“I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that. Not just in this race, but in any race.”
These were the breathless words from Australian sprinter-turned-broadcaster Robbie McEwan just seconds after the Stage 5 Willunga Hill battle between Rohan Dennis and Richie Porte ended in Rohan winning the 2015 Tour Down Under by two seconds. The fans, crammed more than seven-deep along the roadside, couldn’t believe it either. They had just witnessed two of the world’s top cyclists battle with everything they had. A week of cycling, decided by two seconds. This moment will go down in cycling folklore. Such a spectacle could only have been dreamed of when the event began.
The Tour Down Under has enjoyed staggering growth in popularity and status since its first edition in 1999. Now, 18 years later, is affectionately called “The TDU” and is South Australia’s biggest sporting event, drawing crowds of 786,000 in 2015. How did this phenomenal growth happen? It just needed a winning formula.
Mike Turtur, the Tour Down Under Race Director, was the man who thought up that formula. The 1984 Team Pursuit Olympic Gold Medalist proposed a race made up of six days of up to 150km, always returning to the Hilton Hotel in Adelaide’s CBD. The teams would sleep every night in the same hotel, and all of their bikes and equipment would be housed just across the road in the temporary Tour Village that springs up every Australian summer in the town square of the very European city.
That local focus proved to be a hit with not just the fans but, more importantly, also the riders.
The growth has even surprised Race Director Turtur, who says the crowds have been exceptional the last five years in particular.
This popularity is partly due to the race becoming the inaugural event of the UCI World Ranking calendar in 2009. The higher status of the race has attracted the higher caliber riders. This year is no different. The field includes multiple national champions, grand tour winners, and Rio Olympic Games medal hopefuls.
But the burgeoning cycling culture in South Australia has also played a role in the success of the event.
The event and the cycling culture have grown together, both feeding each other.
Adelaide is an ideal place to host a bike race because it is an ideal place to ride a bike. The city is surrounded by hills within 10km to the east, all the way around to the south. The spectacular metropolitan beaches are just 8km to the west. Significant investment in bike infrastructure, and recently passed laws to protect and encourage cycling, are all working to make South Australia a bike friendly state. The city is flat, the weather is warm, and the coffee is exceptional.
“The indicators are quite clear that we are going to match what we’ve had previously,” Turtur states.
A host of new and bigger events support his confidence.
“There’s a whole week of entertainment with all of the additional street parties, the Tour Village, concerts, the team presentation, women’s tour coming on this year… The race has been complimented with a lot of other activities which make it a complete package for fans,” he says.
The success of the event is driven by how easy and accessible it is to the fans. The Tour Village gives them a chance to rub shoulders with their heroes, geek out at the 10-day bike expo, and watch the pre-event criterium and Stage 6 without even leaving the CBD.
Lucky fans are treated to spotting the pros doing their training and recon rides before the race and more spritely cyclists may even get to suck a wheel up a climb.
Fans don’t have to travel far to enjoy the festival of cycling either.
Turtur says “all of the starts on this year’s race [are] hosting street parties.”
There is only one stage that begins more than 5km from the CBD, in the famous McLaren Vale Wine region – but even then most of the pros cycle down and back from the race.
Race routes are designed with fan engagement in mind as well. Four of the stages feature laps around a set course so fans can see the race multiple times. Turtur is expecting “a massive crowd” for the Stage 2 finish in Stirling, just 16km outside the city in the Adelaide Hills. Crowds will be treated to a five-lap circuit before the exciting sprint finish up a hill into the picturesque town of Stirling.
Thousands of amateur riders can take part in the BUPA Challenge Tour, riding the Friday stage a few hours before the pros do. Last year saw 6,028 riders take on the 151km challenge from Glenelg to Mt Barker. There are also multiple start points so riders of all abilities can get involved.
What the Riders are Saying
Sky’s Welsh superstar Geraint Thomas says he loves making the trip Down Under because of the simplicity of the race.
“It’s the one hotel, everything’s within half an hour,” he says. “I think it’s the seventh time I’ve been here now.”
Thomas, and other members of the Sky team, enjoy the South Australian summer so much they come well ahead of their international counterparts. On the eve of the race, Thomas has already “been here for just over two weeks now.”
His big season ambitions are still the European Grand Tours, be he feels the Tour Down Under is “a great way to start the year. It’s got stages for sprinters and it’s got some tougher days [for the climbers].”
Quality riders like Geraint Thomas make Race Director Mike Turtur “extremely happy with the start list”.
“If organisers throughout the world had our start list, I think they’d be pretty happy,” Turtur says, flanked by defending champion Rohan Dennis, Geraint Thomas and Australia’s sprint sensation Caleb Ewan at the preliminary news conference.
Ewan has been overwhelmed with the crowd response to the race.
“The crowds here are unbelievable. It’s just like racing in Europe but you have more supporters,” he says.
His Australian Orica GreenEdge team is a local crowd favourite.
“Everyone knows you here and being in GreenEdge we have most of our supporters here so it’s a pretty exciting place to come to,” Ewan says.
The Tour Down Under party kicked off with the Santos Women’s Tour on Saturday (16 January) with Katrin Garfoot of Orica GreenEdge taking out the first 95km road stage and local girl Annette Edmonson claiming victory in the first of two criteriums. The men then lined up in the People’s Choice Classic criterium on Sunday evening (17 Jan), with Caleb Ewan of taking out the honours.
The actual race runs from Stage 1 on Tuesday (19 January) to the city street circuit on Sunday (24 January). The riders face a balanced parcours. The overall winner will be a climber, but there are plenty of opportunities for sprinters and breakaway specialists to snatch some glory.
Stage 3 will be key, with the GC men battling it out on local icon Corkscrew Road. The queen Stage 5, ending on Willunga Hill, will decide the overall winner. There are time bonuses at the end of each stage and for intermediate sprints on the course. The race is usually decided by seconds so expect aggression from all of the contenders.
The men to watch are Australian trio of defending champ Rohan Dennis, last year’s runner-up Richie Porte, and three-time winner Simon Gerrans.
International riders looking to spoil their party are Sky’s Geraint Thomas, former 3rd place runner-up Diego Ulissi, and previous winner Luis Leon Sanchez.
More Tour Down Under Quick Facts:
South Australia has seen an explosion in cycling culture driven by the Tour Down Under.
The flat, sunny city of Adelaide is perfectly suited for cycling. Hills surround the city from the north-east all the way around to the south. Golden beaches are just 8km to the west. Road warriors can get their fix of tough climbs and flying flats all within view of the city skyline.
Dirt enthusiast are treated to dedicated mountain bike trails through the eastern and southern hills. They can test their suspension travel on several downhill tracks, including the local favourite Eagle Mountain Bike Park. Gravel grinders are spoilt by hundreds of kilometres of unsealed back-roads to get a healthy coating of dust before stopping at a winery, or country café.
Looking for a more sedate pace? Dedicated bike paths snake their way all over the City of Adelaide, right next to the suburban beaches, along the River Torrens, and all through the nearby country towns.
Café culture has grown alongside cycling, and two-wheeled enthusiasts are overwhelmed with choice of eateries to re-fuel. Need caffeine fix? Rundle Street in the city’s east-end can help. Café strips of Prospect Road to the north, Norwood Parade in the east, and King William Road to the South can all satisfy your craving within 5km of the city. Head to Glenelg in the west if you want a latte with the sand between your toes.
Best cafes for cyclists:
- Pavé café, Norwood Parade. Fill your stomach before emptying your wallet at Trak Cycles next door. (PHOTO)
- Red Berry Espresso, Glenside. When you see retro podium caps decorating the walls, you know you’re home. (PHOTO)
- Velo Precinct, Victoria Park. Hang up your bike and grab some grub at ex-pro Stuart O’Grady’s café. Check out his bikes hanging on the walls. (PHOTO)
- CIBO King William Road. Hang up your bike and enjoy SA’s favourite local coffee franchise.
The tour/past winner
Predicting winners is always headache, with the race usually decided by seconds. Stage victories, and even intermediate sprint bonuses, can decide the victors. Overall honours have gone to every type of rider:
- Sprinters (Andre Greipel)
- Classics strong-men (Stuart O’Grady)
- Time-trialing climbers (Luis Leon Sanchez, Michael Rogers, Rohan Dennis),
- All-rounders (Simon Gerrans)
- Opportunistic young-guns (Cameron Meyer, Tom-Jelte Slagter).
By the numbers
- 781.3km of racing distance. 832.3km including the People’s Choice Classic
- 62, the number of metropolitan and regional towns the race runs through
- 786,000: the number of spectators who watched the 2015 race.
- 18 teams compete in the race
- 140 riders in the peloton
- 6,028. The number of amateurs riding in the 2015 BUPA Challenge Tour ride following the official 151km race route from Glenelg to Mt Barker.
Author: James Raison