The Herald Sun Tour is a race that just keeps getting better and better. You look at the riders who have won this race in the past and you realise this race has been a stomping ground for the worlds best and a great place for the Australian Conti racers to get some amazing experience. Simon Gerrans won it back-to-back in 05/06, Stuart O’Grady in ’08, Wiggins in ’09, Haas in ’11 and Froome just last year. The course is amazing (early) preparation for the tough European season ahead and some World Tour riders just use it to warm up for the bigger races – like match simulation almost. However, that isn’t to discard the quality of the race. This race has everything for the GC hopefuls, even a short time trial prologue to start the week off and roll the legs over, but also get them in the groove for a tough 4 days ahead.
That’s enough reminiscing on past editions for now, let’s focus on the week ahead. The week starts off with a 2.1km prologue before the riders tackle 2 rather hilly stages and 2 flatter ones.
Prologue: Federation Square > Queensbridge Square (2.1km)
The twilight Melbourne time trial will be the best exposure for the riders the whole week, starting in the middle of the city in the iconic Federation Square before crossing the Yarra River and heading around to Queenbridge Square. It’s as flat as a pancake, with only a handful of turns and it isn’t technical. This will go to the riders who can just go at the highest power, it probably isn’t going to favour the TT specialists over riders such as the sprinters or track specialists. It will be streamed live on Facebook though on the SBS Cycling Central page, so you will be able to catch the action.
Stage 1: Wangaratta > Falls Creek (174.2km)
The first stage of the Herald Sun Tour is quite the beauty. Relatively flat for the first 70km (although it is going up slightly), the action really starts just after the second sprint point at 77km when the course gets bumpy leading up to the first KoM just outside Tawonga. The riders pass through Tawonga twice, once after the KoM and once after the feed zone, and after the feed zone the riders head towards the Falls Creek climb. And this climb is quite something. It starts early at around 143km with a steep pitch until 148km, but the real hard climb starts at around 161km, and from there it’s pure climbing. They gain roughly 850m over 13km (average of 6.5%) with some steep pitches hitting 15% or more. It will be a stage for the pure climbers like Chaves, Froome or Hamilton – while the sprinters will be avoiding the time limit.
Stage 2: Mt Beauty > Beechworth (165.6km)
The Mt Beauty stage is pretty flat the whole way. The small lump at 21.2km represents one of the KoMs on the stage, while the peloton go around a loop of Tallangatta for the first sprint before getting back on their way for the second sprint point 21km later in Tangambalanga. The key point of the stage will be the second KoM about 14km from the finish. It gets steep at around 143km with pitches of 18%, but the finish into Beechworth is too far away (you would think) for a climber to stay out and win. However, Froome has done crazier things at the TDF. I would suspect the puncheurs would prefer this stage, as they would be able to survive the final climb and contest a reduced bunch sprint. Ben Dyball or Scott Bowden are two great riders for this situation, but it depends if they can stay with the high class of riding of Team Sky and Orica.
Stage 3: Benalla > Mitchelton Winery (167.7km)
This stage is flat. Except for that bit in the middle, but it’s flat. The first 60km is flat, before two KoMs within 7km of each other. The riders then descend from about 80km until a few kilometers out from the sprint point and feed zone in Euroa. This descent will allow the stragglers from the climb to catch back up. From there until Mitchelton Winery, it’s pretty flat, which will suit the peloton for chasing down any attacks. The second sprint point in Nagambie 12km out might act as a mock sprint for the one at the finish, and the sprinters would be relieved that there is a sprint stage out there for them. Riders like Leigh Howard, Jesse Kerrison and Ian Bibby would be favourites for this as Team Sky and Orica are targeting overall, but the field is quite wide open for this.
Stage 4: Kinglake > Kinglake (121km)
The final stage of the week is a 31km circuit of Kinglake. The riders have a KoM 4km out of Kinglake every lap on their way around, which will be hotly contested on each lap for the riders looking to win points classifications. The sprinters will be happy the sprint points are early in the day on the first two laps so they don’t need to worry about the fast finish. This will be a lot like the Australian Nats finish; the puncheurs and climbers in a final group going up the last climb with a small bunch sprint finish or even a late break on the flat. It will be televised on SBS Cycling Central and SBS Viceland, so the public can see what a battle the final stage will be for the riders wanting to solidfy GC position.
So, those are the stages…who are the riders to watch?
The Bookies Favourite: Chris Froome
I’m pretty sure if you see Chris Froome on the line-up at any hilly stage race, you as a spectator would have him as your favourite, and as a rider you would soil yourself because you will race against Froome. Froome won here last year in pretty dominant fashion (it was basically Team Sky vs kids last year – they went all out) and it is expected he will win here again this year. While in 2017 there is more competition with a stronger Orica lineup with headline act Chaves on the startlist – plus an in-form Team Australia, Australian Conti Super Squad IsoWhey, and 4 PCT teams – you just cannot go past a 3 time Tour de France winner and a guy who won this race comfortably last year (it was only a minute, but it could have been more if him and Kennaugh didn’t spend half the race celebrating at the finish line). There isn’t really much to say other than you would be out of your mind to think that Froome isn’t the big favourite to win this race.
The Hometown Hero: Cameron Meyer
Cameron Meyer would be very comfortable racing here, after all, he won the GC in 2015. Not to mention his 2017 form so far has been golden, with a great attack at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race which almost got him the win and finishing with an elite group of Australian climbers and puncheurs at the National Road Race – so much for saying he is retiring to the track.
The Youngster: Martijn Tusveld
This race opens itself up to reveal a lot of youth talent, from Australia and abroad. And I was tossing up between making it an Australian rider or an overseas rider – and there were two in definite contention for this position. I went overseas. Roompot have brought one of their strongest – if not their strongest – U23 rider to the table this week in Martijn Tusveld. The 23-year-old has raced for Giant-Alpecin (2016) and Belkin (2014) as a trainee, so he has plenty of World Tour experience. He also has great 2016 results: 8th on GC at the Abu Dhabi Tour (2nd in Youth Classification) last year and 2 top-5’s at 2.2 level – 2nd at the Istrian Spring Trophy with a stage win and 4th at the Tour de Normandie while winning the white jersey too. He comes with a great contingent of GC riders and domestiques who can help him over the more hilly race compared to what they just experienced at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. While it’s arguable he will only be a cog in the chain of another Roompot rider’s chances (like Nick van der Lijke), he definitely has the skills to get over the top of the other riders in this race and nab a top 5 on GC even.
And if you were curious, the other rider was 21-year-old Australian hopeful Robert Power, who will be hoping to make a bigger impact at Orica after his first year was injury-wrecked.
The Unknown Entity: Lucas Hamilton
Two Team Australia riders in the 5 Riders to Watch – call me biased. To be fair to the team, they could take up all of the spaces of the 5 Riders to Watch (except The Previous Winner because that is kinda pre-determined). The young Australian would love to improve on what happened last year at the Herald Sun Tour, with a DNF on Stage 1. Over the course of 2016, he improved over every single race he did – even getting the Mountains Classification at the Tour de l’Avenir and two top-5’s at the Olympia’s Tour, the two best indicators of a youth rider’s strength. He also got 5th place on the Youth Classification at the TDU just 10 days ago. His only weakness heading into this race would be losing time on the prologue, but the fact that it’s only 2.1km means that he will only lose a handful of seconds and, if he wants to, he can make it up on the multiple climbs the Herald Sun Tour features. 2017 saw him get signed for the Mitchelton-Scott team as a key rider too, so while he isn’t unknown to the Australians, on the international stage he is almost unheard of and a good performance in Melbourne this week will only set him up for a great future.
The Previous Winner: Chris Froome…again
So, 2 races in a row where the previous winner category has to be delegated to 2nd place. Oh wait, sorry, this time it’s 3rd place as 2nd place getter Peter Kennaugh isn’t riding in the race this year – so this time round the previous-3rd-place-getter is Damien Howson. And while last year he was Orica’s best chance at taking GC out against the big names of Team Sky, this year he is coming with a bit of extra backup in Esteban Chaves. Instead, Howson will probably work himself dead for Chaves in the 4 hilly stages that make up the Herald Sun Tour, matching all the attacks from the Team Sky riders and giving Chaves the best chance of launching himself Falls Creek or another climb to get time into Froome and the other riders. Orica’s whole team will probably get themselves behind either Chaves or Rob Power, and the Orica puncheur/rouleur train will be in full force this week to get them the best chance of winning.
That’s a wrap for the Herald Sun Tour preview! You can catch the prologue at 6:15pm AEDT (7:15am for Europeans) on the 1st of February and stage 4 at 12:30pm AEDT (1:30am for Europeans) on the 5th of February on SBS Cycling Central. Sadly, there isn’t live coverage for the other 3 stages, but you can follow the official Race Twitter for live updates and there will be a highlights show every afternoon on SBS Cycling Central. Oh, and while my heart hopes Chaves will win, I think Froome has what it takes to go back-to-back. Froome 1, Chaves 2, Meyer 3. For now, I’m out.
~The Cycling Raven