World road race champion Philippe Gilbert says this week's season-opening Tour Down Under is the perfect opportunity for cycling to put the Lance Armstrong controversy behind it. Belgium's Gilbert said the riders on the professional circuit were sick of talking about Armstrong, who during the week confessed to systematic doping during a televised interview with Oprah Winfrey.
"It is part of the story of cycling of course, but it is the past and we just want to see something different now," he said.
The Tour Down Under, the opening leg of the International Cycling Union (UCI) WorldTour, begins in Adelaide on Tuesday with a 135-kilometre stage from Prospect in the city's north to the town of Lobethal in the Adelaide Hills. Gilbert is one of the tour's main drawcards, along with Luxembourg's Andy Schleck, two-time winner Andre Greipel of Germany and defending champion Simon Gerrans from the Australian Orica GreenEDGE team.
The course for this year's tour has been adjusted to include more hills, including a new climb, the Corkscrew, in addition to the now infamous Old Willunga Hill on the tour's penultimate stage. Race director Mike Turtur said the new course meant the tour was now evenly balanced for both sprinters and climbers, which is the main reason Gilbert decided to enter this year.
"When I did the race last time it was much easier than now, it's maybe a bigger opportunity for me this year," the Belgian said.
Gilbert, 30, last competed in Adelaide in 2008 when he won the King of the Mountains title. He said his primary goal this year was gaining classification points towards the overall WorldTour title.
"I will try to take points with stages or with the general classification. It's only top 10 (who get points) so I have to be top 10 by the end of the week," he said. "If I can win a stage I will be happy, or make a play for overall winner I'll be happy, but it's hard to know (this early in the year) where you are compared to the others."
Schleck, who finished runner-up at the 2010 Tour de France before being awarded the race retrospectively when Alberto Contador failed a challenge to a doping offense, is using the race as a comeback following a year marred by injury. In June the 27-year-old crashed during the Criterium Dauphine race and fractured his pelvis, ruling him out of the sport for most of the rest of the year. He stressed that he wasn't expecting good results in Adelaide and didn't even consider himself leader of the Radioshack Leopard Trek team.
"It's my first race that when I go and train, I can ride without any big problems," he said. "I'm excited, but I'm quite nervous also to start the race because it's been a long time since I raced. It's going to be special again to be in the peloton, I think I need a few days to get used to that. I don't have great expectations, it's a new start for me."
Emerging French star Arnaud Demare will feature in the FDJ line-up. Demare won the UCI Road World Championships under-23 race in 2011, and in August last year won the first UCI WorldTour race of his career when he claimed victory ahead of Greipel in the Vattenfall Cyclassics.
"He is a rider with impressive stamina and the ability to deliver in high temperatures, both of which will hold him in good stead for the Tour Down Under," Turtur said of Demare. The six-stage Tour Down Under takes place from January 22 to 27.