• Santos tour down Under 2017. (Getty)Source: Getty
It took Irishman Sam Bennett to break the stranglehold Australians have had at early season races, sprinting to victory on the country’s national day at the Towards Zero Race Melbourne.
Sophie Smith

Cycling Central
27 Jan 2017 - 8:15 AM  UPDATED 27 Jan 2017 - 8:16 AM

Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) won the inaugural event held in Melbourne yesterday, the first European to raise his arms following a clean sweep of home success at the Tour Down Under.

Tour Down Under champion Richie Porte (BMC) and sprinter Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) between them claimed all six stages available at the WorldTour opener last week.

It was a coup for organisers, national cycling and mainstream press, perhaps more interested in locals than anything even Bennett’s headline act teammate, world champion Peter Sagan, did.

Abroad, however, pundits were yawning, tired of the Australian dominance and speculating if a course change, the addition of a time trial specifically, would give them something more to cheer for.

How to supercharge the Tour Down Under
At the Tour Down Under of 2017 there were six stages, seven if you count the People's Choice criterium before the race and there were only two winners, Caleb Ewan and Richie Porte, who was the runaway overall winner as well.

Simon Gerrans (Orica-Scott), Rohan Dennis (BMC) and Down Under sprint king Ewan all agree Australians can claim a small advantage at the January event.

“We’re a day ahead of them you could say,” 2016 race champion Gerrans said.

A portion of Australian professionals return to a southern hemisphere summer for pre-season and in some instances, have competed at a criterium series or the national titles just prior.

“That’s an advantage for the Australians because they do have a couple of races under their belt. But the reason the Australians did very well in the race is that they’re very good bike riders. These guys represent the best in the world at what they do, they just happen to be Australians,” Tour Down Under race director Mike Turtur said.

“We [were] delighted that Richie Porte won the race. He had a burning desire to win, and for us, it was great to have him as a winner. And with Caleb, at his age, there is a path for him to be the best sprinter in the world in a short period of time, maybe within the next two or three years."

“I don’t care who wins, so long as it is a quality bike race and we have good winners.” - Mike Turtur.

The success of Australians Porte, Ewan as well as Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe), who jumped from fourth to third overall on the final day at Down Under, can’t be discounted. The tour has become known as a hard race for this time of year and the entire peloton seems to be aware that you cannot arrive underdone.

“There’s a few positives to being Australian with this race but obviously, there are other guys from overseas who have come here and won it,” Dennis said.

While this month’s race was almost entirely an Australian tale, if you scroll through the honour roll, the distribution of victories is comparatively even with home riders claiming 12 of the 19 editions to date.

“I think it’s just a matter of seeing how motivated you are, you can still train in Europe,” Dennis said. “It’s just a matter of getting here early enough. If we have a hot week and they’re used to the snow, it can knock you around a bit. If for some reason, it’s a little bit milder, the Europeans are like, ‘this is real nice.’”

Sagan arrived in Australia late December with his wife and trained in the lead-up to the Tour Down Under in which he finished runner-up on three of the four sprint stages available. Team Sky for years has observed a similar excursion, settling in around Adelaide well before the race start to take advantage of the temperature, terrain and train. Geraint Thomas this year stayed on around 11 days to get a few more kilometres in before going back overseas.

The course that used to allow for sprinters to take title honours now is more tailored to puncheurs like Gerrans and climbers like Dennis, who won in 2015, as well as Porte. Turtur dismissed it was too difficult for riders making their season debuts in Adelaide.

“The riders appreciate, and so do the team managers, the changes we’ve made over the past few years to being more a race for all-rounders, rather than a sprinter’s race,” Turtur said.

“The stages of 150km this time of year is exactly what the teams and riders want. The terrain isn’t overly difficult. We’ve got a pretty good formula that works well for the first race of the season. If you make it any harder or longer, it’s not going to make the race any better. It will maybe harm the race, because at 150km they race really well.”

Sagan himself backed that sentiment when asked what he thought of the tour, which the five-time Tour de France green jersey champion opened his 2017 campaign at.

“The climbs are not too long and the stages are short. It’s really good for us,” he said.

The upcoming Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, as well as the Jayco Herald Sun Tour in Victoria, will provide further opportunity for Europeans to lay claim.

Last year both events were a happier stomping ground for visitors, with Briton Peter Kennaugh winning the former and his Sky teammate Chris Froome the latter.

Froome has been in Australia training for a decent period and while he doesn’t have a race in his legs yet, the three-time Tour de France winner surely won’t be ‘a day behind’.

In any case, Australians will experience the flip side when they soon return to wintry Europe and their ‘advantages’ even out.

“This year I’m going over early just so I don’t start on the back foot with the first race; I’m not struggling with the weather, I’m not freezing, and I get used to it before I start to dig in,” Dennis said.