I’m definitely biased, but the TDU is one of my favourite races of the year. There are probably experiences like it in Europe, but standing on Willunga Hill – a climb I’ve tackled many times, with much suffering – while Porte flies up it at an eye-watering speed is something you have to see to believe. The whole week is a festival of cycling for Adelaide and Australia, and for once the sport gets the publicity it deserves. Every year I go there, more and more people go to the Rider Village, and line the roads around Adelaide. It’s great to see the sport growing. There is only one problem with the TDU in its current state: its timing.
The UCI want to make the World Tour, a World Tour. They have expanded into the US, Australia, the Middle East and Asia. While cycling is associated more with Europe than other parts of the world, the growing popularity of the sport – and the hobby of cycling – means that the UCI must look global to keep the sport growing and satisfy fans interests. While there are Tours for each respective continent (including the criminally short Oceania Tour and the main event Herald Sun Tour, which I will discuss in another blog post), the World Tour brings the big talent, and the big money. Some races, however, don’t get this talent because of their place on the calendar.
The Tour Down Under usually takes place in mid-January, with the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race taking place over the Australia Day Long Weekend and Herald Sun Tour the first week of February. These times, in an Australian context, are amazing. It’s the tail end of summer holidays, so parents are still off work and kids are still not back at school. Combining the TDU with CEGORR in the same time period, and you have two great Australian cycling events on within two public holidays and a time where everyone can watch. This means more eyes on the telly able to watch the race, or more bodies lining the roadside. Sure, the weather might be boiling hot (climbed Willunga Hill in 38C+ heat before, would not recommend doing that once let alone doing it twice along with 140km more racing), but everyone is able to come down and watch.
However, a predicament lies in where the TDU lies in the World Tour Calendar. Looking at the 2017 Calendar, there is a month between the Australian races and the next WT race, the Abu Dhabi Tour (which is in a much better time slot), and the first European WT race of Omloop het Nieuwsblad starts in late February too. Furthermore, it’s a month and a half away from the next comparable 1 week WT race in Paris-Nice, and 3 and a half months away from the Giro. While there are smaller European one week races like Algarve and Andalucia which are like the TDU 4 weeks afterwards, the race suffers from what I like to call ‘Shitty Calendar Syndrome’.
The ‘Shitty Calendar Syndrome’ is where you have an event in a time where no one really gives a toss about it. The TDU is too far out from major European races for riders to use it as prep, and as such it is used as a showcase of Australian talent while a few big names tag along for sponsorship interests. For example, Sagan coming out to promote Bora, and ends up riding for Bennett the whole race – which can be seen as ‘payment’ for Bennett helping Sagan for the rest of the season. And in a similar vein, Team Sky always send Chris Froome out to the Herald Sun Tour for a bit of early climbing prep, but also for an insane amount of publicity and to increase interest in the race (which still isn’t televised for the most part?!).
Because of its ‘cheap’ place in the WT Calendar, the TDU and CEGORR aren’t able to showcase the top talent of the World Tour. Teams for the most part bring their B-squads while their A-squads are training in Mallorca or somewhere else. Other races like the Tour of Turkey and Tour of Guangxi share this same fate – they are so far away from the European main base, and at a really poor time of year, that it’s a struggle for the top riders to come and race. Post-worlds and post-Lombardia is a dead time for cycling – riders are resting up ahead of the next season and catching up on family time and some much needed hearty food. Having to spend another two weeks away from home, halfway across the world – your mind won’t be in the race, or you won’t be there at all.
The calendar is a complicated thing. You have 365 days to fit in 37 events and over 100 race days on the World Tour alone, as well as Worlds, and enough time for riders to go home for a few months. Then, with the UCI stretching out where you are having events globally, teams have to come to a compromise.
Would it be better to send your star rider to a race in Australia where he could be bitten by a snake, dropped on by a drop bear or suffer heatstroke worse than Doha Worlds; or get him training in Mallorca for the European season. Any sensible DS (including myself) would take him to Mallorca, the risks are too large bringing a rider to Australia. On the other end of the calendar: as a star rider, after Worlds (which is meant to be the final event of the season), you don’t give a toss about racing – except for Lombardia as it’s a monument. Not many big names will be going to China because it’s halfway across the Worlds two weeks after Lombardia when riders want to be at home with their families.
If Australia ever wanted to attract the Sagan’s, Froome’s, Van Avermaet’s, Valverde’s, Contador’s or Quintana’s to the same races, the race timing in the calendar must be changed. Most teams, and good riders, went back to Europe after the TDU because CEGORR clashed with the Mallorca races and the HST was too far away to keep the GC riders because the cost of keeping 8 riders, and support staff, in a country and not racing for 10 days is insane.
Now I’ve done all this ranting, I should probably propose a solution. The thing is though, as long as there are 365 days in a year and the sky is blue, there is no solution. The UCI wants to expand the World Tour, but the fans want the top riders go to their home race. For some nations, this is impractical. It’s either they have the race without the big names, or no race at all. The best time to hold a race in Australia is in the winter holidays around July – families have more time off and the kids aren’t at school, the weather’s nicer and the scenery is lush and green. What race is on in July? The Tour de France. What about spring, maybe September or October? Worlds and Lombardia will clash. Before the TDF? You have to deal with the jam-packed classics season, then straight onto the Giro, and the Tour prep races. There is no feasible change of time for the TDU and CEGORR unless you want the TDF in the middle of winter when Alps d’Huez is 6 feet deep in snow.
As much as I would want the TDU to get the respect it deserves as Australia’s premiere race, its place in the calendar means it’s impossible for every great rider to come down. Sometimes you just crave more. Maybe I’m getting too greedy, and I should be happy that we have two World Tour races in Australia, but I want to see Quintana vs Contador vs Porte vs Froome on Willunga Hill! However, I’m happy Sagan came down this year, it was great for the sport here having the World Champion. Everyone in Australia loves Chaves, while Porte and Ewan are becoming national sporting icons. It’s great to see the sport growing in Australia even without the best riders being able to race here, and I live for that week in January where the streets of South Australia are lined by hundreds of thousands captivated fans cheering on the world’s best. It might not be the best of the World Tour, but I’d be damned if seeing cycling down under doesn’t make me happy as a passionate fan, or even others as casual fans.
Bringing happiness, excitement, and a festival where everyone in the community is invited. That’s what cycling is meant to do, no matter who races.