STIRLING, Australia (VN) — Anyone who’s flown to Australia knows it’s a long way from anywhere. It’s about 24 hours of travel time down to the antipodes from North America or Europe, plenty of time to binge-watch an entire season Game of Thrones on the flight.
So how do the riders deal with the inevitable jet lag and fatigue, and still line up for the WorldTour season opener fresh and ready to perform at the Santos Tour Down Under? The answer — it takes some planning.
“We all struggle with jet lag for a few days,” said Joey Rosskopf (CCC Team), who snagged the King of the Mountains jersey on stage 2, Wednesday. “The trainers take that into account and we take it easy for three or four days before we do any intense training or long rides. We came two weeks early this year. If you only get here a few days before, you have to push everything.”
The Tour Down Under’s calling card is its warm summer weather and ideal racing conditions. That’s the case, of course, because it’s literally halfway around the world, where it’s summer down under when it’s in the throes of winter in Europe and North America.
Race organizers are keenly aware how far away Australia is from the traditional hotbeds of cycling, and go out of their way to take the bite out of the long trip.
One way the organization takes the edge off the long flight is to provide business-class flights for riders and sport directors. The soigneurs and journalists might be back in economy, but not the riders.
“We know it’s a long trip down here and it’s important for us that the riders are treated correctly,” said race director Mike Turtur. “We realize it’s not the easiest trip to make and we’re always thankful to see the world champion and the other top riders.”
Turtur, who is exiting as race director after founding the race in 1999, has been insistent that riders fly to Australia in business class. Not every far-flung race in the ever-more-international calendar provides business-class flights for racers, but the Tour Down Under does.
It’s details like business-class flights that make the WorldTour opener one of the more popular races on the calendar.
“This is one of my favorite races of the year because it’s so well organized,” said two-time defending champion Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott). “I think a lot of riders enjoy starting their season down here. It’s good weather, good roads and the racing is hard enough.”
The Tour Down Under has proven that a race can succeed far beyond the traditional foothold of Europe. Since its inception, organizers have been determined to overcome issues such as jet lag and the travel commitment by treating the riders with respect.
Even the design of the race has been structured to reduce the stress and strain on the peloton.
First off, the distances and terrain are not overly demanding, with stages between 130km to 150km, compared to close to 200km in Europe.
The race is also held on a cloverleaf design, meaning that there are no long transfers before and after stages. That means that riders sleep in the same hotel all week, something unique on the WorldTour that typically sees riders piling into buses after each stage and driving hours before and after each stage to overnight in different hotels.
Some have suggested that the race could fit better into the racing calendar nearer to the European dates if it was held in February or even March, perhaps giving the WorldTour a stronger season-long narrative and continuity. Race organizers, however, have long defended their January dates on the calendars.
The top reason why organizers like January is that the race dovetails perfectly into the Australian vacation season. Nearly 50,000 fans flock to Adelaide each year, who spend an estimated $70 million at hotels, bars and restaurants. Move the race out of the holiday season, and it likely wouldn’t receive such generous government financing.
“South Australians love this race and it’s important to them,” said Hitaf Rasheed, an official from South Australia tourism. “People get involved with the race, either by watching or volunteering. It’s a real community event.”
Yet there’s another reason why the race works so well in January. If the race was moved to another date on the calendar, it would create complications for both teams and riders looking ahead to the season’s first important dates in Europe.
Right now, the race slots in perfectly into early season training camps and allows riders to make the long trip to race and train, and then return to Europe to recover.
If teams were trying to make the trip to Australia in between races in Europe or North America, and then fly back straight for another race, it would simply be too much strain on the athletes. Jet lag would be a real problem.
“There’s no way it would work in the middle of the season,” said Movistar sport director José Luis Arrieta. “It’s perfect right now. We bring our guys down here already a week before the race starts. That gives them plenty of time to work out any issues with jet lag, and then they’re ready to race.”
The Tour Down Under has become such a popular kicking-off point for riders, many simply avoid jet lag issues by coming down to Australia even earlier.
Robert Gesink (Jumbo-Visma), not racing this year, made it an annual tradition to come to Adelaide and spend the holiday season with his family. This year, Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) took a page from the Gesink playbook, and rented a house with teammates Clément Chevrier and Axel Dumont. They’ve been here since December 28.
“It’s been nice to be down here, with the warm weather and good roads,” Bardet said. “We have been training and riding into the season in a different way.”
Teams take the jet-lag issue seriously. Sunweb put its riders on a different sleep schedule in the days before their flights, and even had some of them riding on indoor trainers with the heat turned up to mimic the extremes of racing in Australia’s summer.
“Our European riders might be riding in near-freezing conditions, and then for them to come down here, where it can be in the [90s], that can be quite a shock,” said Sunweb sport director Luke Roberts. “It’s all about being as proactive as possible.”
Questions of jet lag and travel distance have long put the brakes on efforts by the Tour de France to expand its reach beyond Europe. So far, the Tour Down Under has found the right balance and the right spot on the calendar to make it work.
Flying business-class doesn’t hurt.