Saddles Down Under
The first race of the 2012 season gets underway next week - and it marks the return of fallen hero Alejandro "I didn't do it" Valverde.
The presence of The Green Bullet is but one sub-plot of a race that is shaping up to be a real humdinger of a Tour Down Under. Lucky for Yahoo-Eurosport! readers then that Saddles himself will be following the race live — in a series of team cars, with the fans on Old Willunga Hill, and up in the air in one of the official race helicopters. Ah, it's a hard life Down Under...
Valverde aside, the biggest story is clearly GreenEDGE's maiden WorldTour performance on home soil. Matt White's new Australian team are fielding an all-Wallaby roster including the defending champion, Cameron Mayer, and past winners Simon Gerrans and Stuart O'Grady.
Much like Thierry Henry's sumptuous strike on his Arsenal comeback last week, you have to admit that the scene is set for an Australian fairytale should one of the GreenEDGE riders end up triumPHANT.
Still, preparations have not been plain sailing for GreenEDGE, who have been forced to build last minute Bridges, with the Bo variety pulling out through injury to be replaced by a Bridge of the Dur kind (although arguably one is a Bridge and the other a Ridge, but let's not get into technicalities).
Usually suited to strong rouleurs who can hang on when the road gets steep but also put in a strong dig and a fast finish, the Tour Down Under should be a fascinating six days in the fierce Adelaide heat. Four other past winners will take to the start, including double champion Andre Greipel of Lotto-Belisol.
The Gorilla has just the kind of kick on him to ensure he should be in the reckoning for a couple of stage scalps — but he'll have to watch out for the likes of Oscar Freire, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Daniele Bennati, Borut Bozic, Gerald Ciolek, Yauheni Hutarovich, Alessandro Petacchi, Heinrich Haussler, Romain Feillu and Robbie McEwen.
While the opening stage to Clare may be rather routine dash-to-the-line, the race should come alive on stage two with the punchy uphill sprint finish at Stirling. It's the kind of finish that we see the absent Philippe Gilbert win all the time — but before the Belgian's meteoric rise it was exactly the finale terrain that had Valverde's name all over it.
In fact, Valverde won in Stirling back in 2010 before his belated Operacion Puerto doping ban kicked in — and his Movistar team reckon another win here two years on will put their man in good stead for the overall victory.
It won't be easy for Valverde though, for he is not the only rider with serious stage two pretensions. Katusha new old boy Freire is well suited to the slightly uphill finish — and Saddles hopes it will be the veteran Spaniard who takes the spoils.
Why? Quite simple: Saddles is hitching a lift in one of the Katusha team cars for stage two and so it's only fair for things to work out well for the Russian Global Cycling Project. Likewise for Astana in stage one — with Saddles in the back seat, surely Bozic will deliver the goods for his new team?
If all goes to plan, one day later, at pretty Victor Harbour, Saddles will be lining up a hat-trick with a victory for Vacansoleil. Thomas De Gendt is the obvious candidate, but the better story would be the rangy Wouter Mol, who has been named the foreign cult rider that all the local fans from the Port Adelaide Cycling Club are rooting for.
Last year it was Movistar's McLovin' lookalike Angel Madrazo who became the race's token kingpin — and this year the Australian fans have gone for the 6'5" heavyweight Mol. Being 6'5" himself, Saddles is looking forward to spending some time with Mol and his Vacansoleil buddies. It certainly makes up for Johnny Hoogerland's absence.
Quite how the 29-year-old Dutchman Wol, who won the 2010 Tour of Qatar, will feel being named the Tour Down Under's official "Obscure Pro" is anyone's guess — although Saddles reckons it won't be with as much open-eyed glee as Madrazo or the previous candidate Arthur Vichot — both of whom were (and still are) bona fide rookies with a palmares as long as Samuel Dumoulin is high.
Your faithful blogger will have to fend for himself in stage four to Tanunda while for the "mountain-top" (ahem) finish of stage five at Old Willunga Hill, Saddles will be mixing it up with the local fans, cracking open tinnies and generally getting up to no good, perhaps with one of those hats adorned with dangling corks and an inflatable kangaroo.
Old Willunga Hill is just that — a hill — but it's 7.6 percent gradient for 3km should be a challenge enough to see the sprinters fall by the wayside and one of the race's stronger climbers take a win. Valverde, for sure, will be motivated for this one.
Which brings us to the final stage around Adelaide, where normal service will resume with a likely bunch sprint to conclude the race. There's a big chance that Saddles will be living out one of his childhood (and adult) dreams and watching a part of the finale from a helicopter. Let's just hope the pilot doesn't do a Tour of Beijing stunt and fly so low he upends a few cyclists.
Anyway, before the big race there's the big build up. Sunday sees the separate Down Under Classic race, a 51km jolly around Adelaide that serves as an amuse bouche before the main event. It will also be the first time the world will see GreenEDGE riders sporting their inaugural team shirt.
GreenEDGE are holding a presentation on the Saturday before where they will unveil their team colours for the forthcoming season. It's all rather exciting. Will they go national, with a mixture of dark blues and whites and reds, or will they stick to the name and have something with a lime rim?
Saddles faces a battle to make it in time for the 1am unveiling: his plane lands at quarter past midday.
Talking of late arrivals, it's worth mentioning that FDJ-Big Mat only touched down in Australia on 12 January, a full six days after the race's first teams — Garmin-Barracuda and Lampre-Sardines — arrived in Adelaide.
Such Gallic nonchalance has to be admired. It's as if the French team feel they can laugh jet-lag in the face and swat it away with a gentle shrug of the shoulders and one echoey "bof". One FDJ rider who may be cursing the decision is veteran Frenchman Frederic Guesdon. At 40 years of age, it's a big ask getting him to race a six-day event tout court let alone do it while half asleep.
Incidentally, all the teams taking part flew in with either Malaysia or Singapore Airlines; Saddles, for his part, flew Korean Air in what was perhaps the rummest 24 hours of his recent memory.
And to end this rambling blog entry, the race's best-named rider: Steele Von Hoff of the second tier UniSA Australia team.