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After a few days of training and posing with snakes and koala bears for the local press, Thor Hushovd and Robbie McEwen are set to take centre stage when the Tour Down Under clicks into gear with a 50km criterium round the streets of Adelaide here on Tuesday night, writes Justin Davis.
McEwen, the two-time Tour de France green jersey winner who is also the stage record holder (11) for the TDU, was beaten to the Tour's points title last July by the Crdit Agricole team's powerful and consistent Norwegian.
Whether the 33-year-old Belgium-based Australian is motivated to take revenge at this early stage of the season is up for debate, although Hushovd, who admits he is settling in nicely to the comfortable, sun-drenched settings, has already signalled his intentions.
"It's good to race against the best sprinters in the world," said Hushovd, who has perhaps forgotten that the likes of Alessandro Petacchi, Tom Boonen and Erik Zabel are all missing here.
Apart from Liberty Seguros dynamo Allan Davis, the only other established sprinter here, at least from the European cycling scene, are Liquigas' Luca Paolini and Crdit Agricole veteran Jaan Kirsipuu.
Hushovd added: "I want to take every chance to have a good sprint. If we're 20 minutes behind (in the GC) then maybe Robbie and I can go for a sprint just for training."
McEwen, who usually keeps trim in the Bay Crits series which takes place a month before the TDU, appeared to imply that this year he might just be beatable, especially by some of the young pups who gave him a hard time at the weekend's national championships.
"Definitely the young guys you see doing well at the national championships the other day, the whole South Australia.com team, the United Water team, the UniSA team, a lot of these young guys have really built up for the Tour Down Under," said the Davitamon-Lotto sprinter, whose team is perhaps the most complete in terms of established names here, with Mario Aerts, Henk Vogels, Wim Vansevenant, Cadel Evans, and fellow Aussies Nick Gates and Nic Sanderson.
Spanish talent Luis Leon Sanchez is the defending champion and at just 22 years old appears to have a bright future ahead of him - starting with Wednesday's first stage proper over 148km. With the likes of Evans admitting he is here to "help team-mates who are more suited to the Tour Down Under", Sanchez's job should be made a lot easier.
Of the 12 teams taking part, seven are from the Pro Tour - Liberty, Crdit Agricole, Ag2r, Davitamon-Lotto, Milram, Liquigas and Bouygues Telecom. Chocolade Jacques, a European continental team, are also lining up with South Australia.com, United Water, UniSA and American outfit Navigators.
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