The Tour Down Under was enjoyable but it was over in a flash. I enjoy it, it’s literally the only race I’ll get out of bed to watch. But it’s also the same race where I know I can be back in bed in 15 minutes, post-race interviews and on-screen top-10 results included. This year was no exception. Can we have some more please?
You can’t pick the winner confidently but you can write the day’s script. A move goes clear, a rider from the Australian team will try to take the mountains points before it’s back together, the stage ends in a sprint, be it a bunch sprint or an uphill one. Variation? Well the Corkscrew Road climb has been exciting as it’s seen moves go and try to stay away; but coming with 6km to go it’s still all about the finale; ditto Fox Creek Road this year which was exciting but again with the action saved for the final ten minutes. Sprint finishes are fine, Bora-hansgrohe’s lead out train was impressive. It was a thrill to see Isaac Del Toro take a win; but once in a while it’d be exciting if an earlier move looked like it might stick, that moments of suspense lasted longer.
It’s very rare for a long range breakaway to make it, think Will Clarke’s 140km move in 2012; more recently Jay Vine did split things up in 2023 with a move with 22km on the stage to Victor Harbor. Seeing a stage win unfold with more than ten minutes to go is rare, even having a move caught after a nail-biting chase is rare
For those proud Australians taking this as criticism of the race, it is of sorts. But this is because I’d like to see more, it’s like a diner complaining about a restaurant by saying the food is good but the portions are tiny. Give me a feast, compel me to set my alarm much earlier, to watch more of the Tour Down Under, to enviously spend hours admiring the South Australian countryside. At least for one stage in the week.
So, what about Milan-Sanremo or all those other races?
Whatabouttery doesn’t make the Tour Down Under any better. But of course there are other predictable races. To pre-empty comments, yes Australians could set alarm clocks for the Poggio and catch plenty yet surely there wouldn’t be the same infusion of adrenaline. Sure there can be days grand tours which are very predictable but the point is there are other days with end to end action too. And the Flèche Wallonne is once a year.
The TDU was once a glorified training camp when riders would spin in the sun during the day and then sip or even sluice Shiraz in the evenings, but those days are gone as the regular road rash from riders fighting for position shows. The sport has changed too, everyone starts their season ready to race and bag precious UCI points. Long-range moves happen in the early season too, take Neilson Powless’s win in the GP La Marseillaise last January, going in the breakaway with an hour to go and spending the final 10 minutes dangling solo.
Easier said than done
So what to do? The peloton can’t contrive to put on a longer show and create suspense. But the course can help. A mountain mid-stage could blow the race to pieces but the last time I checked there aren’t any. More climbing has been tried but laps of Willunga or Lofty haven’t split the race up, it’s just made the final sprint finish more selective and that’s fine as it means the eventual overall winner satisfies us as the best rider. But it’s still action for the last six minutes. A longer stage could be tested, the increased distance of say, 180km one day. might play on the mind and legs alike and break the psychological pattern, the established script but it’s not certain.
In the other direction the prologue was an innovation last year but the race can’t have a full time trial stage because this would mean flying out two time trial bikes and various wheels, all for 20-30 minutes per rider and this logistical cost-benefit ratio usually explains why some races have road bike only TTs. Besides it’s not gripping TV as TT stages are rarely a success when it comes to ratings but at least we’d tune in earlier in order to be certain of watching the winning ride.
Maybe a gravel stage could spice things up and boost ratings? It’s feasible too given the Adelaide Hills abound with plenty of good gravel choices (areas with vineyards often do because they have gravelly soils and farm tracks). Indeed this year’s Tour Down Under had its own gravel ride, a test event for the future? These things have happened in other races before, the Strade Bianche tempted the Giro d’Italia into holding gravel stages; the Tour de France Femmes went to Troyes in 2022 for its gravel stage with the men’s race having gravel stage in Troyes next summer. But like a time trial stage there’s a logistics problem, it could mean bringing out more wheels and even special gravel bikes given manufacturers might insist their riders show off the appropriate model. So not easy either. But just as a prologue TT happens on road bikes only, maybe two or three gravel portions could feature. Put them at 40km from the finish and the final hour might be compelling and even if they are the gentlest sections the “anything could happen” aspect might lure more viewers.
I want more of the TDU not less. I’m already happy to get out of bed at four in the morning and sit in the freezing darkness to see the bright new peloton amid the verdant vineyards of the Adelaide Hills. But the problem is I can get up for the Tour Down Under and be back under the down blanket in 15 minutes and presumably viewers in Australia aren’t hooked for hours either.