WorldTour Cycling is finally back in 2023 with the Santos Tour Down Under, starting with a prologue on 17th January. Due to the Covid pandemic, the race was cancelled in the previous two years and it returns with a changed parcours, without the famous Willunga Hill finish or indeed Richie Porte. This Tour Down Under is suited for versatile sprinters like Michael Matthews, Ethan Hayter and Corbin Strong and offers many hilly stages.
Provisional Start List
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The race will start with a short and explosive 5.5 kilometre prologue in the streets of Adelaide, ridden on road bikes. The start list includes strong time-trial specialists Magnus Sheffield, Rohan Dennis, Ethan Hayter, Luke Plapp and Geraint Thomas but prologues also suit strong sprinters and it would not be a surprise if a Micheal Matthews or Kaden Groves type rider would fight for the highest places.
The route goes along the Torrens River. There is more than one sharp corner per kilometre, so road bike cornering skills might decide the winner as every second will be important.
The first road stage will be a hilly one including five ascents of Menglers Hill (4.5 km, 3.7%) which is similar to the Poggio from Milano-Sanremo. It might be too hard for pure sprinters as Michael Matthews and Jayco-AlUla will be interested in dropping Caleb Ewan, Kaden Groves, Phil Bauhaus, Jensen Plowright and other sprinters. From the remaining fast finishers, Ethan Hayter and Corbin Strong are good climbers. Ewan looked strong in the hilly Australian Championships and also might survive as the gradients are not too steep and drafting will be important. In this Tour Down Under he will ride for the Australian National Team as Lotto-Soudal are not participating, however Ewan has his trade teammate Jarrad Drizners accompanying him for leadouts.
The following stage will be another Michael Matthews day. 22 kilometres before the finish there is the Nettle hill (2 km, 7.8%), which might be decisive as the drafting benefit on 8% gradient is reduced compared to the shallower climbs that feature in Stage 1. There are almost 2000 metres of climbing and not every sprinter will survive until the finish line.
There is no Willunga Hill in this year’s race, perhaps in honour of the king of Willunga Hill Richie Porte, who retired in 2022. Stage 3 might be the decisive GC day as it includes the hardest hill of the race, Corkscrew Road.
Corkscrew is 2.4 kilometres long averaging 8.9%, however the middle is the steepest with a 15.1% section for 500 metres. With minimal drafting it will be a perfect spot for climbers like Jay Vine, Ben O’Connor, Simon Yates, Pello Bilbao, Jai Hindley to attack and try to drop Matthews, Hayter who will likely have earned bonus seconds in the sprint stages.
After the Corkscrew there is a shallow six kilometre descent where it will be possible for dropped riders to gain back the lost time and difficult for lightweight climbers to stay away. Matthews looked strong in the Australian Championships and if he is anywhere close to his Tour de France Mende stage level he might win this stage.
The Corkscrew has been included in 2014, 2016 and 2019 Tour Down Under editions with the same finish. In 2019 Daryl Impey won a sprint from a 20-man group beating Patrick Bevin and Luis Leon Sanchez, with the South African former GC winner of the race recently announcing this will be his last year in the pro peloton. In 2016 Simon Gerrans won from a 10-man group but in 2014 Cadel Evans was strong enough to get a gap on Corkscrew and win with a 15 second advantage over a 12-man group that finished after him. With so many strong puncheurs on the startlist and fit sprinters, the 2016 and 2019 scenarios with a 10-20 man big bunch sprint is very likely.
This might be the easiest overall stage in the race. Despite the stage finishing in Willunga it does not include the famous Willunga Hill. The final kilometre averages 3.2% and should be perfect for Matthews, Groves, Hayter, Strong type sprinters although Caleb Ewan should also be able to contest for the victory after an easier stage.
The final stage will be short but with lots of climbing as the road goes up and down for the whole 114 kilometres, an early season light version of the Basque Country final stage. Despite the climbs not having severe gradients, there will be 2222 metres of climbing, which is a lot for such a short stage.
The stage finishes up Mount Lofty (1.5 km, 6.5%) and the hard part is in the final third, however it does not appear sufficiently difficult to generate big differences in the GC. Ethan Hayter in Vuelta a Andalucia 2021 won Stage 2 which finished up Alcalá la Real (1 km, 11.5%), a much harder climb with a cobble section. Corbin Strong won an uphill finish in the Tour of Britain 2022 up the Gleenshe Ski Centre beating strong puncheurs like Omar Fraile, Tobias Haaland Johannesen, Gonzalo Serrano, Tom Pidcock and Dylan Teuns, however the stage before the climb was not as hard.
As the race is in Australia, the finishes of road stages will be around 5-6 AM (CET) when most people are sleeping in Europe.
There are two big GC favourites according to the bookmakers. Ethan Hayter and Michael Matthews who both have around a 20-25% chance to win according to the implied odds. The reason why they are the favourites is clear. The prologue suits them more than the climbers and either of them might win it. Then there are the available bonus seconds at every stage and both Matthews and Hayter are very likely to finish in Top 3 in at least one of them. Even when the finish on Willunga Hill was included Richie Porte did not win GC on every occasion because of bonus seconds gained in sprint stages by riders like Daryl Impey and Simon Gerrans. The Corkscrew is even harder due to its steeper gradients than Willunga Hill but the remaining six kilometres after it might have a big influence on the GC, as the best climbers will need to cooperate to gain as much time as possible if Michael Matthews is dropped, which is unlikely. Matthews even has Simon Yates and Chris Harper as teammates which might be useful on Corkscrew and after it.
Despite not winning the Australian Championships, Matthews looked very good despite recently travelling from Europe. Strong climbers like Luke Plapp, Ben O’Connor and Jay Vine are also in good shape but the course might be too easy for them to gain back crucial seconds against faster guys who will mop up bonus seconds. Magnus Sheffield, Rohan Dennis, Simon Yates, Pello Bilbao, Maximialian Schachmann, Patrick Bevin, Alberto Bettiol, Corbin Strong, Mauro Schmid are other riders who might show something in GC.
It will be interesting to see how many young riders will perform. Laurence Pithie, Finn Fisher-Black, Leo Hayter, Reuben Thompson, Jensen Plowright, Antonio Tiberi and Paul Penhoet are all 22 years old or younger and many of them will debut at World-Tour level here. For Fisher Black, this will be his first race after his horrific crash in Boucles de la Mayenne in May last year. Fisher-Black showed a promising performance in UAE’s December training camp, where he lost only 18 seconds to Tadej Pogačar up Vall d’Ebo test after already doing three hours of riding.
My prediction is that Matthews will win the race overall due to bonus seconds and the prologue – not an original pick as he is practically the favourite to win but sometimes you have to go with the obvious choice. Matthews had great legs in the Australian Championships, has a strong team with Simon Yates, Luke Durbridge, Lucas Hamilton, Chris Harper, Michael Hepburn and Campbell Stewart and the parcours is perfect for him.
Kārlis Ozols (@CyclingGraphs)