending champion Simon Gerrans is also expected to challenge for major honours once again.

– ‘Close race’ –

However, Gerrans’ teammate Esteban Chaves of Colombia and the 2013 winner, Dutchman Tom-Jelte Slagter from Cannondale-Drapac, could also feature.

Race director Mike Turtur said the race had been designed for the all-rounders rather than the sprinters.

“To give the opportunity to everyone, it was a choice to make some stages better suited for the all-rounders,” he said.

“The sprinters still have their chances, in stages one and four, and we have stages two and five for the GC riders.

“It’s a good format. After looking at the last three or four editions, it’s been a close race and we’re happy with that.”

One tradition Turtur has kept is the penultimate stage featuring three circuits through the McLaren Vale vineyards and along Aldinga Beach before two climbs of Willunga Hill, where crowds number in the tens of thousands and give the race a Tour de France feel.

Porte has won the Willunga stage for the past three years.

“I’ve had five months off the bike since Rio, so I really don’t know where I am at,” Porte said.

“I am super-motivated for this race this year, and on paper, it probably suits me better than others in the last few years.” 

Other riders who could feature include Welshman Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), Lotto-Soudal’s Thomas De Gendt, fellow Belgian Jan Bakelants (AG2R La Mondiale) and Portugal’s Tiago Machado (Katusha-Alpecin).

The race begins Tuesday with a 145-kilometre stage from the inner-city suburb of Unley to the Barossa Valley wine-growing town of Lyndoch. – Agence France-Presse

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