Chasing the sun all the way to Australia
Like the rhythm of the turning pedal, the professional cycling season has followed an annual pattern for a century.
As the European winter evolves into early spring, riders take their bikes from garages and leave the velodromes to venture back onto the roads in preparation for another season. Riding at first in the slush and ice of melting snow, their thoughts turn to the warmth of the Mediterranean Sea.
Known as the ‘Race to the Sun’, the professional season traditionally commenced with Paris to Nice, a weeklong race from the French capital to the southern holiday resort.
Riders then moved further south, racing across Italy from the Tirreno to the Adriatico seas, and from Milano to San Remo in the first of the one-day classics. Later, they would venture into the Spanish spring for the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya while awaiting the sun to move into the northern hemisphere.
By late March, the weather allowed them to turn north. The roads of Belgium, now passable, became the new battleground for the tough men who chanced glory and financial reward over the Flemish cobblestones. There they raced from Gent to Wevelgem before tackling the Ronde van Vlaanderen – the Tour of Flanders. In the following weeks they rode from Paris north to Roubaix, the Amstel Gold around Maastricht in the Netherlands, La Flèche Wallone in Belguim and from Liège to Bastogne and back. Together, these one-day races became known as the Spring Classics.
Depending on the vagaries of the weather, they were conducted in mud and slush, or over dry and dusty lanes and roads.
With many kilometres in their legs, and with summer drawing closer, dreams turned to the three-week Grand Tours - the Giro d’Italia, the Tour de France, and the Vuelta a España. In between there were other, shorter stage races, the Tour de Suisse, the Tour de Pologne, the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré and the Clásica San Sebastián.
The long, hard season of racing reached its pinnacle with the World Championships before closing with the Giro di Lombardia, the ‘race of the falling leaves’ in northern Italy.
As the sun moved to the south and the days shortened, the cyclists returned to their homes for the European winter. The pattern has been repeated for decades. Few outsiders entered this world of continental cycling until recently.
In 1914, two intrepid Australians, Don Kirkman and Snowy Munro, became the first non-English-speakers in the Tour de France, finishing a credible 17th and 20th respectively. They had raced previously in Italy, with Kirkham taking ninth place in the Milano-San Remo classic, the best result by an Australian for almost eight decades.
A few others including Australians, Hubert Opperman and Russell Mockridge, and Englishman, Tommy Simpson, ventured to Europe over the following decades. Although Americans Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong have dominated the Tour in recent times, no US rider had participated until Jonathan Boyer finished 32nd in 1981. Professional road cycling largely remained a Continental domain until the 1980s.
Yet this week, some of the best riders in the world will excite fans in Adelaide during the Tour Down Under, Australia’s premier stage race. Last year, they were in Geelong for the World Championships.
The transition reflects the remarkable contribution by Australian riders and organisers to the sport over the past 30 years.
Beginning with Phil Anderson, Neil Stephens, Stephen Hodge, Allan Peiper and Shane Sutton in the 1980s, there has been a growing list of Aussies in the professional peleton. Anderson, in particular, paved the way, becoming the first non-European to don the leader’s yellow jersey in the Tour, wearing it for 10 days in 1981 and 1982.
Since then another generation of Australians have adorned European racing, with Robbie McEwen, Stuart O’Grady, Baden Cooke, and Simon Gerrans leading the charge. They were joined by Michael Rogers, Bradley McGee, and Cadel Evans, who went within seconds of winning the Tour de France, and then claimed the World Championship in 2009.
The emergence of the Tour Down Under also reflects the globalisation of the sport, aided by fast air travel and international television coverage. Today there are major races in Canada, the US, Malaysia, and Qatar.
When Adelaide lost the Formula 1 Grand Prix to Melbourne in 1996, the State Government turned its attention to a substitute event. For years, Australians had hoped for a ‘down under’ version of the Tour de France, by then watched on television annually by millions of people worldwide. The 50 year-old Sun Tour in Victoria was too provincial - and at the wrong end of the European season - to attract many of the top riders.
The Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic on the east coast had featured many up and coming riders in the 80s and 90s, before concluding in 1999.
Led by the 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist in the 4000 metres teams pursuit - Mike Turtur - the South Australians conceived of an idea for a stage race, centred on Adelaide, that would serve as a preliminary event for cyclists early in the season. Better to train and race in the Australian sun in January than the cold and snow of Europe!
In 1999, the Tour Down Under was born. A decade later, it became the first non-European Pro Tour event, involving the participation of all the major teams. It now attracts professional cyclists Australians formerly would not have imagined of ever racing here.
Last year, three Grand Tour winners were in the peleton: Lance Armstrong, Oscar Pereiro and Alejandro Valverde. Naturally Armstrong attracted the most attention, as he will again this year in his last race in Australia. Yet other stars of the sport also competed. Last year they included George Hincapie and Jens Voigt. This year the 2008 World Champion, Alessandro Ballan, will start in the event.
This week’s Santos Tour Down Under is likely to be a sprinter’s paradise. Coming at the start of the season, the six stages are relatively short, averaging about 125 kilometres each. With no real mountains, the peleton should be able to reel in any attempted breakaways, resulting in exciting bunch finishes.
The race includes ten of the fastest sprinters in the world. At the head of them is the outspoken Mark Cavendish, who turned his prodigious talent from the track to the road five years ago. Known as the Manxman – reflecting his home on the Isle of Man – Cavendish notched 15 stage victories in the Tour de France between 2008 and 2010, knocking off some of the best sprinters in the world in the process. The 25-year-old speedster has made it clear that he is in Australia to win.
His verbal sparring partner is former teammate and defending champion, Andre Greipel. Cavendish and Greipel both rode for the HTC Highroad team, creating intense rivalry. This year Greipel moved to the Belgium-based Omega Pharma-Lotto team, after being frustrated at playing second-fiddle to Cavendish at Highroad.
The two will not have the pavement to themselves. American, Tyler Farrar, New Zealanders, Julian Dean and Greg Henderson, and Italian, Francesco Chicchi, are amongst the fastest finishers in the world.
Then there are the Australians, who love to win on their home turf and have been racing in local criteriums and the national championships over the past few weeks. Allan Davis, a previous winner, finished third in the World Championship in Geelong last year. The mercurial Graeme Brown, a former Olympic track Gold Medallist, also glows in the local adulation.
Finally, amongst the sprinters is Robbie McEwen. Now 38, the three-time Sprint champion in the Tour de France can never be overlooked. McEwen has the uncanny ability to hide in the field, materialising in the final metres to claim victory.
There are also the emerging young Australians, such as Jack Bobridge and Cameron and Travis Meyer, who are eager to take the mantle from the generation of Stuart O’Grady.
If Cavendish is reasonably fit, he will be hard to beat, especially with his Australian lead-out rider, Mark Renshaw, piloting him into a winning position, as he has done so many times over the past few years.
The biggest winners are Australian cycling fans, which a decade ago could only have dreamt of an event like the Tour Down Under. We can be pleased that, a century after the birth of competitive cycling, the professional peleton is still chasing the sun.
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