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‘It had a massive impact on my career.’ Why the Tour Down Under is so important for Australian pros

Simon Gerrans and other Australian pros explain why the Tour Down Under is such an important race for the home riders.

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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.

Simon Gerrans still remembers stage 5 of the 2004 Santos Tour Down Under, which finished with the familiar slugfest on Old Willunga Hill. Gerrans was 23 at the time; he raced in Europe on the French amateur team U Nantes Atlantique and was a member of the Australian composite squad for his home tour. He saw the Tour Down Under as an opportunity to catch the eyes of a pro director, and so he spent cycling’s traditional offseason preparing for the race.

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After a flurry of attacks, Gerrans made the front group alongside the race’s biggest stars: Robbie McEwan, Philippe Gilbert, Baden Cooke, and GC leader Patrick Jonker. In the final push to the line, Gerrans watched as his teammate, Benjamin Day, took the stage win, while he survived the attacks to finish alongside the big names and secure a top-15 spot on GC.

“You were just trying to get in the break, and it was the opportunity to impress and show that I have what it takes to turn professional,” Gerrans told VeloNews. “That result kicked off a great amateur season in Europe for me. Directors were like, ‘who is that guy?'”

Seven months after that day, Gerrans signed his first pro contract with French squad AG2R-Prévoyance. Two years later, he won the Tour Down Under’s overall, the first of his four GC wins.

Gerrans’ story is hardly an outlier — similar anecdotes are told again and again amongst the cadre of retired and current Australian pro riders, in both the men’s and the women’s peloton. Since the race’s origin in 1999, the Tour Down Under has been Australia’s biggest race, the one event to regularly attract top teams from Europe.

The crowds are always deep at the Tour Down Under. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“As a young guy it gives you a lot of inspiration and motivation if you can suddenly be a little bit of a player in these big races,” said Mitch Docker of EF Education – Nippo, who raced his first Tour Down Under in 2006 as an amateur.”You think, ‘wow, maybe I could be a pro in the future.'”

Australian riders shared their thoughts on the Tour Down Under with VeloNews this week in recognition of the race’s cancelation due to COVID-19. In their stories and recollections, the Tour Down Under’s importance stems from the race’s multiple qualities: the presence of WorldTour teams, the early-season fitness test, and the presence of family and local fans. All of the pro riders we spoke to could trace favorite racing memories back to their home tour, and all were hopeful that the race’s 2021 cancelation wouldn’t have a major impact on the event’s future, or on the next generation of up-and-coming stars.

“We’re hoping that 2021 is just a one-off,” said Stuart O’Grady, the race’s director and inaugural winner. “If it’s off the calendar just for one year, I don’t think the impact will be that significant.”

‘Australians like to race on home soil’

Adam Hansen rides through the home crowds on Old Willunga Hill during the 2016 TDU. Photo: Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

American cycling fans can relate to Australian riders’ love of the Tour Down Under, as there are many similarities between the race and the Amgen Tour of California. Like Americans, Australian pros must uproot their lives and relocate to Europe to chase a professional career, returning home for short periods of time in the offseason.

They rarely get to race in front of friends and family — for some, the Tour Down Under is the only time that loved ones will see them compete in person.

“It’s the opportunity to be noticed by Australian fans and friends as much as anything,” said Lucy Kennedy of Team BikeExchange. “The public exposure back home is enormous.”

Similar to the Tour of California, the Tour Down Under attracts massive home crowds, yet the riders are often accessible outside of the team bus. In Europe, top riders often spend race mornings in the bus, emerging just before sign-in to ink a few autographs and give interviews, before pushing through the crowds.

That’s not the case at the Tour Down Under, where riders come out early to snap photos and see friends.

“To have a WorldTour race where you have the likes of Peter Sagan coming to Australia, and just being on a deck chair at the back of a team bus and people being able to see him up close — I’ve often said to people, go to the Tour Down Under before you come and watch the Tour de France,” said Mat Hayman, who retired at the 2019 Tour Down Under. “There’s no way you’re going to get as close to the riders as you will at the Tour Down Under, where they just walk in the streets of Adelaide.”

Racing in front of friends, and seeing Peter Sagan up close may sound insignificant, however they are important distinctions, even for seasoned veterans. Adam Hansen raced his first Tour Down Under in 2008, when he was already an established rider in the European peloton. Rather than patrol the peloton, Hansen found himself attacking into moves, spurred on by the crowds.

“It was huge for me, and it happened very late for me. I remember being very aggressive in the race and having a great time,” he said. “We Australians like to race on home soil.”

‘Pretty easy to say g’day to a director’

Australian riders have used the race to show themselves off to visiting team directors. Photo: Kei Tsuji/Getty Images

In the race’s early editions the Tour Down Under played out in a similar fashion to the early editions of the Tour of California. ProTour strongmen started their season off against a collection of domestic teams from across Australia, with names like Savings & Loans Cycling Team, Drapac-Porsche, and UniSA, the team sponsored by the University of South Australia. The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) sent composite teams to the event, as did the federation.

Up-and-coming riders used those composite squads to get access to WorldTour riders and directors, both on the bike and off.

“Everyone’s staying at the same hotel, and it’s pretty easy to say g’day to a sport director or a manager,” O’Grady said. “It’s a big opportunity for young Australian riders. Magic can happen.”

The race’s step into the WorldTour in 2008 siphoned off some of the access for younger riders and all domestic teams, as WorldTour events cannot invite lower UCI Continental squads to compete. Since then, a handful of Australian Pro Continental squads have started the race. The presence of these teams, however, has ebbed and flowed, based on the overall health of the sponsorship market.

Thus, organizers made it a point to allow a composite team sponsored by the federation or AIS to compete.

“The race is really important for young Australian riders,” O’Grady said. “Even with the WorldTour status, we always have a composite team of the top young riders.”

Over the years, multiple up-and-coming riders have worn the colors of these Australian composite teams, among them Caleb Ewan, Jack Bobridge, and even Rohan Dennis.

‘You can’t just ride through the race’

The race’s blistering early-season pace means riders cannot build into form. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Throughout its history, the Tour Down Under has committed to its January race date, a spot on the calendar that gives an enormous advantage to the home riders. In the early editions, Australian riders often beat up on the visiting Europeans, who were just a few weeks into building base miles for the upcoming season.

The Aussies, by contrast, had been training through the Southern Hemisphere summer for months.

“As an Australian, you had this distinct advantage because you could prepare so much better than the European guys,” Gerrans said. “It was a lot more relaxed in those days, and the European guys were using it as an extended training camp, just racking up their pre-season miles and intensity.”

The race’s step into the WorldTour changed that dynamic, and since 2008 the pace at the January race has steadily increased.

Now, the action is swift and the riders are fit, with a bevy of WorldTour points on the line for teams and riders. The race’s spot on the calendar, thus, has completely shifted the global schedule of cycling. To be a WorldTour pro in 2020 meant to be fit and ready for the Tour Down Under — something that riders of previous generations simply did not have to do.

This shift has created a new dynamic for some Australian riders, which is having to curb their ambitions in the event as not to risk overcooking their legs too early in the season. All of the fanfare and family — plus the hungry up-and-coming countrymen and women — means Aussie pro riders are motivated. But bigger objectives later in the year, for some, still loom large.

“Sometimes I do feel it can be a bit of a hindrance being an Aussie and doing all the Aussie racing, just because of that factor that you can’t just ride through the race and find your form, because you’ve got the pride there,” Docker said. ” So, it can be a great thing but also it can be a bit of a hindrance. If you want to be peaking in April, you have to swallow your pride and just ride through the Tour Down Under because you know what your real goal is and not let yourself get too sidetracked by the early season races.”

It’s a small trade-off for having a WorldTour race on home soil. And riders — even Docker – wouldn’t trade it.