The 2012 UCI WorldTour season may only be a week old, but there are already signs that the rivalry between new team GreenEdge and Team Sky could develop into cycling’s equivalent of The Ashes, with the Australian outfit’s sports director Matt White hitting back at criticism of his riders’ fitness made by his counterpart at the British team, Sean Yates.
Meanwhile, organisers of the Santos Tour Down Under have said that the success of this year’s race, which featured the first hilltop finish in its 14-year history, has led them to consider introducing other new elements next year.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Yates had queried the fitness levels of the GreenEdge team, other than former Team Sky rider Simon Gerrans, who won the overall title in the Santor Tour Down Under yesterday, and Cameron Meyer.
Yates said that the team had not '”attacked the season in great shape,” adding that “in general they're not in good enough condition. Obviously to get in good condition you've got to train and be serious,” added Yates. “Their state would suggest that's not been the case.”
White, who is also pro men’s road co-ordinator for Cycling Australia’s high performance programme, said of Yates’s comments: “'He's entitled to his opinion, but at the end of the day he has the team with the biggest budget in world cycling, and we won the bike race. I don't know why they are barking up that tree.''
Whether Team Sky does have the biggest budget is open to question – Katusha and BMC are thought to enjoy similar levels of backing – and in the interests of accuracy we should point out that while Gerrans won the overall title, it was RadioShack-Nissan that won the team competition at last week’s race, although neither they, nor GreenEdge, actually won a stage.
Where any rivalry between GreenEdge and Team Sky is most likely to be manifest will be in the sprint as former HTC-Highroad team mates Matt Goss and Mark Cavendish go head to head for the first time since the Manxman beat the Australian to the world championship in Copenhagen by half a wheel.
“It's the Olympic year,” said White. “There is no secret that we want to beat them at the Olympics. 'Gossy' wants to beat 'Cav'. Cav is the fastest guy in the world, and we will be having some big battles with him. But they have a super roster, a very talented roster, and they have no excuses for not winning races,” he added.
Tour Down Under race director Mike Turtur also hailed GreenEdge as making a big contribution to the success of this year’s race, and said that the team, which lacks a genuine Grand Tour overall contender, could mount a challenge to Cavendish’s defence of his green jersey at the Tour de France in July.
"GreenEDGE were big for us, of course," he told the Sydney Morning Herald. "The debut of Australia's first team at this level, winning the race, the media has been huge.
"They will absolutely perform anywhere in the world, in any race,” he added. “They're a strong contender for the green jersey in the Tour.’
The inclusion this year of that Stage 5 summit finish on Old Willunga Hill meant that Lotto-Belisol’s André Greipel, despite winning three stages, never stood a chance of winning the overall title for what would have been a record third time.
Instead, Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde and Gerrans battled it out for that stage, won by the Spaniard; both would finish the race in Adelaide yesterday on the same time, the Australian winning the overall title by virtue of having consinstently placed higher than Valverde during the six stages of the race.
Turtur told the newspaper that he is looking to introduce another new feature to the race – what that is, he wouldn’t say, although an individual time trial would seem an obvious option – although he needs to get local councils on board first.
"If this other thing comes off, I think it has the same level of change as Old Willunga, with different elements," he explained.
"If we're able to do what we're proposing, it splits it right down the centre in terms of sprinters and allrounders. At the moment, we have an imbalance in favour of sprinters.
"Talking with the teams, they think what we've done this year [with the inclusion of that hilltop finish] has really evened it up in terms of that issue, with sprinters v all-rounders."
The race, which held its first edition in 1999 and which acts to showcase South Australia to the tourist market, received a huge boost in 2009 when Lance Armstrong used it to launch his comeback with Astana, his participation ensured by the payment of an appearance fee rumoured to run into seven figures, although the precise amount has never been confirmed.
The seven-time Tour de France champion was back in 2010 with his new RadioShack team, and again last year for what would prove to be the final race of his career. That three-year participation by the Texan in the Santos Tour Down Under saw the estimated economic impact of the race more than double from below A$20 million in 2008 to A$43 million last year.
"He served his purpose - his presence here shot us, I believe, five years ahead of where we were hoping to be," insisted Turtur.
Being able to host the WorldTour debut of Australia’s first ever top-level pro team helped keep the interest in the race particularly high this year despite Armstrong’s absence, but by this time next year, the novelty may have worn off.
“Now we need to consolidate and just find where our level is," added Turtur.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.