Stage 20
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21/01 - Stage 2 - Unley to Stirling - 150.5 km

The peloton made a huge mistake on stage 1, letting four time trial specialists get away early on. While the sprinters must be kicking themselves for missing out, the GC riders can be happy the race jury didn’t put any seconds between the breakaway and the peloton despite a gap at the finish. In this race, every second counts.

The route
This is a classic Tour Down Under stage. The finish circuit in Stirling has been in the race every year since 2009. What differs is the amount of laps the riders will do before crossing the line for the final time. This year, just like in 2014, the peloton takes on the undulation circuit three times. Before starting on these laps, the riders have 100 km to overcome.

As you can see on the profile, there aren’t many flat parts on this stage. However, there is only one categorized climb, which comes after 29.8 km on the bike. The Basket Range climb is 1.9 km long and has an average gradient of around 8 %. 20 km later. It’s time for the first intermediate sprint of the day, offering 3-2-1 bonus seconds. Soon after, the riders reach Hahndorf where they will take on a 19 km loop twice before heading towards Stirling. The second intermediate sprint is located in Mylor just as the riders start on the final circuit.

The finish
Usually, this stage ends in a sprint and after missing out in stage 1, the team with sprinters, can’t afford to let go of another opportunity to win a stage in a World Tour race. Therefore, I’m sure we will see those teams be extra careful not to let any strong riders slip away today. However, this is not a finish for the pure sprinters. With 7 km to go, the first of three uphill sections begins. The following two kilometers have an average gradient of 4 %. A short flat part follows before the road starts to kick up again with about 6 %. The gradients drop towards the top, meaning a strong rider may be able to put in a late attack and get a gap on the following one-kilometer long descent.

The last kilometer is uphill with an average gradient of 4 %. It might be tempting to open the sprint early and get a gap, however, very few have succeeded trying this in the past. Unless you are flying like Tom-Jelte Slagter was in 2013, the best place to start your sprint is usually just when the road slightly bends left with about 100-150 meters to go. To me, the most impressive sprint on this course was made by a young Michael Matthews in 2011. In his neo-pro season, Matthews - easily - outsprinted everybody else to take his first pro win. You can watch his outstanding performance by clicking here.

The favorites
Since none of the usual candidates for this stage are in the race this year, a lot of riders have a solid chance of winning the stage. However, to me, the number one favorite is Juanjo Lobato. The Movistar sprinter is in excellent shape at the moment, proving to be amongst the fastest riders in the flat sprints. Today the road kicks up towards the finishing line, which suits Lobato perfectly. The Spanish sprinter gets stronger and stronger every season and this could very well be his breakthrough year. Movistar doesn’t have a top favorite for the general classification, therefore they can put all their focus onto making sure that the race is back together for the final kilometers. Personally, I would be very surprised not to see Lobato making top2 on this stage.

The way I see it, the only rider who can beat Lobato in a sprint like this, is Gianni Meersman. Like Movistar, Etixx doesn’t have one of the main favorites for the GC. Their best chance of success is by winning a stage. They tried to set up Meersman on stage 1 but they were too late. In a flat sprint, Meersman won’t be able to challenge the likes of Kittel and the rest of the pure sprinters. However, in an uphill sprint like today, Meersman is among the best in the world when he’s on top of his game. Nobody is peaking right now but clearly, Gianni Meersman is doing very well. Etixx was the most winning team last season. Today, they have a great chance to continue their impressive list of victories.

Heinrich Haussler deserves to be mentioned among the top favorites for this stage as well. Not due to his results in the last couple of years, but because of his currently outstanding condition. According to Haussler, he’s never felt stronger at this point of the year. Something he proved at the Australian road championships when he outsprinted Caleb Ewan to win. Usually, Haussler is better on a demanding course like this one than in a flat sprint. Like the rest of the sprinters, he missed out to show off his Aussie champion jersey on stage 1. With a team fully prepared to back him up, he should manage to get in the mix today.

The outsiders
In previous editions, the riders for the general classification usually do well on this finish. However, this is mainly due to their strong sprint abilities. Riders like Simon Gerrans, Diego Ulissi, Alejandro Valverde and Tom-Jelte Slagter are all fast on the line. This year it’s different. One of the few riders who may fits this description is Cadel Evans. He has made top3 in Stirling before and if he wants to finally win Tour Down Under overall, he needs all the bonus seconds he can get. However, against the likes of Lobato, Meersman and Haussler, it will be very difficult for Evans to gain any seconds on his rivals today.

Another overall contenders who might be able to challenge the sprinters is Tom Dumoulin. Due to "miscommunication with the team", Giant-Alpecin lost their chance to lead out Marcel Kittel for the sprint on stage 1. Instead, it became all about making sure their GC riders didn’t lose any time. At the end, they succeed as the race jury, a bit surprisingly, didn’t put any seconds between Jack Bobridge and the peloton. As he proved many times in the past seasons, Dumoulin packs a strong sprint on a finish like this. I don’t think Marcel Kittel will be able to go for the win today. Therefore, we might actually see the big German help out in setting up Tom Dumoulin for the sprint. Every second counts and with 10-6-4 bonus seconds on the line, Dumoulin could get an important advantage on his GC rivals with a good sprint today.

For other outsiders with a strong finish look to Daryl Impey, who knows this circuit well after leading out Simon Gerrans last year. Impey is aiming at the GC and so are riders like Nathan Haas, Thomas De Gendt and Luis León Sanchez who are also good on this type of course. Team Sky aims big at the general classification with Richie Porte. However, in Geraint Thomas, they have a very dangerous outsider should something happen to Porte. I wouldn’t be surprised if Thomas tried his luck in the final, knowing he’s one of the few riders who might be able to keep the peloton at bay with just a small gap on the last kilometer.

For a super joker look to young Lorrenzo Manzin. The FDJ neo-pro is very fast on the line and this type of finish suits him just fine.

For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv.

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