Imagine holding a party, you invite lots of people only to discover someone else in your social circle is holding their own party on the very same day. Some friends and locals show up but most of your friends are partying on the other side of town. Awkward.
Only the Tour Down Under isn’t a social occasion, it’s the first event on the UCI World Tour. It might have the top-18 teams but it looks like the star riders are to be found in Argentina at the Tour de San Luis.
First, a contrary word because despite the title of the piece races are not in opposition. Fans get to enjoy two races a day so you don’t have to come down on either side. It’s more an observation that some riders are choosing between the two races and a some fans are confused by the calendar clash. As I’ll explain, these two race aren’t necessarily in direct comparison.
The Tour Down Under (TDU) has plenty of star riders with André Greipel, Marcel Kittel and the cream of Australia cycling. But San Luis has Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish, Vincenzo Nibali, Joaquim Rodriguez and more. But instead of names, here’s some analysis from the essential ProCyclingStats.com:
ProCyclingStats compares the ten best riders in each race and the chart shows that in 2013 and again in 2014 the better ranked riders have gone to Argentina ahead of Australia. What’s San Luis got that the Tour Down Under lacks?
Money could be the answer, it’s an open secret that ex-pro Giovanni Lombardi’s paying out handsome appearance fees in his role as “European co-ordinator” for San Luis and this explains plenty. The journey is long for Euro-based pros although there’s less of a time gap but and I can’t see the Argentinian market being any more attractive than the Australian one for sponsors, especially given the TV coverage of San Luis is modest. In fact this modesty is part of the attraction because riders can start their season away from intense coverage and racing. Indeed the Tour de San Luis today what the Tour Down Under used to be, a small race in the sunshine without riders risking everything for a UCI point. The San Luis peloton is more varied because for every OPQS or Astana there’s a team from Buenos Aires province and another from Cuba. Note the paradox, the TDU has more UCI points but it’s the concentration of teams and the tough racing that can put off some of the riders with the most points as they prefer a more gentle introduction to the new season.
Both the Tour Down Under race organiser and the TV companies have bid for this rights to run and broadcast this event and its label as a UCI World Tour event, supposedly the biggest and best is part of the package. Having fewer stars makes the race less marketable and the audience is left wondering where the other riders are. Imagine a Formula 1 race where Sebastian Vettel is too busy doing a rally in Latin America.
This begs a question on the structure of the sport and the calendar: should the best riders be allowed to race elsewhere when a UCI WorldTour event is on? For now the answer is emphatically yes given the UCI awards simultaneous races a World Tour licence, think Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, the Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse or the Vuelta and the two one day races in Montréal and Québec. This is a subject being addressed by the UCI with its 2020 reform programme. Similarly just because a race is on the WorldTour calendar doesn’t mean everyone is obliged to ride. You won’t find Mark Cavendish doing Liège-Bastogne-Liège or Philippe Gilbert at Paris-Roubaix and so a calendar clash alone isn’t always a problem.
The Tour Down Under is the first event on the calendar and gains plenty from this. Everything is new, all the bikes, jerseys and more are on display in the bright Aussie sun and the race attracts the kind of interest that other events later on the calendar won’t get. But is it too early? There are 42 days between the end of the TDU and the next race on the World Tour calendar Paris-Nice, the longest gap between World Tour races in the year. This isn’t arithmetic, it affects planning and form. Riders in top shape today fear being stale by the time racing resumes.
In theory you’d shunt the TDU into February, ideally timed to allow returning riders to stop off in the Gulf for the Tours of Qatar, Oman and Dubai and then pick up with the first Belgian races and Paris-Nice. But it’s not as easy as that, the TDU is embedded into its slot for a variety of local reasons. Perhaps some simple face-saving could see the UCI push San Luis back by a week so that in 2015 it’s not appearing to be in opposition?
The calendar clash is a fact so can the TDU organisers and broadcasters be annoyed that another race has siphoned off the best riders? If it looks that way on paper, it’s wrong to imagine the TDU in direct competition with San Luis. It’s a matter of degree, there are plenty of A-listers in Adelaide even if San Luis has some stellar starters. But any comparison between these two races should include the third cohort of star names who are not racing anywhere like Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Rui Costa, Philippe Gilbert et al.
Perhaps San Luis could happen one week later next year but these are different races catering to different fields and if you’re worried about simultaneous duplication, why is Paris-Nice in competition with Tirreno-Adriatico? But the story shouldn’t be one of opposition, each race is a chapter in the story leading to the classics and grand tours. Providing you can juggle time zones and video feeds then cycling fans are spoilt for choice. With the TDU and San Luis we see two races busy establishing themselves on the calendar. Other races should take note.