Santos Tour Down Under 2024: 5 riders to watch in the men's race

Luke Plapp and Caleb Ewan headline Australian contingent, Julian Alaphilippe provides star attraction and we tip two riders to pick up their first professional victories

Clock16:25, Friday 12th January 2024
As ever, the men's Santos Tour Down Under has attracted a star-studded startlist

© Sprint Cycling Agency

As ever, the men's Santos Tour Down Under has attracted a star-studded startlist

Coming hot on the heels of the women's Santos Tour Down Under, which is set to conclude on the iconic Willunga Hill on Sunday, the men's Santos Tour Down Under will begin in Tanunda on Tuesday, 16 January. The six-day stage is the first men's WorldTour race of the season and sees many of the world's best riders make their season debuts in Australia.

For some of the peloton, Australia has been home throughout the past few weeks, as the Australian and Kiwi contingent enjoy life back home during road cycling's off-season. But for others, a flight halfway across the world has delivered them to the door of the new campaign, and they will be eager to make their trip worthwhile.

As Richie Porte surmised in a stage-by-stage guide for , the route of this year's Tour Down Under offers opportunities aplenty for both sprinters and climbers, whilst bonus seconds will keep the rest of the peloton interested.

Read more: Santos Tour Down Under 2024 race preview

With Jay Vine deciding to focus on other targets this season, there is no former Tour Down Under winner on the startlist and in turn, the race for overall victory looks wide open. This will certainly suit Australia's only WorldTeam, Jayco AlUla, who have a variety of cards to play.

Simon Yates is the only member of last year's top 10 in attendance, and the Jayco AlUla climber will probably start as the race favourite. The Brit is one of the world's best climbers, so needless to say, you won't have to look hard to spot the 31-year-old in and amongst the action.

Ahead of the start of the men's Tour Down Under, we have carefully chosen our top 5 riders to watch - sans Yates - ranging from domestic favourites and a former world champion to two riders who are yet to take their first professional victories. Read on to discover who you should keep an eye on next week.

GCN's 5 riders to watch at the men's Santos Tour Down Under

Luke Plapp (Jayco AlUla)

Tour Down Under pedigree: 53rd in 2023, but runner-up and stage winner at 2021 Santos Festival of Cycling

Analysis: Much like our top 5 riders to watch in the women's Tour Down Under, there is no better place to start than with the reigning Australian national champion. In this case, Jayco AlUla's Luke Plapp is both the road and time trial national champion, having won both titles over the last couple of weeks.

Read more:

After two seasons spent with Ineos Grenadiers, perhaps not enjoying his time with the British as much as expected, Plapp should be a rider reborn in the colours of Jayco AlUla. The Australian will make his stage race debut for his new team at the Tour Down Under and lead the line alongside Yates and Caleb Ewan - more on him very shortly.

The 23-year-old will prove a great foil for Yates in the GC battle and has the chance to throw the cat amongst the pigeons over the race's opening days.

Much of the pack will be waiting to make their mark in the race's closing days, with back-to-back hilltop finishes likely to define the race for the title. But as a strong rouleur, Plapp could chase bonus seconds and his own opportunities throughout the race's first four stages, with Porte backing Plapp to win stage 2 in his race preview.

The new Jayco AlUla recruit won a similar stage of the 2021 Santos Festival of Cycling, a fill-in race for the Tour Down Under during the pandemic, and is clearly in stellar form heading into this year's edition. Other teams have plenty to fear with the pairing of Yates and Plapp, that much is clear to see.

Caleb Ewan (Jayco AlUla)

Tour Down Under pedigree: Nine-time stage winner

Analysis: From Plapp and Yates to Caleb Ewan, Jayco AlUla's team for the Tour Down Under is enviable, to say the least. Whilst the former two will have their eyes on the battle for the overall win, Ewan will have his sights set on as many stage victories as possible.

The first four stages could all end in one form of sprint or another, and Ewan will back himself to take not just one, but multiple victories. A nine-time stage winner at the Tour Down Under, Ewan's zenith in this race came in 2017 when he won four stages for Jayco (ORICA-Scott at the time).

After five seasons away, Ewan is back in Jayco AlUla colours for 2024 and will want to mark his return in flying fashion down under. Just like Plapp, Ewan is a recent national championships winner, with the sprinter's title coming in last week's criterium race - after which Jayco Director of High Performance and Racing, Matt White, described Ewan as "in the prime of his career."

Read more: Caleb Ewan in the prime of his career ahead of Tour Down Under, says Matt White

Ewan's crown as one of the world's best sprinters has slipped somewhat over the past couple of seasons, with the 29-year-old struggling for big victories and having been involved in a couple of public spats with former employer Lotto Dstny. But the Australian is still young, is back on the team that launched his career and is showing signs of returning to the Caleb Ewan of old.

If that 11-time Grand Tour stage winner shows himself once again in Jayco AlUla colours this season, the rest of the peloton will be put on notice. Because at his blistering best, the man from Sydney is a force to be reckoned with.

Max Kanter (Astana Qazaqstan)

Tour Down Under pedigree: DNF in 2019, 75th in 2020

Analysis: Hoping to spoil Ewan's homecoming party will be fellow sprinter Max Kanter, who will be making his debut for new team Astana Qazaqstan.

The 26-year-old German would not be the obvious choice to include on this list, having yet to take a professional victory, but there is reason to believe he will challenge the likes of Ewan, Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain Victorious), Sam Welsford (Bora-Hansgrohe), Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty), Elia Viviani (Ineos Grenadiers) and Corbin Strong (Israel-Premier Tech) in the bunch sprints.

Astana Qazaqstan have signed Kanter with the belief that he will be able to break his drought with the Kazakh side. The German may have endured two disappointing campaigns with Movistar, but previously, he had been a budding prospect with the dsm-firmenich Post NL squad. Kanter twice finished on the podium of stages in the 2020 Vuelta a España, with a turn of speed that has delivered him to several other podium placings over the years.

Now 26 years of age, Kanter has made the move to Astana Qazaqstan and will be joined by fellow new recruit, Rüdiger Selig. The two Germans have linked up in training since day one and sports director Mark Renshaw trusts the pair to perform in Australia.

"They’re going to work really well together," Renshaw told GCN at the recent team training camp. "Max is at a stage in his career where he needs to win races, he’s been seconds, thirds, fourths, fifths… but now he needs to win races. So that pressure for him will lift up his form."

Out in Spain, Kanter was not only able to ride alongside likely lead-out man Selig, but the German was also able to train with the greatest sprinter of all time, Mark Cavendish. With the likes of Michael Mørkøv and Davide Ballerini also taking part in the 'town sign sprints' that the team enjoyed on the Costa Blanca, there is no greater environment for a young sprinter to find the winning touch.

Read more: Max Kanter to lead Astana Qazaqstan at Tour Down Under

The Tour Down Under will be Kanter's and Selig's first race as a pairing for Astana Qazaqstan, and we fancy them to spring an upset.

Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step)

Tour Down Under pedigree: 68th in 2014, will be making his return after a decade

Analysis: Another man hoping to make 2024 a comeback year is Soudal Quick-Step's Julian Alaphilippe, who has simply not looked the same rider since his crash at the 2022 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. The Frenchman has displayed fleeting moments of brilliance since that fateful day, but in truth, he has been unable to recapture the magic that propelled him to two world championship titles.

Once part of cycling's current Mount Rushmore alongside the likes of Wout van Aert (Visma-Lease a Bike), Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Alaphilippe is no longer held in such high esteem. No longer one of the best one-day riders in the world, Alaphilippe's career is in danger of petering out much in the same way as Peter Sagan's did.

However, all that is said with the last two seasons in mind. The Frenchman has already outlined his ambitions to return to his best in the one-day Classics this spring, and there would be fewer greater storylines from the 2024 season than a resurgent Alaphilippe back to his best.

Read more: Julian Alaphilippe targets Tour of Flanders victory in 2024

The 31-year-old is one of the most exhilarating riders in the peloton to watch and when firing on all cylinders, can win in almost any scenario, be it a stage earmarked for sprinters, a one-day Flemish Classic or a mountain stage of the Tour de France.

With 2024 being a contract year for Alaphilippe, he will want to either earn a new deal with Soudal Quick-Step or put himself in the shop window for one last big-money move. As such, we can expect to see a highly motivated Alaphilippe on show this season and there would be no better place for the Frenchman to impress than on the iconic Willunga Hill in the Tour Down Under.

Read more: Can Julian Alaphilippe light up Tour Down Under with Willunga Hill fireworks?

Alaphilippe returns to Australia after a decade's absence with the full support of his teammates, and if nothing else, we can always expect to see the former world champion put on a show for his adoring fans the world over.

Oscar Onley (dsm-firmenich PostNL)

Tour Down Under pedigree: Making his debut

Analysis: One of the difficulties in making predictions for the Tour Down Under is that very few riders have yet made their season debuts by the time the race gets underway. Sure, the likes of Luke Plapp and Caleb Ewan may have already had the chance to display their talents, but for the majority of the bunch, the Tour Down Under will mark their first appearance of the year.

As such, we are very much in the dark about their current level. Some riders may target the Tour Down Under with aplomb, whilst others use their spell in Australia as little more than warm weather training. In the absence of race results to guide our expectations, we must instead use the power of deduction and the insights offered by apps such as Strava.

One rider who has certainly been irresistible in his Tour Down Under preparation is dsm-firmenich PostNL's Oscar Onley, who set the fastest time of the year on the Willunga Hill Strava segment earlier this week.

Read more: Riders recon Willunga Hill: Might the Strava records fall in Tour Down Under?

Undertaking a recon of the Tour Down Under's penultimate stage, Onley and his dsm-firmenich PostNL teammates rode up the deciding climb in rapid fashion, giving us an indication that Onley may well be on for a big result next weekend.

Whilst Onley's sensational time of 6:54 was bettered by Derek Gee (Israel-Premier Tech) earlier on Friday - to the tune of three seconds - we can safely assume that Onley might be targeting the Tour Down Under as a big target.

The 21-year-old climber burst onto the WorldTour scene last season and picked up several notable results in one-week stage races, but all without a victory to speak of. Heading into 2024, a race in the calibre of the Tour Down Under offers the perfect objective for Onley to target and stake his claim for further leadership opportunities in the bigger stage races later in the season.

After his chart-topping Willunga Hill training ride, might stage 5 be the site of Onley's first victory?

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