Here comes the Sun Tour: Still plenty to play for in Australia

After a year’s hiatus and as much politics in trying to move Australia’s oldest stage race to a different calendar slot, the Herald Sun Tour returns to its original calendar spot in 2011, and with a point to prove.

After a year’s hiatus and as much politics in trying to move Australia’s oldest stage race to a different calendar slot, the Herald Sun Tour returns to its original calendar spot in 2011, and with a point to prove.

The point, according to race director Michael Hands, is that the Herald Sun Tour (HST), its name derived from the Herald Sun, Australia’s largest daily newspaper, is on par with the better known Santos Tour Down Under – even though the latter is a WorldTour event and the former ranked 2.1, two rungs below.

Unlike WorldTour events, however, where the 18 ProTeams are obliged to ride, the world’s best teams and riders bear no such responsibility when it comes to races like the HST, or the Tour of California or USA Pro Cycling Challenge, for example.

Instead ProTeams, by way of invitation from the race organizer, choose to ride, and this year four — Garmin-Cervélo, Katusha, Omega Pharma-Lotto, Saxo Bank-SunGard — have chosen to make the intercontinental journey to the southern state of Victoria, making for the best line-up in a decade.

While both WorldTour and non-WorldTour events can invite Pro Continental teams, of which there will be two of the latter at this year’s race — Skil-Shimano and Team Type 1-Sanofi — races such as the HST are also free to invite Continental squads and more than one national team.

And compared to races like the Tour de France, where 22 teams of nine riders are invited, or the one-day classics such as Milan-San Remo or Paris-Roubaix, where 25 teams of eight men are selected, 18 teams of six riders will comprise this year’s HST peloton — making for a rather old-school, 1980s-looking peloton of just 108 riders.
The race’s honor roll, which began with a Victorian sheep farmer named Keith Rowley in 1958, earning 1,500 pounds sterling ($2,300) for his efforts, is a rather illustrious one.

Australian John ‘Iffy’ Trevorrow, who designed the course for the 2010 road world championships in Geelong, is a three-time champion. Team Sky sport director Shane Sutton won the race in 1983. A year later his brother Gary, father to Vuelta stage winner Chris and Cycling Australia women’s track endurance coach, did likewise.

The last edition in 2009, Chris ‘CJ’ Sutton, riding for what was then Garmin-Slipstream, attempted to emulate his uncle and father, Shane. Unfortunately for the Sydneysider he encountered Bradley Wiggins, coming off his revelatory fourth place overall at that year’s Tour de France — and who was on the same team.

Immediately after finishing second, Sutton vowed to return to one day win the race. But it won’t be this year for Team Sky, the outfit they both now ride for, is not coming.

North Americans have also had their share of the limelight at the Sun Tour, as it is colloquially known; the first being Mike Engelman in 1991. A year later it was Bart Bowen, followed by Andy Bishop (1995), Scott Moninger (‘96) and Norman Alvis (’97); cyclocrosser Tim Johnson was the last Stateside resident to hold the unique ‘700C’-size trophy aloft, in 2003.

In a race set to be dominated by Australians, just a smattering of North Americans will descend on Victorian shores this year, including William Dugan and Scott Stewart from Team Type 1-Sanofi.

The 59th edition is once again based around towns in regional Victoria. Beginning in Whittlesea, a seaside village 40 kilometres (25 miles) northeast of Melbourne’s central business district, the race will traverse some 700km (435 mi.) over five days’ racing.

Showcasing vineyards, forests, fields and mountains before a final circuit race in the capital of Melbourne, in a precinct known as ‘Little Italy’ for its restaurants and cafés (as much as it is for its notorious gangland past – just Google ‘Carlton Crew’), the HST will visit iconic tourist destinations including the goldfields, the Great Ocean Road, and Bellarine and Mornington Peninsulas.

Those vying for overall honors will have already earmarked the fourth and penultimate leg, from Sorrento to Arthurs Seat, as the likely denouement. The 3km climb of Arthurs Seat boasts a 10 percent average gradient and will be tackled thrice; exposed to at-times strong coastal winds, the final ascent culminates in a hilltop finish after 131.6km.

There are still more than a few riders looking for a ride in 2012 – the rider transfer period ends on 20 October, four days after the finish. And so, given its place late on the calendar, the Sun Tour can become a make-or-break race.
In other cases, riders have been offered a contract but want to win a stage or the overall, to implicitly tell their future bosses they’re worth a little – or, to prospective employers, a lot – more.

The season may be drawing to a close but there’s still plenty to play for.

The contenders:
Richie Porte, David Tanner (Saxo Bank-SunGard), Jack Bobridge, Cameron Meyer (Garmin-Cervélo), Matt Lloyd (Mitchelton Australia National Team)

The Stages
Stage 1 – 12 October: Whittlesea – Ballarat, 170.4 km
Stage 2 – 13 October: Ballarat – Geelong, 140.6 km
Stage 3 – 14 October: Geelong – Drysdale, 172.6 km
Stage 4 – 15 October: Sorrento – Arthurs Seat, 131.6 km
Stage 5 – 16 October: Melbourne Circuit Race, Carlton, 1.5 hours

Editor’s Note: Realizing life in advertising was nothing like Mad Men and buoyed by the Olympic Games in his Australian hometown of Sydney, Anthony Tan turned his back on a lucrative copywriting career in 2000 in pursuit of something more cerebral. Combining wordsmithing with his experiences as an A-Grade club racer and an underwhelming season competing in Europe, a career as a cycling scribe beckoned… More than 10 Grand Tours and countless Classics later, it’s where he still is today. He has been a contributor to VeloNews since 2006. In 2010, he won Cycling Australia’s media award for best story.