ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — Australia’s biggest race, the Santos Tour Down Under, is back with a new look following a two-year COVID interruption.
Gone is the emblematic climb at Old Willunga Hill that was the race’s anchor for nearly two decades. In are a men’s time trial and WorldTour status for the women’s race.
With ex-pro Stuart O’Grady taking over as race director, the WorldTour event is seeing some important tweaks on the road and behind the scenes.
“I’ve been really excited about this job and I had my mind on this role for years,” O’Grady 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.”
O’Grady’s debut as race director was delayed by two years by the pandemic stops. Organizers put on a stop-gap local event for Australian riders, but 2023 is the first time the top pros are back since the COVID shutdown just weeks after the conclusion of the 2020 edition.
Longtime Tour Down Under stalwarts like Simon Gerrans and Richie Porte are now both retired, but some big names are back, including Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Amanda Spratt, and Grace Brown.
The women’s race started Saturday and the men kick off Tuesday to open the respective 2023 WorldTour calendars.
O’Grady’s arrival and the personal touches he’s bringing to the race this year marks the third rendition of the race since its founding in 1999.
In its opening years, the rowdy event was largely known as a sprinter’s race, with riders such as André Greipel, Michael Rogers, and O’Grady, a two-time winner, coming out on top.
Things evolved for Version 2.0 when the men’s race bumped to WorldTour status in 2010. An additional day of racing was added, and the course was made more challenging with harder climbs and tougher circuits.
The arrival of O’Grady as the new director sees a new chapter in the race’s history.
What hasn’t changed is the summertime vibe and bike-festival feel to the WorldTour season opener. Fans are back, and the face masks are gone.
Here are the biggest changes for the new-look Santos Tour Down Under:
1. Mount Lofty in, Willunga out
Gone is Old Willunga Hill, at least this year.
Some say it’s heresy to leave out Old Willunga Hill, the steep hump south of Adelaide that was the biggest party of the whole week. The wildly popular climb saw tens of thousands of rowdy fans packed in for a big day of beers, barbecues, and bikes.
Stage 4 returns to the area, and a short kicker at Lower Willunga Hill (1km at 3.2%) should draw out the same crowds, but it simply won’t be the same as Old Willunga Hill.
In its place is Mount Lofty (1.5km at 6.8%), one of the harder climbs in the area, as the race-decider on the final day of the men’s race.
Four circuits with five ascents of the first-category climb tucked high in the Adelaide Hills should put an exclamation point on what will be a more challenging edition of the race.
2. Opening-day prologue
At the top of O’Grady’s wish-list was to include a race against the clock, and he’s slotted one in for his first edition as race director.
The inclusion of an opening prologue will change the race’s dynamic.
For years, the race was often decided by race bonuses in a sometimes gripping battle that went down to the final sprint. The prologue — 5km on flat roads in central Adelaide — could see enough gaps opening up that could alter the time-bonus battle.
Teams won’t be riding full-on time trial set-ups for the short course, in part because teams didn’t want the added costs and hassle of bringing additional equipment to Australia.
The jury is still out on whether or not it will spice up the race, or perhaps kill it if someone takes too much time. At 5km, that’s unlikely, but any gaps will put pressure on teams to attack and chase back the time.
3. Women’s WorldTour status
An important milestone in the race’s history, the women’s edition goes full WorldTour status in 2023. The race was born in 2016, and put the WorldTour on its radar.
It now usurps the nearby Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race as the first race on the women’s WorldTour calendar. The race features four stages to open the busy racing period.
4. No Richie Porte
For the better part of a decade, the now-retired Richie Porte was the rider of reference at the Aussie tour.
Not only did he win it two times, he’d put a circle around the race on his calendar each year. He’d show up to win, even if the race’s date on the calendar meant that he wouldn’t be in tip-top condition, especially when he had the Tour de France at the center of his ambitions.
He ruled the road at Old Willunga Hill, and won there six out of seven years. With Porte and Old Willunga gone, the race will see a complete makeover next week.
5. Stuart O’Grady
The ex-pro takes over as race director intent on making his imprint. Founding director Mike Turtur retired at the end of the 2020 edition, and left an impressive legacy in 20 years at the helm of the race.
Turtur helped build the race during two decades to become the biggest race in Australia, and ushered in the WorldTour inclusion.
O’Grady takes over with the challenge of not messing up a good thing, and comes with the idea of sprucing up the shop a bit.
What hasn’t changed
It’s summer in Australia and the Santos Tour Down Under is back.
The race retains its unique clover-leaf design.
That means that the race caravan stays in the same hotel all week long, and stages start and finish in different communities in the area. It’s a popular concept for riders and teams, which can keep all their bikes and equipment in one place for the entire race.
The central race hub in downtown Adelaide is also back. There’s a large expo area, with beer tents and large-screen TVs where fans can watch the race even if they’re not at stage. Live music and chats with racers fill out the week.
Aussie cycling fans are also back en masse. Friday evening’s critérium drew big crowds, and Saturday’s opening stage at the women’s Tour Down Under saw the fans turn out in numbers.