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ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — The 2017 WorldTour debut is a wrap, and many pros agree it is one of their favorite events on the racing calendar.
In its 19 editions, the Santos Tour Down Under has evolved into a showcase for pro racing, with a solid stable of racing events on the men’s and women’s sides mixed with a 10-day festival of all things two wheels. There are street parties, concerts, an expo area, food carts, a gran fondo public ride, and Tour de France-sized crowds lining the roads (but this year without podium girls).
The Tour Down Under has found the right balance that works for race sponsors, for teams and riders, and with the public. The payoff is a 10-day “celebration of bikes.” While it retains a heavy Aussie accent, with six of the past seven winners hailing from Australia, the race is very much exemplary of how week-long bike races can be organized and developed into a product that offers more than just a bike race.
1. Hard racing, but not too hard
The race has evolved from a sprinter’s event, with former winners such as André Greipel and Stuart O’Grady, into something more challenging. This year’s race featured two hilltop finales, helping pave the way for Richie Porte (BMC Racing) to claim the overall.
The Adelaide Hills serve up some steep terrain, but climbs are about six to seven minutes long at race speed — well below the longer efforts the peloton will face later in the season on Europe’s bigger mountains. The race keeps it simple and does not include a time trial because it would be too costly for teams to fly in time trial bikes and equipment. Stages are about 150km, just enough to make it a race, but not so long suck the life out of the peloton.
“The riders appreciate and so do the team managers the changes we’ve made over the past few years to being more of a race for all-rounders rather than a sprinter’s race,” said TDU race director Mike Turtur. “The stages of 150km this time of year are exactly what the teams and riders want. The terrain isn’t overly difficult. We’ve got a pretty good formula that works well for the first race of the season. If you make it any harder or longer, it’s not going to make the race any better. It will maybe harm the race, because at 150km they race really well.”
Riders seem to agree. Most stages are three to four hours long, and at that distance, the pace is fairly intense throughout the stage assuring fireworks.
“It’s a nice way to get things rolling. You can go to all the training camps you want, but you cannot replicate this racing intensity,” said Trek – Segafredo’s Peter Stetina. “This is a WorldTour race, no doubt about it. The numbers to win are the same as any other race in Europe, instead there are 15 guys doing it, instead of say 50. It’s a relaxed environment and there isn’t as much stress.”
2. ‘Easy’ WorldTour points
Since its inclusion to the WorldTour in 2008, the race has become the annual starting point of the season-long series. And with that comes important WorldTour points, and several teams come to Australia targeting early season results with an eye on the season-long title.
“This is a WorldTour race, so we’re looking to get points in every race we start,” said BMC Racing’s Jim Ochowicz. “One of our main season goals is to be top 3 in the WorldTour ranking, so the Tour Down Under is critical to starting off the year with a big result.”
This season, UCI points are being awarded deeper into the GC results sheet, but that doesn’t diminish the significance of taking points at the top. In fact, teams have discovered that the Tour Down Under can deliver some “easy” points compared to the harder, more competitive races later in the season.
“Points are important at any race, so it is important to take as many points as you can,” said Movistar sport director José Luis Arrieta. “The points we’ve taken here in the past have helped us win the WorldTour title, so we take it very seriously.”
3. Smooth debut of team colors
There’s always a special feeling in the air for the season’s first race. The Tour Down Under sees teams roll out new bikes, new jerseys, and new faces. And this year, the TDU featured the debut of Bahrain – Merida and the UAE – Abu Dhabi teams, giving the public its first glimpse of what lies in store for 2017. The TDU is a WorldTour event, but without the stress and pressure that comes later in Europe. That gives teams a smooth transition into a new season of racing.
“This team is coming together nicely, and it is good to be able to race together to get things working,” said Bahrain’s Janez Brajkovic. “It is a new team, but many of the same riders and infrastructure were already in place.”
That same sense of renewal was in full force at Bora – Hansgrohe, with the arrival of two-time defending world champion Peter Sagan. Although the team didn’t win a stage — Sagan was second three times — the team seemed satisfied on the week.
“This race was important to work together for the first time,” Sagan said. “I am very happy, but there is not much to talk about [victory]. I am getting my condition back, and it’s been a good week of racing. This is a very nice race. It is very organized, and I am glad I am here.”
4. Good weather, good crowds
Another plus is the weather. The week of this year’s Tour Down Under saw Europe enveloped in record cold, with snow even hitting the beaches in Spain where many teams were holding January training camps. January is summertime in Australia, with temperatures hitting 90 degrees and more.
“One of the big things for me is to get away from the horrible British weather,” said Danielle King of Cylance. “It was such a fantastic start to the season last year, and I love it here. The training is fantastic, and the race was really great, and it’s a great way to start the season with a block of training and a good race. It’s a tougher course than it was last year. I love starting the season like this.”
Good weather draws the crowds. An estimated 20,000 fans pour into Adelaide just to watch the race. Most bring their bikes, and area roads are teeming with packs of cyclists heading to each day’s stage.
“The crowds here are like at the Tour de France,” said Orica – Scott’s Esteban Chaves, runner-up this year. “This was special for me to be racing in Australia, which feels like my second home. It was so moving to hear people call me name. Maybe I can come back next year to win.”
5. Exemplary infrastructure
The Tour Down Under was one of the first races to embrace the “clover-leaf” concept of having a central hub, where all the teams sleep and mechanics have their tech area all in the same place, and stages start and finish in different towns in the area. Many believe it’s an effective model that could work one-week stage races, serving both as a plus for sponsors and community backers as well as for the athletes. There are no long transfers, yet all the attention is focused on one central area.
“I’ve been coming here a few years now, and it’s a great way to start the season,” said Dimension Data’s Tyler Farrar. “It’s got to be one of the best organized races of the year. They really have every detail figured out. It allows us to just focus on the racing.”
The center of action is Adelaide, with a large expo area and team zone right in front of the host hotel. Every morning, teams and officials pile into a rolling closure to the day’s start. After about three to four hours of racing, riders are back home in the hotel usually in time for an afternoon siesta. The race takes in some of the area’s regional sites, along the beaches, the Adelaide Hills, and the wine-producing area of Barossa Valley.
With the inclusion of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean race on the WorldTour calendar, teams and riders can extend their Australia holiday for another week. Like it or not, Europe awaits.