Gerrans won his fourth Tour Down Under. Will the...

Tour Down Under promises marquee names next year

Andrew Hood's takeaways from this year's Tour Down Under

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — The 2016 Tour Down Under is in the books. Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) won his record fourth overall title, a testament to his durability, and his team’s commitment to race hard in January when the rest of the pack remains in mid-winter siesta mode.

Is the Santos Tour Down Under World-Tour worthy? Or is it simply an Australian race, with a lot of guys from other countries to fill out the peloton?

Here’s the Tour Down Under takeaway, with notes on plans to draw a marquee name next year to give the Aussies a run for their money, why BMC Racing isn’t crying about not defending its title, and the real story behind Tyler Farrar’s illegal bike swap.

Organizers promise bigger names in 2017

The 2016 WorldTour started last week, but with such an Aussie-heavy field, some were wondering where the stars were hiding. For only the second time in race history — and the first since 2002 when it was a much easier race — Australians won all six stages (Caleb Ewan also won the Sundaypre-race crit for good measure).

This year, the TDU didn’t have one non-Australian marquee name, which irked some fans and media. By contrast, the Tour de San Luis, a second-tier race in Argentina, attracted Nairo Quintana (Movistar), world champion Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), and Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). Chris Froome (Sky) and Mark Cavendish (Etixx – Quick-Step) are coming to Australia, but not for the Tour Down Under.

Race director Mike Turtur promised that will change in 2017, and said it will happen without having to pay appearance fees to riders.

“There’s been reasons why some of the big names aren’t here (TDU) and I’ll say this now; next year there’s going to be some nice surprises coming to this race,” Turtur said Monday. “I’ll leave it at that, but there’s going to be some nice surprises.”

It seems odd that the top riders don’t want to come to the Tour Down Under. The race is among the best-organized and well-run races of the calendar. Roads and infrastructure are safe, racing distances are not too long (about 130km average), and riders stay in the same hotel every night, avoiding tedious, insufferable transfers.

The long flight to Australia presents an obstacle, and some say the TDU has become too difficult since it was given WorldTour status in 2008. A few sport directors say the top stars prefer to ease into the season at smaller races, where the pressure is less. The Tour Down Under, by contrast, is Australia’s biggest race of the year.

What vexes some is that Cavendish and Froome are coming to Australia, just not to the Tour Down Under. Cavendish, hot off racing the track in Hong Kong, will open his road season at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Race next weekend. Froome actually arrives in Adelaide on Monday, the day after the race ends, but he will train with some select Sky teammates, and debut at the rival Herald Sun Tour in February.

UCI boss Brian Cookson paid a visit to the Tour Down Under this year, and said the race will stay where it is on the international calendar. There was some discussion that the race would fit better into the top pros’ calendars if it were closer to the major Spring European races, but local organizers view the TDU more as a tourist event — it coincides with the Aussie summer holidays and draws thousands of cyclo-tourists — and less as solely a bike race. It’s more important to fill hotel rooms than to please a few GC riders’ training programs.

The Tour Down Under is uniquely Australian, and the big crowds that turned out all week didn’t seem to mind that there wasn’t a Froome or a Sagan in the field. Having a big name or two would help, but the TDU has plenty of froth just the way it is. Now if the Aussie stars started opting out, that would be another story.

BMC’s stars taking long view on season

Rohan Dennis and Richie Porte weren’t crying in their Coopers beer after falling short against Orica-GreenEdge, at least not publicly.

Dennis was hoping to become the first rider to defend the TDU title, but when he knew he didn’t have the legs to match Simon Gerrans up the decisive Willunga Hill climb Saturday, he gave BMC newcomer Porte the green light to attack. And attack he did. Porte uncorked a beauty, riding former Sky teammate Sergio Henao off his wheel to win at Willunga for the third year in a row to give deliver BMC its first win in his new colors.

The Tasmanian also nearly gapped Gerrans, who said he had things under control, but it sure didn’t seem that way. Had Porte not lost 8 seconds in a controversial gap in stage 4, Gerrans would have won by only 1 second.

Both downplayed the Tour Down Under, pumping instead what lies ahead.

“I didn’t really expect to be second here, that’s the honest truth,” Porte said. “The real racing starts in March … so it’s nice for me to have not done that much training, and still come away with a really good result.”

While Porte is aiming to peak in July, for Dennis, the real prize comes in Rio de Janeiro in August. After donning the yellow jersey at the Tour de France and setting (at least for a few months) the world hour record, Dennis believes he has big-time chances to strike gold in the time trial.

“It didn’t end the way I wanted it to, but I am more fit in some ways than I was last year, I just don’t have the same punch,” said Dennis, a budding star Down Under. “The real goal is Rio, so to come out of here with what we got, we have to be happy with that.”

Why Farrar wasn’t kicked out

By far, the biggest story all week was Tyler Farrar’s unexpected bike swap with a fan late in stage 3 over the Corkscrew climb. The Dimension Data sprinter was caught up in a tumble in the fast run-in down a gorge toward the base of the steep climb. After pulling himself out of a ditch, Farrar remounted his Cervelo frame, rode alongside the team car as they checked his injuries, and then was left alone as the team car sped down the road.

Here’s how Farrar explained what happened next: “The crash wasn’t nearly as bad as it might have looked on TV. I got back on the bike to ride in with the other guys who crashed, and the team car sped ahead to support the guys in front. About 5km down the road, my derailleur ripped off the bike. I was standing there on the side of the road, with no hope of finishing the stage. Cars can’t come backward on the course, and neutral support had already gone past, so I was out of luck, until this really cool guy rode up and said, ‘Mate, want to try my bike work?’ I said, sure, let’s try, and we swapped shoes as well, and I kept riding. He jumped in the broom wagon. Talk about hospitality.”

It was the day’s feel-good story, except that Farrar’s actions were explicitly banned. The rules state that riders can only accept bikes from neutral support or from their teammates. Porte learned this the hard way during last year’s Giro d’Italia, when he was penalized two minutes after trading wheels with Orica-GreenEdge rider Simon Clarke.

The TDU race jury, however, didn’t yank Farrar out of the race or give him a time penalty. Citing “spirit of the sport” and “exceptional circumstances,” the race jury allowed Farrar to stay in the race. Some were quietly muttering that he should have been kicked out anyway, but the jury did take into consideration the unique circumstances of the Tour Down Under entourage.

Unlike most WorldTour races, TDU allows for just one team car. Had Farrar not taken the bike, he might still be out there trying to hitch a ride to the finish. Also, neutral support had already passed the Farrar group of stragglers, instead of staying behind all riders as they normally should.

Dimension Data sport director Alex Sans Vega explained it this way: “We were with Tyler for 2km after his crash, treating his elbow, and his bike was OK. We only have one car in this race, instead of two in other WorldTour races, so we had to leave him to go ahead to the front of the race. The hanger was off track, and his derailleur ended up a mess. Where was neutral support? Normally, there is one that stays at the back of the race, but they had passed a whole bunch of riders.”

It’s not the first time friendly Aussie fans have helped out a pro in need. In 2002, Michael Rogers crashed with a motorbike. He borrowed a similar-sized Colnago from a fan, and eventually finished the stage and won the overall. The race rules were different back then, but the Aussie hospitality remains eternal.