The Men's WorldTour returns to Australia next week and the ochre jersey is the prize. We consider which riders are in contention for victory in the return of the Santos Tour Down Under…
The new format of the race route has considerably changed the dynamic of Australia’s only WorldTour stage race. With a prologue time trial (on standard road bikes) to get things started, and the summit finish at Mount Lofty – instead of the familiar climb of Old Willunga Hill to conclude the contest – the usual script has been ripped up and new tactics will be required by those chasing the ochre leader’s jersey.
There are three former TDU champions in the mix this year: 2005 winner Luis Léon Sanchez who begins his 20th season of racing in cycling’s top-tier; 2015 winner Rohan Dennis who is always eager to perform – especially when he gets to race in front of a home crowd; and two-time champion Daryl Impey, the only rider who have won successive TDU titles (2018 and 2019).
Past performances offer a hint of who may be in contention, but things are different after the two-year pause. There is the new-look race route in 2023, the first one designed by the TDU’s original winner Stuart O’Grady. There’s also a new generation of GC riders that has emerged since the previous edition in January 2020 and, in the peloton of 140, there are myriad men who have the qualities to challenge for the ochre jersey.
In the past, the trio listed above have enjoyed good form early in the season. And while Sanchez (39), Dennis (32), and Impey (38) are still riders to watch out for, they will also be mindful of the wealth of others who have the qualities required to win in South Australia.
Of the three previous winners, the man most likely to muscle his way into the ochre jersey is Dennis. He has the pedigree, the history, and a stellar support cast along for the ride this January. The TT is his for the taking. If that happens, it’ll be a tough ask for any rider to wrestle the leader’s jersey off his shoulders.
Dennis has all the qualities to win again and he’ll be inspired by racing in his home town.
In any stage race, the general classification winner needs to be a well-rounded rider capable of excelling in a range of circumstances, and the support of their team is pivotal.
In 2023 everything is new again and it remains to be seen who arrives in Adelaide with an appetite for victory, as well as the ability to cope with the heat and what is bound to be a fast, aggressive contest.
Three Grand Tour champions
The reputations and results collected by the likes of Chris Froome, Simon Yates, Geraint Thomas cannot be ignored. The trio of Brits return to the TDU with a collection of Grand Tour victories to their credit and a wealth of experience but is January too soon for riders who traditionally build their form through the early stanza of the season?
We know their strengths but don’t yet know how ready they are for the heat that is traditionally such a feature of racing in the South Australian summer.
Froome is the most credentialed of any rider on the start list, but he hasn’t won a race since May 2018. He remains a main attraction in a peloton of quality riders but, as part of the Israel-Premier Tech team, he is more likely to play a support role to Impey, or the in-form, always-motivated silver medallist from the Australian championships on Sunday, Simon Clarke.
Team allegiances will also impact Yates’ potential of winning in January. The winner of La Vuelta in 2018 surely has priorities later in the season. As he is part of an Australian team which includes local stars like Michael Matthews, Chris Harper and Lucas Hamilton, the 30-year-old Brit could find himself riding in the service of others.
It has already been announced that Thomas’ focus in 2023 is a good showing at the Giro d’Italia in May. There are also younger Grenadiers who will relish the opportunity to ride in a leadership role, so the Welshman is likely to provide guidance and support for the likes of Lucas Plapp (fresh of his second successive national championship victory), Britain’s latest wunderkind 24-year-old Ethan Hayter, or America’s rising star Magnus Sheffield.
Considering the ‘new crop’
A long list of new-gen GC riders emerged during the years of the pandemic and although the latest Tour de France champions – Tadej Pogacar and Jonas Vingegaard – won’t be at the TDU, there is still plenty of quality amongst guys who may have only been considered ‘wildcard’ GC candidates not so long ago.
One new name to consider is the feisty and motivated Jay Vine who makes his WorldTour race debut with UAE Team Emirates this January.
Vine is a two-time eCycling world champion and last year he proved that he can turn his form from the home trainer into Grand Tour success. With two stunning stage victories in last year’s Vuelta a España, the 27-year-old came of age in 2022 during his second season with the Alpecin-Deceuninck team. His confidence grew and he seemed destined to win the polka-dot jersey at La Vuelta until an accident and nasty wrist injury forced him to abandon with the finish in Madrid only days away.
Another Aussie with a history of success at La Vuelta is Michael Storer. He returns to the TDU as the designated leader of the Groupama-FDJ team a couple of years after having won a couple of stages of the Spanish Grand Tour on his way to becoming the second Australian to win the Vuelta’s King of the Mountain crown.
Storer is softly spoken and not exactly a headline hunter but there are few in the world who can climb like he does. The 25-year-old can quickly turn a few seconds into a couple of minutes if the gradient is steep enough. And while he would prefer some longer climbs to really showcase his talents, the steep Corkscrew ascent near the finish of stage three will provide a ramp that’s suitable for an exploit.
If Storer still within a whiff of a GC win with Mount Lofty on the horizon, all the other riders with hopes of the ochre jersey will be mindful of his presence.
Strong Australian influence
It’s impossible to ignore the influence of Australian riders in the TDU and that’s not just because it’s the only Australian WorldTour stage race. With riders like Matthews, Ben O’Connor, Simon Clarke – all stage winners at the Tour de France since the previous edition of the TDU – competing on home soil again, they will be motivated to perform.
Chris Harper is another local who deserves some attention, largely thanks to his enormous contributions as a super-domestique in races like La Vuelta for the dominant Jumbo-Visma team. If he gets a chance to race for GC, by chance or design, the 28-year-old will shine. He’s now part of the re-branded, re-named Team Jayco-AlUla line-up which always makes a strong showing at the TDU a priority of the season.
With Harper and Matthews, the Australian-registered team has options for GC and they always race the TDU with gusto, mindful that they want to give Gerry Ryan’s team some good exposure for his significant investment in cycling.
Kaden Groves and Jensen Plowright join Robert Stannard at Alpecin-Deceuninck a team making its TDU debut in 2023 and we’ll see what they chase: stage wins or GC.
Rounding out the Aussie WorldTour riders with an eye on the ochre jersey, we can look at the ‘Hurricane’, Chris Hamilton, who is listed as leader of Team DSM. He has years of experience since his formative years at the TDU and 2023 might be the season he gets to chase some personal glory.
Hindley: Australia’s new Grand Tour champion
During the TDU hiatus because of the pandemic, one Australian rose quickly from “future star” to “Grand Tour Champion”. Jai Hindley is a headline act. He is a climber of repute who finished runner-up in the Giro d’Italia in 2020 (while still largely riding as a domestique).
Hindley is a superstar of cycling. He is part of the new generation that shines brightly in this new era of pro cycling. He lost a season with injuries in 2021 but returned to leadership form last May when he won a stage of the Giro in the opening week, then rose up the GC rankings until he eventually pulled on the pink jersey after the penultimate stage… just as he did in 2020, only last year he held onto it after the TT on the final day.
He is Australia’s second Grand Tour champion. He won the Giro d’Italia of 2022!
Hindley is racing in Australia again. He won’t like the opening time trial, but it won’t hurt him like other TTs have done in the past. He will relish the prospect of arriving at Mount Lofty. For him the final climb of the race is barely an obstacle. Yes, it goes uphill. And there’s a wonderful view from the top.
Mount Lofty is where the champion of 2023 will be confirmed. It will provide a stunning setting for the finale of the TDU’s return. Up there, overlooking Adelaide, we’ll know who the winner of the TDU of 2023 will be. If it’s Jai Hindley, don’t be surprised.
The last climb of the last stage won’t be the familiar setting of Old Willunga Hill. That was where GC was won or lost in years gone by but in 2023 it’s a different script and while the ingredients for success are similar to what’s been required in the past, the new hilltop finale will be an anticipated one – and it insists on diligence by the GC candidates right to the very end.
Lofty by name, lofty by nature.
A lot of locals have learned the art of cycling on the road by riding to Mount Lofty. It is a lookout that lures in many, even if riding there can be a challenge. Still, it’s worth the effort once you see the view. It is a stunning setting where satisfaction has been found and where a champion will be crowned.
To win there, for the first time in TDU history, will be a fantastic memory for any rider in the bunch. It is likely, however, that the winner at Mount Lofty will also be the champion in 2023.
The Santos Tour Down Under is a showcase of cycling, part of a festival. It is a race in which riders like Jai Hindley and the many others got their first taste of international competition at this level. It is a bike race but there’s much more to it. This year it will be a coming together like no other, a return of the WorldTour with a new generation of riders, a reunion, and a celebration of the evolution of cycling in Australia.
There will be one champion for each race but plenty of winners when the TDU returns in January 2023.