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‘I had a pretty cool race lined up.’ Stuart O’Grady on canceling the 2021 Tour Down Under

Tour Down Under director Stuart O'Grady discusses the difficult decision to cancel the 2021 race.

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In a nod to the cancelation of the Australian international cycling calendar, we are turning our gaze Down Under for a week of feature stories, interviews, historical analysis, and other content to celebrate Australian cycling as part of Aussie Week.

Trying to organize a race in the middle of a global pandemic was hardly the kind of reception Stuart O’Grady was hoping for in his debut as race director at the Santos Tour Down Under.

In fact, it was one year ago during the 2020 Tour Down Under that the first whispers of the coronavirus started to filter out of China. Flash-forward 12 months, and O’Grady faced the unsavory choice of having to cancel the WorldTour opener — which is held in his hometown — for 2021.

“It’s been an incredibly challenging year,” O’Grady told VeloNews. “I had a pretty cool race lined up, but we’ll put it on the back burner until the WorldTour can return.”

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The 47-year-old assumed leadership of Australia’s most important stage race last year from race director Mike Turtur, who helped found the race in 1999.

O’Grady’s links to the Tour Down Under run deep. He hails from race’s host city of Adelaide and won the inaugural Tour Down Under in 1999. He won it again in 2001, and after retiring in 2013, he patiently waited for the opening of what he called his “dream job.”

But just as Turtur passed the baton, the coronavirus pandemic turned the racing calendar upside. Though Europe managed to pull off the three major grand tours and most of the one-day classics, Australia closed its borders and imposed a strict two-week quarantine for anyone entering the country.

The international travel requirements for the 2021 Tour Down Under made the race impossible to hold as a WorldTour event. Photo: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

In late 2020, with the race just weeks away, O’Grady and other race officials had to make the difficult decision to cancel the 2021 edition. They have created a pro-am-styled event featuring some of Australia’s top pros to fill the gap this week called the Santos Festival of Cycling. Pulling off a WorldTour race with an international peloton simply wasn’t in the cards.

“We were trying to come up with ways of chartering planes and finding some quarantine measures for the teams,” O’Grady said in a telephone interview.

Officials couldn’t risk that the race could become a source of infection, and many of the top teams simply did not want to put their riders and staff into such strict quarantine conditions. In the end, there was only one answer.

“There were the costs, and the responsibility to everyone,” he said. “All that gave us our answer that there wasn’t going to be a WorldTour event this year.”

Other races followed suit, and much of the “Aussie summer” has since been derailed. The Jayco Herald Sun Tour as well as the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, which opens the women’s WorldTour calendar, also faced the same dilemma.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be racing this week in and around Adelaide, one of Australia’s cycling hotbeds.

Despite the pandemic, officials decided to regroup with something to celebrate cycling for Australian fans and pro racers. They came up with the Santos Festival of Cycling, which will run during the Santos Tour Down Under dates, from January 19-24.

O’Grady, right, took over the race organization in 2020. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Every January, tens of thousands of fans pour into Adelaide to watch the top pros in what’s become one of the WorldTour’s most successful events. This year, after the pandemic forced their hand, O’Grady said officials were committed to delivering something that was fun yet safe.

“It’s been a tough 2020, and we thought it was more important than ever to get an event up and going,” he said. “Not only for cycling fans, but something to kick off 2021.”

There are public events scheduled across multiple disciplines, including track, cyclocross, BMX, para-cycling, mountain bike, and road racing

Several top men and women pros will be racing across composite teams, including Richie Porte, Lucy Kennedy, Annette Edmondson, Chris Harper, and a full Bike Exchange contingent.

O’Grady: ‘I’m going to add my flavor to the race’

For O’Grady, he’s hoping that 2021 is a one-off, and by next year he will be able to unveil some of his ideas for a revamped Tour Down Under.

The race has slowly evolved over the years. It started as a five-day “training” race featuring mostly sprint stages. By 2009, the race was bumped to the WorldTour level, and some harder climbs and longer distances were added to the route.

O’Grady knows he has a tough balancing act of making the race interesting, but not have it too hard for the international peloton just coming out of its winter slumber.

There have been rumors that the course could feature some of the unused climbs in the Adelaide Hills or even a short time trial. There’s also been talk of taking the race to nearby Kangaroo Island, Australia’s third-largest island off the Adelaide coast.

So far, O’Grady is keeping his cards close to his chest.

“I’ve been really excited about this job and I had my mind on this role for years,” he said. “I’m a local boy, and the Tour Down Under has played a massive role in my life. So I was pretty excited about the opportunity to design my own version of the Tour Down Under. I’m going to add my flavor to the race, but I’m going to keep quiet until I can show off what I have in store.”

View the full schedule of events during the Santos Festival of Cycling.