Evans headlines Oz Tour

Cadel Evans (AFP)
Cadel Evans (AFP)

Adelaide - Former Tour de France winner Cadel Evans will headline a strong home challenge at the season-opening Tour Down Under, which begins in South Australia's Barossa Valley on Tuesday.

Evans, 36, has not raced the UCI World Tour event since 2010 but a change to his calendar means the BMC rider will take to the roads surrounding Adelaide this year.

Evans is one of several Australians with realistic chances of winning in 2014.

Orica GreenEdge's Simon Gerrans, who won in 2012, and Richie Porte from Team Sky join Evans as leading local challengers.

At the Australian national road race championships, which finished on January 12, Gerrans beat Evans for the men's title with Porte finishing third.

Evans said he was feeling in great shape for the start of the season.

"It's the first time (at the Tour Down Under) in a few years and I've worked pretty hard to be at a good level here, and now we'll see when the race starts what the results bring," Evans said.

"But I'm happy to be back and racing in Australia again."

With Dutchman Tom-Jelte Slagter not returning to defend his title this year, the European challenge could come from Movistar's Spanish pair Javier Moreno and Jose Rojas, Team Sky's Geraint Thomas, Luxembourg's Frank Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) and Dutchman Robert Gesink (Belkin).

The Tour Down Under course has become progressively harder since its inception 16 years ago and is no longer considered a race where sprinters can win the general classification.

"It's certainly hillier than all the Tours Down Under I've raced before," Evans said.

"It's going to be tough in the early season. There are a lot of guys here fit and very motivated, and I suppose I'd probably count myself among them.

"It's a selective Down Under, a Down Under that suits me better, so hopefully I can (have) an enjoyable result."

German sprinter Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) has ruled out any chance of winning the overall title for a third time.

But while Greipel may have dismissed his chances of taking the overall honours, he will be sure to add to his record tally of 14 stage wins at the race where he first emerged on the world scene in 2008.

He will face a huge challenge from fellow countryman Marcel Kittel of Team Giant-Shimano, who won four stages on the 2013 Tour de France.

Greipel's main lead out rider, Australian Adam Hansen, said the Lotto Belisol team wasn't scared of Kittel.

"Kittel is going to be flying. He's going to want to prove a point and just put in concrete how good he is after the Tour," Hansen said.

"I'm not being cocky, but we're not really afraid of him so much. We're very confident."

The riders will welcome the end of South Australia's recent heatwave, where temperatures exceeded 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees (Fahrenheit) for five successive days last week and the mercury scarcely dipped below 30 C, even at night.

The forecast next week is for more mild days with temperatures in the mid-20s Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit) with a maximum of 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit) on Thursday.

Wildfires sparked during the heatwave continue to burn, including in the Barossa, where the 135-kilometre first stage is due Tuesday from Nuriootpa to Angaston.

Race officials have said they will make a final decision on Monday about whether the stage will go ahead, after a briefing with emergency authorities on the state of blazes in the region.

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England 92/4 (28 ov)
Pakistan 326
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