The Tour Down Under in Australia is the start of the 2018 cycling season. The tour has six stages from 16 January to 21 January and has excellent contenders again this year. On behalf of AlpecinCycling, Daniel Beck spoke with Jörg Ludewig, former pro who has participated in this race several times, about the special features of the first race of the season in Australia.
Jörg, what is so special about Tour Down Under?
It kicks off the season and is a World Tour event, so it counts towards world ranking. That was not yet the case when I was still competing, but one thing hasn’t changed up to now: It is the first major race of the season. This means that all cyclists are extremely motivated, but still nervous because they don’t know how strong they will be in comparison with their competitors after training for the season. In addition, in Australia, the cyclists have to deal with what are probably the most extreme weather conditions of the whole season. While Europe is still in the midst of winter, temperatures in Australia can reach over 55º Celsius in the sun. But this is what makes it so fascinating: Top European cyclists meet highly motivated Australian talents who are already at the peak of their season, just finished their prestigious national championship, and are used to the hot summer temperatures.
How do the cyclists cope with the heat?
The European cyclists arrive in Australia early so that they have at least a few days to adjust to the climate. You should be there eight to ten days before the start so the body has a chance to get used to the conditions. Sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 50 is a must, even when it’s overcast and even under the jersey.
For what type of cyclist is the Tour Down Under the right race?
The different climate is a real challenge. On the other hand, the topography is not so difficult. An all-rounder who is good at climbs and didn’t eat too much gingerbread and sweets over the holidays can be among the best in the overall rankings. A Peter Sagan, the pop star of cycling, can dominate a race like this if he comes through the winter in good condition. He’s a good bet because he can get bonus seconds in some stages and will not lose too much time on Willunga Hill. The sprinters like the local hero Caleb Ewan or André Greipel will decide the flatter stages among themselves. The organiser attracted an incredibly strong line-up of world-class sprinters this year. Crazy.
Which cyclists have the best chances to be the overall winner?
Cyclists such as Richie Porte, Rohan Dennis or Simon Gerrans – all of whom have already won this tour – combine quality and have the home advantage. While ten years ago a European who had trained hard over the holidays could win the overall race, that is unlikely today. The exception is Sagan. We again wait to see who will be the new talents from down under. Nearly every year, a new future superstar is born here!
What is the role of the German cyclists?
The seven German starters will probably be in the limelight when it’s time for the really fast sprinters. I expect to see them in the flatter stages of the tour – on days one, three and six. Nikias Arndt will prepare the sprints for Phil Bauhaus in Team Sunweb and has had a good winter. Nikias already won the one-day race “Cadel Evans Great Ocean Race” in Australia last year, so he can handle the conditions well. André “Gringo” Greipel, is always very active in the winter. He never has a bit of extra weight and has had many wins in Australia. In addition, he has his best friend and training partner, Marcel Sieberg, the two-metre lighthouse, at his side. Robert Wagner from Lotto NL-Jumbo and Rüdiger Selig from Bora-hansgrohe will probably be their top sprinters. This means we will probably see various sprints led by German cyclists, an exciting scene. And despite being on different teams, they are all friends during training and fierce competitors on the last five kilometres of the race! Only Jasha Sütterlin on the Spanish Movistar team, also using a “Canyon” bike like our cyclists, has the physical condition to be among the best in the overall rankings.
What can we expect from the Katusha Alpecin team?
Katusha Alpecin will be starting with a well-balanced team. We are pinning our hopes on our new member Nathan Haas from Australia. He is cool, smart and in good shape already. He was fourth in the overall rankings in 2017. His personality also adds a lot to our team and he is strong as a bear.
Then we have our young Colombian Jhonatan Restrepo, 2017 winner of the young rider classification in Australia. José Goncalves and Mads Würtz Schmidt from Denmark are insider tips. Both of them can handle the topography very well. The big question is: How hot will it really be next week in Australia?
What about the infamous climb on Willunga Hill – is it really so steep?
The time of year and weather are what make it so difficult – and of course the pace of the cyclists. The first race, the first real mountain, and up to 50º Celsius in the sun, all of that makes this mountain feel like the most difficult climb of the season. In the European summer, when you are in really good condition, a real pro can just laugh at a hill like that. But in the middle of January, it’s an entirely different story.
What are your memories of the race?
Even in my time, in the earlier years of the century, the race was a highlight, just as hot and with similar conditions. But at that time, the atmosphere was more like a training camp with cyclists getting into shape. Even with a bit of extra weight and moderate condition, you could still compete in the field and weren’t completely done in by the tour. That’s no longer possible now! Many teams send at least two cyclists who have prepared specifically for this race. Of course, since it gained World Tour status, things have changed a lot. Teams can earn important world ranking points here early in the season.
My most intense experience was when I was in second place in the overall ranking, just 100 metres from the top of the last climb of the whole race and I got separated from the group. I then came in eleventh in the overall ranking! Then there was a temperature difference of more than 61 degrees on the way home when we landed in Stuttgart at -17ºC after 30 hours of traveling. Another year, the computer display showed a temperature of 54º Celsius; I got a mild burn from the part of my high-polish carbon handlebar that wasn’t wrapped.
Despite the ongoing development of the tour, I personally find it great that it still has the feel of a rally. All the professional cyclists live in one place for two weeks and the team mechanics prepare the high-end bikes every evening in the cyclist camp that is open to the public. That makes this event so unique and popular. For cyclists, it is pure cycling at the highest level and very close to the fans!
photocredtis: (c) getty images