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Tour Down Under: A model bike race

Australia's Santos Tour Down Under has become the standard of what a professional bike race should be, writes Andrew Hood.

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The 2016 UCI WorldTour kicks off next week with the 18th Santos Tour Down Under just as the concept of an international world tour is in crisis.

The seemingly never-ending battle between Tour de France organizer ASO and the UCI could torpedo the WorldTour calendar next year. The flag drops on the 2016 racing calendar next week just as the Amaury Sport Organisation decided to yank its races out of the series next year. The WorldTour in its current form — with all three grand tours, the major one-day classics and monuments, and select one-week races — could be an endangered species if common ground isn’t found soon.

Thankfully, the posturing and power plays between ASO and the UCI won’t overshadow the six-stage race in Adelaide (January 19-24), which has grown into an exemplary event on the international calendar.

Organizers have shied away from the latest fray, but race director Mike Turtur said the Tour Down Under is more than just a bike race. “The reason this race exists is because of tourism,” Turtur told journalists in last year’s edition. “The Tour Down Under is a world-class bike race, but it’s also a big event for tourists. We’ve worked hard to build the race into what it is today.”

How much has the WorldTour helped the TDU?

WorldTour status gives Tour Down Under bragging rights as the only stage race beyond Europe to have that designation. The inclusion of all 18 WorldTeams certainly has its draw among local fans and media, even if some of the top international riders are not coming this year.

One can question how much the WorldTour status has helped the race. Despite joining the top racing series in 2008, the race remains firmly an Australian event. Of course, it can be said that the Giro d’Italia remains an Italian race, just as the Amgen Tour of California is an American race. So it’s no surprise the Australians are favored to win again this year. Only three of the last 10 winners have not been Australians, and this year looks to be no different, with Simon Gerrans of Orica-GreenEdge, Richie Porte and Rohan Dennis of BMC Racing, and Dimension Data duo Cameron Meyer and Nathan Haas topping the list. Racing on home roads, in the middle of the Aussie summer, fresh off the national championships certainly gives the locals an edge.

“We’re fit and we’re used to the heat, being from Australia. That’s our biggest advantage,” defending champion Dennis said of the Australian riders. “That being said, local knowledge isn’t going to get me over the line first.”

This year, some of the top names are venturing elsewhere, with Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador and Etixx-Quick-Step’s Tom Boonen preferring to debut in Europe this winter. Argentina’s Tour de San Luís features Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan, Nairo Quintana of Movistar, and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). Two-time Tour champ Chris Froome is coming to Australia with his Sky teammates, but only for the Sun Tour in February, preferring to train in Mallorca than to start his 2016 season too early.

That doesn’t take the luster off the Tour Down Under, which has established itself as the most important race in Australia, and as an exciting and well-organized trampoline into the European racing season.

The race’s WorldTour designation has prompted organizers to make the event more difficult. In its earliest editions, sprinters ruled the roost, but organizers added such climbs as the Corkscrew, back this year, and Old Willunga Hill to give the race a tougher edge. In fact, some sprinters say the race is too hard for them to rationalize making the long trip to Australia, and the likes of former winner André Greipel of Lotto-Soudal and Marcel Kittel of Etixx are steering clear this year.

“The Tour Down Under is a different race than it was 15 years ago,” Orica sport director Matthew White said. “This is as good as any race in the world right now. It’s January, but it’s very, very serious racing. There are no preparation races anymore on the WorldTour.”

Don’t think that teams are not taking the race seriously, however. Many squads not only see the Tour Down Under as a warm and comfortable way to open the season, but also as an important way to pick up early WorldTour points. A top-5 showing on GC can give a team some major points that can come in handy later down the line. At the end of 2015, Movistar pipped Katusha by just 15 points to secure the season-long title. At last year’s TDU, Movistar scored 80 points, compared to Katusha’s 1, so the Tour Down Under played a key role in Movistar’s third consecutive title.

Riders such as Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Ian Stannard and Astana’s Lars Boom say the TDU is an ideal way to ramp up for the spring classics, and all three are back this year. Ryder Hesjedal of Trek-Segafredo raced last year for the first time, and he’s coming back for more.

“It’s a great race to start the season,” Hesjedal said. “It’s warm, the roads are good, and it’s hard, without being too hard. It set me up well for going back to Europe.”

Setting the standard

And what’s always been a top draw about the race — Australia’s summer — remains eternal. Riders enjoy the warm weather, the good roads, and top-notch racing facilities. After months of Europe’s dreary fall and winter, many of the European pros and staffers soak up the heat and sun of Australia’s summer.

Last year, when the UCI was making noises about shrinking the WorldTour calendar and perhaps slotting the Tour Down Under into a later date in February, race officials made the case to keep it in January. As it is now, the race coincides with Australia’s summer holidays, and an estimated 40,000 cyclists fill hotels and bars for the duration of the race. That wouldn’t happen in February. The UCI listened, and now looks to be keeping the Tour Down Under in its January date in future calendars.

“The UCI needs to look at our race in January like the Tour de France is in July,” Turtur said. “It’s critically important that we stage this race during the holiday period, because it’s a tourism event as well as a bike race. It would be like asking the Tour de France to move to another month.”

In many ways, the Tour Down Under is model of what a modern bike race could look like. Rather than jumping all over the map, like most European stage races do, riders and teams stay in the same hotel every night. Mechanics keep all the team’s bikes in a covered team tent area right in front of the hotel, and everyone heads out to each day’s stage in a police caravan that shuts down traffic with a rolling closure. Every stage unfolds with military-like precision, and everyone is usually back at the hotel for rubdowns and dinner by late afternoon.

The Adelaide region is blessed with miles of well-maintained roads over surprisingly steep hills and picturesque countryside. There’s little of the dangerous traffic furniture that’s the blight of many European races, and the courses take in a pleasant mix of hills, wine country, small villages, and wide-open ranch country, with the occasional kangaroo sighting thrown in for good measure.

The race has matured over nearly two decades, and it’s become one of the top tourist events in South Australia. An annual public ride draws thousands of cyclists, and each day’s start and finish areas are packed with fans. The host communities go out of their way to welcome the race, and there are food and beer tents set up at each stage to keep everyone happy. The city also sets up a big expo village right in front of the teams’ hotels, and the stages are broadcast live on a big-screen TV. Dealers and vendors show off their wares, with more food and beers stalls, and nightly music.

“Obviously, being the only WorldTour race in Australia, you want to do it,” said Orica’s sprint ace Caleb Ewan. “The atmosphere there, even compared to a lot of the European races, is almost better and with the crowd being Australian, you have more support.”

In many ways, the Santos Tour Down Under is just what the WorldTour could be: a professionally run event with quality fields set against a TV-friendly backdrop that engages the local community and attracts thousands of tourists.

Unfortunately, the breakdown between the UCI and ASO could threaten the budding WorldTour calendar just as it’s gaining traction among teams, riders, fans, and media. The Tour Down Under would certainly survive without the WorldTour, but many are hopeful it doesn’t have to.

19th Santos Tour Down Under

Stage 1, January 19: Prospect to Lyndoch, 130.8km
Stage 2, January 20: Unley to Stirling, 132km
Stage 3, January 21: Glenelg to Campbelltown, 139km
Stage 4, January 22: Norwood to Victor Harbor, 138km
Stage 5, January 23: McLaren Vale to Willunga, 151.5km
Stage 6, January 24: Adelaide-Adelaide, 90km