Santos Tour Down Under Kicks Off

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The 2024 world road race season got underway on Friday with the first stage of the Women’s Santos Tour Down Under, 93 km through the Adelaide Hills from Hahndorf to Campbelltown. Favourites for the GC in this three-stage race, which features short stages and high temperatures, include last year’s winner Grace Brown (FDJ–Suez), her teammate Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, three-time race winner (2017-19) Amanda Spratt (Lidl-Trek), 23-year-old Sarah Gigante (AG Insurance-Soudal) and the American 2020 winner Ruth Edwards (Human Powered Health) who is returning to road racing after retiring in 2021.

The key to the race will likely be the summit finish in Sunday’s final stage: a Category 1 climb to the finish line atop Willunga Hill, 3 km at an average slope of 7,4% with a maximum gradient of 15.6%. That final climb should favour Ludwig who is a stronger climber than teammate Brown, and Spratt who is also a superior climber and has proven that she knows how to win this race.

The men’s race kicks off on January 16 with a relatively flat 144 km stage that starts and ends in the town of Tanunda. The key to the men’s race may also be a summit finish – two of them, in fact, in the final two stages of the race. Saturday’s 129.3 km stage 5 ends on the formidable Willunga Hill (see women’s race, above), while stage 6 ends after 128.2 km on Mt. Lofty (1.6 km at 6.5%), which will be climbed twice during the stage.

Whoever wins this year’s edition of the men’s race will be a first-time Tour Down Under champion as last year’s winner, Jay Vine, is not entered this year and all the other previous winners have retired. The in-form Luke Plapp (Jayco AlUla) won last week’s Australian national road race and ITT. His main rival may be teammate Simon Yates who finished second last year behind Vine but won the final stage on Mt. Lofty.

The surprise winner that wouldn’t really be a surprise is Filippo Ganna (INEOS Grenadiers). The former world time-trial champion is transforming himself into a formidable one-day racer and could be strong enough to stay with his rivals on the race’s climbs, which are tough but no Alpe d’Huez or Hautacam.

This is a race tailor-made for the two-time world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal–QuickStep) if he has recovered from his nasty run of injuries and is not using the race to prepare for the spring Classics. Whatever the situation, his presence in the race, in which he last rode ten years ago, means there should be some excitement in southern Australia next week.

The 23-year-old New Zealander Corbin Strong (Israel–Premier Tech) is an interesting outsider, having made the podium in several tough races last year, such as the Prix Cycliste de Quebec and the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya. It will be a tough ask for him to beat Yates who must be considered the favourite but young riders have proven in recent years that they are not easily intimidated by their elders.

It will also be interesting to see how Australian sprinting veteran Caleb Ewan continues on his road to redemption after his worst year ever on a bike in 2023 when he scored only one pro win and fell out with his Lotto Dstny team. The 29-year-old won his first race with his new team, Jayco AlUla, when he took last week’s Men’s Elite Criterium at the Australian national championships and will be looking for stage wins at the Tour Down Under while supporting teammates Plapp and Yates.

“I never really got the ball rolling [last year],” Ewan told Cyclingnews. “And then it was just kind of all downhill from there.” He went on to say that he was “super-motivated” until the Tour de France but he felt that he did not receive the necessary support from the team in that race. He made the podium in stages 3 and 4 but was harshly criticised by his team after abandoning the race on stage 13.

“The thing is, to win at the highest level like that, you really need a full team rallying behind you and I guess if I can take any positives from the Tour again, I wasn’t so far off the pace,” Ewan said. “I almost won a stage, so I know my level is still good enough to win the biggest races in the world. But, yeah, I just need a fresh start, a team that’s excited to have me.”