Don’t mess with our Tour Down Under. That’s the message from Australians to cycling’s governing body.
The UCI continues to discuss reforms to be introduced by 2017 that could include a major shakeup of the WorldTour calendar. One complaint is that the current racing calendar is too long and jumbled, running from January to October. Some want to hone the calendar into something tighter and more comprehensible, and that could mean a change of date for the Santos Tour Down Under.
At this stage, there is nothing concrete, but there is growing consensus among some quarters that the Tour Down Under would better fit into a leaner WorldTour calendar if it were in late February instead of its current slot in January.
No one in Australia, however, agrees with that logic.
Just about everyone, from riders to staffers to politicians and fans, agrees that the Tour Down Under is perfect just where it is.
“I had a great week. I am so blown away how cool this race is, it’s getting bigger and bigger,” said Australian rider Michael Rogers (Tinkoff-Saxo). “The crowds are so enthusiastic. It’s turning into a party of cycling.”
Since its inception in 1999, the Tour Down Under has evolved into a world-class event on every level. The organization, the media interest, and the number of fans rivals anything in Europe. Riders like the warm weather, a central hotel without long transfers, and relatively easy racing conditions. Most stages hover around 150 kilometers, so there are no major climbs or time trials — nothing too hard so early in the season.
And fans turn out in massive numbers to watch the race. One official said as many as 35,000 people travel exclusively into South Australia during race week to watch the race, filling hotels, bars, and restaurants. Richie Porte (Sky) said the crowds lining the decisive climb up Willunga Hill are as big as anything the peloton sees in Europe.
“We are humbled by the numbers of fans who turn out to see us and cheer us on,” Porte said. “The crowds up Willunga Hill are like what we see at the Tour. As riders, we really appreciate that.”
The race also features a race expo and team tents area that features live bands, big-screen TVs, and beer gardens for fans to watch the race live. There are also start and finish-line grandstands and VIP tents. A gran fondo event draws more than 7,000 participants. On many levels, it’s the ideal WorldTour event in terms of planning, execution, success, and impact.
A key factor to the Tour Down Under is the fact that it is held in January, which, being in the southern hemisphere, is at the tail end of the summer school holidays. A move to February would mean that the thousands of families and students who travel to Adelaide from all corners of Australia to watch the race simply couldn’t come.
“This race reminds me a little about the Coors Classic,” said Greg LeMond, who was a guest of the race organizers this year. “It was based around Boulder, and it was incredibly popular, because people could take their vacation, be based in one place, and see all the stages in a short distance. You go to the Tour de France, you’re lucky to see the race, 10 seconds and it’s gone.”
Tour Down Under officials are nervously watching the calendar reform process at the UCI.
“At the end of the day, it’s a UCI decision as to what they do with the reform in 2017,” said TDU race director Mike Turtur. “We would hope that after 17 editions of this race that we’d like to think that we have enough coins in the bank to suggest that we’re doing the right thing.
“I think the UCI needs to look at our race in January like the Tour de France is in July,” he continued. “It’s critically important that we stage this race during the holiday period, because it’s a tourism event as well as a bike race. It would be like asking the Tour de France to move from July to another month. They would say absolutely not. The reason this race exists is because of tourism.”
Turtur suggested that if there are any changes to the WorldTour calendar, rather than change its race dates, the UCI should find an event to slot in between the Tour Down Under and the European calendar at Paris-Nice in early March.
“The bike race component is good for the sport, but there are business needs that need to be considered in front of everything else. I think if the UCI takes all of that into consideration, they will make a wise decision about our place on the calendar,” Turtur said. “And look at February, to find another WorldTour event to slot in there between our race, and going back to Europe in March, so there’s not a blank month. We’ve got to find something in February that fits in as a WorldTour race, maybe in the Middle East somewhere.”
That sentiment is echoed across the peloton. The riders and teams enjoy the Tour Down Under, and most don’t think it should be tampered with.
“The Tour Down Under is a different race than it was 15 years ago. There are no preparation races anymore. This is as good as any race in the world right now. It’s January, but it’s very, very serious racing,” said Orica-GreenEdge sport director Matt White. “The reason it works so well in January is because it’s school holidays. If you moved it to February, it might work well on the calendar, but for the fans and the tourism, which is the backbone of this race, January is a great place for this race.”