By Anthony Tan
According to word around town, every hotel, motel, bed & breakfast and backpackers’ inn is booked out in Adelaide, under normal circumstances the fifth-largest city in Australia with a population just over the million mark and apart from its award-winning vineyards, no real world-quality to speak of.
But in the few hours we’ve seen so far and for the next two weeks, Adelaide will be anything but normal. Because Lance is here.
His arrival kept ‘L. A. Confidentiel’ till the day he touched down, we can only assume Armstrong strode into the foyer of the Adelaide Hilton with his typically confident gait and all-American smile; Nike-soled, blue-jeaned, LiveStrong T-shirted, and Oakley-eyed … and perhaps a little jet-lagged after a nine-hour flight from his recent training ground in Hawaii, where he’s been fastidiously prepping his pins for a much-anticipated 2009 professional race debut.
Nonetheless, the seven-time Tour de France winner would have made his presence felt at one of the city’s best hotels, which has played host to each of the past 10 editions of the Tour Down Under.
Here exactly a week prior to this Sunday’s kick-off criterium, tour director Mike Turtur would no doubt have been a bundle of nerves; anxiously waiting to greet the man they call “The Boss” and to see his greatest coup now a reality. A quick, friendly boss-to-boss conversation, if you will.
Ever since Armstrong announced his return to the pro ranks last September and spun the sporting world into a media frenzy, Turtur, whose event held the first ex-Europe ProTour race at this time last year, had been garnering the presence of the world’s most popular bike rider. And when Team Lance said “yeah, why not?” ? on the basis of certain cancer-related provisos by the South Australian government, furthering the LiveStrong message ? he’s been salivating all over his signature.
Billed by the poetic PR-bods as “Your chance to meet Lance” and “Catch the man no one else can,” this seven-day, six-stage race may be treated as a warm-up to most, particularly to those seeking glory on the roads of western Europe further down the calendar. However, since its inception when local boy and cobbled Classics hero Stuart O’Grady won his first of two titles riding for Crédit Agricole, it has been a race held high in regard, and now in its 11th year, the significance is heightened, for it marks Armstrong’s maiden voyage in 2009.
We know he’s gone back to a life without excess. We know he’s been training well, and for the few pro-am’s he’s done so far, racing well, too.
But what is really on the public’s mind – and possibly his as well – is how well will he go in May, when he embarks on another Armstrong first, tackling the Centenary Giro d’Italia, before his second Grand Tour appointment at the Tour de France and a possible eighth crack at the title.
The Tour Down Under will be the first, and therefore critical, gauge of that.
Age isn’t really the problem. Even the legend Eddy Merckx said so, especially because the 37-year-old Armstrong’s schedule was so targeted following his first comeback in 1998, where courageously, defiantly and quite miraculously, he fought and beat The Big C and then won La Grande B.
No, it’s more that up until late last year, he hadn’t raced for more than three years, an eternity in a sport that demands consistency to achieve desired objectives.
But really, that’s what Armstrong missed most. During his retirement, he kept a level of fitness well above average, however being a natural competitor, he yearned to compete. Running the odd marathon provided some release, but for Armstrong, there’s nothing like starting off with 200 of the world’s best, then after 300 or 3000 kilometers, finishing with just one on top.
It may not happen for him here, though.
In 2008, emerging sprint talent Andre Greipel surprised all ? including himself ? to win four out of six stages on offer including the overall title, besting Aussie speedster Allan Davis by a margin of 15 seconds. It was unusual because the course, this year 802km long – excluding Sundays’ 51km Down Under Classic that does not count towards the final classification – traditionally suits all-rounders such as O’Grady (winner in 1999, 2001), Michael Rogers (2002), Luis Leon Sanchez (2005) and Martin Elmiger (2007).
While the preceding days are neither dead-flat nor mountainous, the penultimate fifth stage, a 148km leg that circumnavigates its way around the famous McLaren Vale vineyards and includes two ascensions of the race’s main obstacle, Old Willunga Hill, has in the past decided those left in contention to win, as the Tour Down Under’s final podium is more often than not separated by a smattering of seconds.
Prior to Greipel’s dominance in 2008, the stage eliminated the pure sprinters, unable to cope with the eight-percent pitches of the 3km Willunga Hill climb. Yet such was Greipel’s form last year, “The Gorilla” as he was less than affectionately nicknamed by his wide-eyed rivals, could do no wrong and had enough left in the tank to win that stage, too.
UCI officials and the race organizer took note, prompting a course change and so this time round, Stage 2 is an almost-identical route reversal of previous years, toughening things up considerably and according to local lad O’Grady, in one fell swoop, doubles the number of climbs throughout the race.
Though as the saying goes, it’s the riders make the race and with 18 ProTour teams on Australian shores (plus the UniSA composite national team), there’s no shortage of star quality.
Odds on Lance will be ready to race.
* Anthony Tan will be covering the Tour Down Under for a seventh occasion in 2009.
The 2009 Tour Down Under
Down Under Classic – Sunday 18 January: Rymill Park, Adelaide, 51km (does not count towards overall classification)
Stage 1 – Tuesday 20 January: Norwood – Mawson Lakes, 140km
Stage 2 – Wednesday 21 January: Hahndorf – Stirling, 145km
Stage 3 – Thursday 22 January:Unley – Victor Harbor, 136km
Stage 4 – Friday 23 January: Burnside Village – Angaston, 143km
Stage 5 – Saturday 24 January: Snapper Point – Willunga, 148km
Stage 6 – Sunday 25 January: Adelaide City Council Circuit, 90km