The man behind the Herald Sun Tour

Behind every great cycling event are its race director and management company. At the Tour de France, it’s Christian Prudhomme and ASO; the Amgen Tour of California has Jim Birrell and Medalist Sports; at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour it’s Michael Hands and TL Sports, a Victoria-based event management company that also runs several running events in Melbourne.

Michael Hands is the man responsible for Australia’s second-largest stage race.

Photo: Neal Rogers

Behind every great cycling event are its race director and management company. At the Tour de France, it’s Christian Prudhomme and ASO; the Amgen Tour of California has Jim Birrell and Medalist Sports; at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour it’s Michael Hands and TL Sports, a Victoria-based event management company that also runs several running events in Melbourne.

Hands is both the director of TL Sports and the race director of the Sun Tour. Prior to establishing TL Sports, Hands had a senior executive role with the Victorian Major Events Company, where he was involved in event acquisition and management and played a role in acquiring several major events for Victoria, including the 2010 world road championships, the 2004 world track championships, and other major events in swimming, triathlon and gymnastics.

VeloNews’ Neal Rogers caught up with Hands to learn more about Australia’s second-largest stage race.

VN: Let’s start off with your duration as race director. How long have you been in charge of the race, and what were you doing before this?

Michael Hands: This is my fifth tour. Prior to this I worked with the Victorian Major Events Company, which was about event acquisition and the like for Victoria. I’d done the bid for the track world championships, which were in Melbourne in 2004, and was doing the bid for the road world championships, which we won, which is great, they’ll be in Victoria (Geelong) next year. When I was there I was asked to have a look at this event and write a new business plan for it, which I did. And the people who were running it elected to leave at that time, and I was asked to take it on.

VN: Who was running it?

MH: Another promotions company called Caribou Publications. They’d been doing it for a very long time and I think they were tired and stale. When I said I’d do it, I had to set up my own company, TL Sports and start from scratch.

VN: So not only were you directing the race for the first time, but you were simultaneously starting your own company?

MH: That’s right. It was a very hard year, 2005. I don’t think I slept for about a 12 months.

VN: What kind of changes did you implement?

MH: We changed everything — the duration, the structure. (Prior) it broke every UCI rule in the book, to be quite honest. There were composite teams, which didn’t comply with UCI rules, there were two stages a day, so you couldn’t do a decent build to make it look like a professional event. It didn’t really have any television, so we brought in a whole lot of television infrastructure. We took it from 11 to seven days, because everyone said that 11 days was far too long. It was more what we didn’t change, really.

VN: What was the reaction been to those changes?

MH: It’s been really positive. And the way we measure that, we’ve gone from no TV to a half-hour every day and live coverage (of the final stage), to a lot of international distribution of TV to live radio to journos from around the world now starting to cover it to riders like Bradley Wiggins being willing to ride it. None of this was the case five years ago. The budget has doubled and we’re getting more sponsorships. I think there’s some decent credibility now. There’s still plenty we can grow on, but we’re making progress.

VN: The race is always held in Victoria, is that because the Herald Sun is a Victorian paper?

MH: Initially it was because the Herald Sun is a Victorian paper, although it’s had a few forays into Tasmania and the like, but the Victorian government is now a significant backer of this race, and they obviously don’t want their money going to other states, so that keeps it in Victoria.

VN: This race is older than the Tour Down Under, but over the past decade the Tour Down Under has become a bigger race.

MH: This race started in 1952, so it’s actually one of the oldest stage races in the world, it’s got a fantastic history about it. The South Australian government, when it lost the Formula One Gran Prix (to Melbourne, in 1998), was looking for an anchor event for South Australia. Thankfully for cycling, it decided cycling was it. It pours a huge amount of money, five, tens of millions, into that race. So good luck to them, really.

VN: And is the Sun Tour locked into this date on the calendar? Has it always been in October?

MH: it’s been at this time of year since 1952, but that doesn’t mean it will always be at this time of year.

VN: It’s an interesting time of the calendar, you have guys from the Northern Hemisphere finishing their seasons, and the domestic Aussies kicking off their seasons. There are different levels of motivation

MH: Pretty much. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from the teams that they really want to ride this race, the reputation has improved a lot, and I think we really look after them well. To do that, to get all the top teams, we’ll need to change the date, so we’re having a really hard look at that.

VN: Can you give me an idea of when you’re thinking about?

MH: I think probably when the Tour of California was, in February.

VN: Let me ask you about the course — with no summit finishes and a short time trial, it appears as though this year’s course was designed to keep the GC open until the end of the final stage. Is that accurate?

MH: I think there’s some truth in that. We like a nail biter, but I think the course is harder than people think. The stage from Warrnambool to Apollo Bay, which is 167km, has got an 18km climb in it, near the end, and a couple of other hard climbs, and it will be quite windy. And the next day has got a 10km climb, which is Cadel Evans’ training ground when he’s home in Barwon Heads, so I think the course will surprise a few people.

VN: How about the decision to keep the time trial relatively short? That seems like it was intended to keep the GC tight.

MH: Yeah, I believe this is about spectacle in sports entertainment, and giving people excitement, and it’s structured accordingly. Also I think the length of the time trial is proportionate for the length of the race and the time of year. It’s not suitable at this time of year to do a 50km time trial.

VN: It seems as though this race will be won by the strongest team, the team than can put the most guys in the breakaways, rather than by the team with the strongest rider.

MH: It will be the smartest tacticians that win this race and cover the right moves, and know when to put the hammer down. I think people are going to find it a stressful race to ride, because they’re never going to know which move to go with is, and that makes it much harder for the riders. They can’t wait for the decisive moment like the mountaintop finish.

VN: It sounds like you know the sport well. What is your background in cycling?

MH: When I was very young I raced very badly. I’ve always been a fan of the sport. I had a very short time where I tooled around Europe on a bike and so forth. I’ve always had a passion for it, but didn’t want to be a full-time pro racer. But I got into the world of events, and wanted to do something for cycling, and for this event, which has a great history but needed a bit of a rev up.