The Tour Down Under is done and feels like watching a repeat with the identical venues, the same cast and a familiar story. View it as prologue to the season ahead and it’s a successful format.
It’s first and foremost a race and a delicate one. Intermediate sprints and finish line time bonuses make all the difference, in fact “countback” – where riders tied on time for the overall classification get ranked based on their cumulative stage placings during the race – is frequent separator, it’s been needed to pick the winner in recent years and this year’s edition saw four riders tied for time behind Richie Porte but Diego Ulissi finished second overall and Dylan van Baarle fifth because of their placings during the week. As such every stage counts making it a subtle race where a sprint stage is as important for the overall contenders as it is for the sprinters.
You could spend longer pouring over the results sheet than you do watching the TV coverage. You rarely need to tune in for more than the final ten minutes each day, ideal for Europeans who can set the alarm clock, watch ten minutes and go back to bed untroubled by any adrenalin rush and you can count on one hand the number of times a breakaway has thwarted the sprinters during the last ten years. It’s perhaps not the best advert of the sport to Australians who tune in on the mainstream Channel 7 although they’ll cheer the home success from the likes of Caleb Ewan and Richie Porte.
It’s all very familiar, the same towns, the same roads and the same results. This year had a twist, after six years of winning the Willunga stage, Richie Porte finished… second. Lotto-Soudal’s Matt Holmes went in the breakaway and had the energy to latch onto Porte’s wheel as he came past on Willunga and sprinted for the stage win, looking as surprised as the rest of us when interviewed on TV. Porte still finished second and won the race overall again.
Should the race preserve the subtle format? Or are these microscopic differences proof that there’s not much of a race, certainly there’s not enough to tease the riders apart? It’s the World Tour but one of the rare few top stage races without a time trial stage, something Richie Porte is calling for; the Volta a Catalunya doesn’t but has big ski station summit finishes instead. There are good arguments not to have a TT. All the bikes are freighted to Adelaide and flying out 120 TT bikes just for a 10-15 minute stage is a big ask. They could have a time trial on road bikes but for a sport reliant on promoting bike manufacturers it is not a good look if half the peloton clip on tri bars and ride almost as fast. The sporting aspect matters, hold a time trial and the field would given an instant hierarchy, you could lose the tension the close finishes provide.
The format isn’t fixed. It was not long ago it was an expenses-paid training camp and shiraz tasting club for a share of the peloton and a set of sprint stages. Today’s it’s hard fought and has sought out more climbs but this is relative, André Greipel isn’t winning the GC any more but it’s predictable. So what we see today isn’t fixed although geography and economics impose conditions. It’d be a long transfer to find more mountainous routes which defeats the hub and spoke model of the race, and a far away finish might not be able to pay much in hosting rights. The Willunga hill finish for the final stage works but in part because Porte has the jump to attack and get away, the day he’s not racing any more is the day this finish might be less exciting and we go back to a race of small differences.
It might feel like the prologue to the season but it’s valuable. The UCI helps: win and you get 500 UCI points, the same as Paris-Nice, the Tour de Suisse or a Monument classic. As such this tempts teams to Adelaide with points on their mind. But this only goes so far, send a rider or two in peak condition and you only get one shot because the next big points scorer, the UAE Tour, is a month away so a rider in peak form today risk turning stale by then. The solution sounds like moving Down Under a couple of weeks later? Only the race really doesn’t want to move (so it won’t) and if it did then lots of other races would be done long before the World Tour calendar starts which is an odd look.
As a season opener the Tour Down Under works, a chance to see team kits and bikes in summer sunshine. It’s come a long way in recent years with the Willunga “summit” finish now the final stage to promote suspense. For all the improvements it still feels formulaic and you only need watch the final few minutes of all six stages. Cycling races can often be like this but not every day, every year. Fixing this isn’t easy, there’s no giant mountain pass in range… and if there was Richie Porte would have won anyway although there’d be no challenge from Daryl Impey. The terrain and format make for a subtle race that’s for connoisseurs and commissaires alike.
- Photo credits: Chris Auld photo courtesy of the Tour Down Under