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Peloton split on whether Tour Down Under needs a facelift

The Tour Down Under has stuck to a tried-and-tested format for many years, but with a new race director in 2021, that template could change.

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The Santos Tour Down Under ended Sunday with another nail-biting finale as Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) beat back longtime nemesis Mitchelton-Scott on Willunga Hill.

It was a textbook conclusion to Australia’s biggest race that’s followed a script that’s become familiar over the past several years.

While Porte savored his victory, many are wondering if the highly successful template of the Tour Down Under could be ready for a facelift.

Two decades on, the race is firmly established as the WorldTour opener and as the highlight of the Australian racing calendar. But with Porte and Mitchelton-Scott yet again dominating in a week filled out by sprints, some insiders suggest the race could use a makeover.

“I do think the race could be tweaked a little bit,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “The organizers shouldn’t be afraid of making this race harder.”

The time could be now for the Tour Down Under to spice things up. Founding director Mike Turtur is retiring after this edition, with ex-pro Stuart O’Grady poised to take over the reins for 2021. So far, O’Grady has kept a low profile, partly out of respect for Turtur’s final race, but there are whispers that O’Grady is determined to put his stamp on the race.

Some feel it may be time for Tour Down Under to have less focus on sprint finishes and intermediate sprint bonuses. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

What that means is hard to say. Turtur has long defended the current blueprint of the race, and many within the peloton agree.

“I don’t think they need to change anything,” Porte said. “I think other races should change to be like this. Why not? One hotel all week? Maybe they could get rid of time bonuses [laughs]. I don’t think they need to change a thing.”

With its date in mid-January linked with the Australian holiday season, Turtur knew he could not make the race overly demanding for the European teams. When the race was bumped up to WorldTour status, the course gradually became more difficult, with the addition of new passages up Willunga Hill and another summit finale at Paracombe.

While the date of the Tour Down Under is unlikely to change, the rest of the calendar has filled out around it. Gone is the long wait between Tour Down Under and Paris-Nice. Now the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the UAE Tour keep the calendar busy before the European WorldTour season clicks into gear.

White insists the peloton has evolved and improved since the Tour Down Under’s founding in the late 1990s. In the early editions, riders like André Greipel could win because the week was packed with sprints.

Matt White feels the racing could be made harder providing stages remain short to accommodate the Australian heat. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images.

White says that today’s peloton could handle heavier racing, so long as stages were kept relatively short to accommodate South Australia’s sometimes Sahara-like heat.

“The main thing is that the sport is different than it was in 1999. I think the riders can handle tougher stages this time of year,” he said. “They used to come here to get the season up and away, and the next big race was in March. Now the calendar is so full, if you’re not coming here with decent form, you’re going to get beat up in this race.

“No one wants to be stuck out for five hours in 40 degrees,” White said. “Shorter stages tend to make for more interesting stages, so shorter, harder stages is the answer.”

What could the race do? Even if they want to jazz things up, its options are limited.

First off, the geography of the Adelaide Hills means there cannot be 20-minute efforts simply because there aren’t any. Willunga is one of the steeper sustained climbs, and that’s little over three minutes for the top pros. Other climbs in the area are longer, but not as steep. Organizers could string together more climbs along the spine of the Adelaide Hills to deliver an Ardennes-style course.

Due to the long travel involved to Australia, the inclusion of a time trial isn’t likely on the cards either. No one wants to ship time trial bikes and wheels all the way to Australia.

There is talk of the possibility of a prologue or a shorter time trial that could be held with road bikes. That would add another dimension to the race and pit the specialists against the climbers.

Not everyone thinks that the race should be changed too much. The sprinters like having their chances for wins. This year, Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), Elia Viviani (Cofidis) and Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) all brought their lead-out trains to Australia. Others wonder if the race is made too hard that it might keep certain riders away.

The week of racing typically comes down to the three-minute effort on Willunga Hill. Photo: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

Some question if there is a time trial or a longer mix of back-to-back climbs, the race’s innate suspense and final-day uncertainty would be eliminated.

“The race works really well the way it is right now,” said two-time winner Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott). “If they put a big mountaintop finish in there, they’d get a very select group of finishers, whereas right now we have an all-round course. It’s a very honest course. The past few years, it’s been a really exciting race.”

On Sunday, Turtur seemed to have the last word on his legacy. The race was still undecided until the final charge up Willunga, just the way he planned it.

“We woke up on Sunday morning not knowing who was going to win the race,” Turtur said. “All the feedback we got from teams and riders was that it’s just the way they like it, because the uncertainty of that stage with the final climb playing a big part in determining the overall winner was a huge positive for the race.”

When the peloton returns to Australia next year, the Tour Down Under could have a few new twists.