One of Australia's growing stable of European-based stars is favoured to fend off international competition and win the Tour Down Under cycling race which gets under way in Adelaide on Tuesday.
The tour, now in its 10th year, was granted UCI Pro status this year, the first time a race outside Europe has been granted such a classification, resulting in an influx of top teams from the continent. But the big favourites for the race will still be the Australians, with Robbie McEwen and Matt Lloyd from Silence-Lotto, 2006 winner Simon Gerrans (Credit Agricole) and veteran Stuart O'Grady (CSC) fighting for the title.
Most of the Australians have been training in the hot conditions over the past six weeks while their European counterparts only began arriving two weeks ago. "I was at home and it was minus two degrees and I come here and it's 41-42, so it was a big change," Switzerland's defending champion Martin Elmiger (Ag2r La Mondiale) said.
The race is now in its 10th year and has grown annually, with 19 teams of seven riders taking part in 2008. Race director Mike Turtur said the growth reflected the rise of Australian cyclists on the European circuit in the past decade.
"The race has developed along with the riders," Turtur said. "Robbie (McEwen) started here and Allan (Davis), and other Australians. They were just starting to come - winning stages on the Tour (de France) and we rode a crest of a wave with them, and their success in Europe helped us here in Australia.
"It was never planned - it was just good luck the way things happened the way they have in Australian cycling in the last 10 years."
Crowd favourite McEwen played down his chances for the Tour, pointing out he had varied his approach to pre-season training to preserve his body for the European races in late March. The Belgium-based McEwen preferred to name Australian teammate Matthew Lloyd as the Silence-Lotto rider with the best chance of victory.
"I would like to lie to you and say I'm going really good and I'm up, but I'm not quite at the level I have been at in my best years at the Tour Down Under," he said. "But I'm certainly not bad and I hope over the course of the week to ride myself into the race. (Matt Lloyd) is our guy for the overall ... but the race is very unpredictable."
The race, which winds its way through some of Australia's most famous winemaking regions, begins with a 129km stage from Adelaide to Angaston. It concludes five days later with an 88km circuit through the streets of the South Australian capital.
The stages have been kept shorter than in European races because of the heat of the South Australian summer, where temperatures often reach the high 30s and low 40s.
An unknown quantity for the Tour will be local team UniSa, which is a virtual Australian national team that has been granted special permission by the UCI to take part.
© AFP 2008