It’s the day after ‘stage seven’ of the 20th Tour Down Under – ie. the trip back home after another visit to South Australia – and time to consider a few elements of another festival of cycling… Here are a few observations from the race in 2018.

Okay, it was that week that was. The one that begins the WorldTour season, the one that attracts thousands of visitors to South Australia, the one that sets a standard for how cycling events should be hosted, the one that – despite the best efforts of the promoters and riders and teams – tends to yield a formulaic script when it comes to racing.

It’s the week of the Santos Tour Down Under and it’s now behind us.

In 2018, as we’ve noted many times, it celebrated its 20th edition. That’s a decent landmark, one worth noting for it reminds us that the TDU is not a passing fad, a trend that can come and go.

The race has survived a few scandals over the years – in the broader cycling realm and within its own community – but it continues to prosper.

The numbers were down in 2018, and this cannot be denied. There were smaller crowds than in previous editions but perhaps it’s the 10-year-effect. This is only the second time that the TDU has been hosted in a year ending in “8”, and the last time that happened there was a lull in spectator numbers as well: 2008 had a funk, but the passion was reignited in 2009 because of a bloke called Lance.

Okay, we know what would become of him and the reaction is universal when we think of many of his legacies in cycling but let’s state the obvious: when he came to the Tour Down Under, the event grew (again). And it grew significantly. And, ever since then it has continued to grow and prosper and achieve its remit of luring people to Adelaide and surrounds.

Even though the initial appraisal is that there weren’t quite so many people watching in 2018 as in previous editions, it would be unfair to say that the 20th TDU was a failure. Far from it in fact.

Another year. Another win. Another highlight… Richie Porte arrives at the top of Old Willunga Hill to claim stage five (again).

Photo: Jean-Pierre Ronco.

As someone who has been to every edition – every stage start and every stage finish, in fact – it’s fair to say that I’m able to make a few assessments of what has become of the race. Since 1999 I’ve been part of the hosted media corps that assembles in Adelaide and then does the out-and-back process each day: away from the Hilton, back to the Hilton… soaking up the atmosphere, talking to the riders, learning from the organisers, and essentially seeing how cycling has captured the imagination of Australians (and others) because of one simple aim: to attract people to South Australia.

It was – and always will be – a tourism initiative and it works!

Quite simply, there are more visitors to South Australia in January now than there were back in 1998 or before that.

Things started to change in 1999 and it was largely the locals who came out in support of the event. I often wondered, as we drove by the hordes of people roadside during the inaugural edition: ‘Do people work in South Australia?’ They did – they do… of course! But they found the time to come out and wave at riders who they barely knew.

The crowd has changed and although the locals are still there cheering and welcoming cycling to their state, the visitor numbers continue to swell.

The atmosphere has always been impressive, from day one through to the 20th edition.

 

And, with that little introduction, I thought I’d compile some notes from my observations of the 20th Santos Tour Down Under. Some are significant, other rather random musings about things I’ve seen (or done) during my time at the 2018 TDU. I’ll put them down and publish them in no particular order. And although I’m prone to going long on discussions about cycling, I’ll try to be succinct with this overview.

(If you’d like me to expand on any of the concepts raised, ping me an email and I’ll see what I can do about making the note you referenced into a feature.)

Cheers

 

– Rob

 

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Caleb Ewan, one of the stage winners (and race leaders) in 2018.

Photo: Jean-Pierre Ronco

• Feel the rush…!

Love the race, but hate the theme song! There, I’ve said it in public. I’ve told anyone who listen that ‘Feel The Rush’ is one element of the TDU that sends me spare. The organisers insist it’s never going to die – it’s here to stay, forever and ever and ever. But I so wish it would never be played again.

 

• Crowds were down

Yes, there were fewer spectators than last year but: 1. It was hot – at times, violently hot (ie. that kind of heat where you feel like you’re actually baking); 2. There are so many other aspects of the TDU that lures in the crowds that I wonder if this meant people went elsewhere rather than to the start and/or finish of the stages; 3. It still felt like there were a lot of cyclists in South Australia! (This is a topic that deserves a larger feature. Remind me.)

Every detail about the race has been considered. After 20 years, the lessons of the TDU has served cycling well and many elements of what is done in Australia has been adopted by race promoters around the world.

Photo: Jean-Pierre Ronco

• South Australian drivers are getting worse

There was a time when, while on the bike before or after a TDU stage, I started to believe that the hostile nature of South Australian drivers was improving. In 2018, it’s about as bad as I’ve ever experienced. Seriously people, it only happens for a week a year… just live with it. Yes, there are a lot of bike riders in your town but just chill out behind the wheel. Stop giving the one finger salute. Stop telling the riders, ‘You’re slowing down traffic…’ – just relax for a moment. It’s summer. The buzz of the so-called ‘festive season’ should linger at least a little longer. Peace, love and happiness… what’s wrong with that?

 

• The Tour village vibe is neat and unique

Okay, I confess: we did not shoot all the team bikes as RIDE Media has been doing for a long time (and many other cycling media outlets have now started to do) and so there was less time spent in the TDU village across the road from the Hilton than there has been in the past. But still, from my view from the 11th floor of the hotel, it was apparent that the many initiatives of the event promoters worked.

Yep, it was hot and yes, it’s hard to stand around in a tent (as big as it may be) and talk about bikes all day every day for 10 days. But a lot of industry people did just that. And they did it with smiles on their faces – and, one would hope, a return on their investment that makes it all worthwhile.

It’s not easy to put that thing on: imagine closing down a site the size of Victoria Square in the centre of any other city and making it all about cycling?!

The late-night showing of ‘All For One’ was a neat touch. The concerts that happened – for the team presentation and at other moments during the week – were cool (and easily heard from the 11th floor across the road).

(PS. Well done to everyone involved in putting that village together and to all who came and visited: I hope you learned something – and possibly even bought something because of it.)

The Early Break… a requisite part of road cycling and Will Clarke and Nicholas Dlamini couldn’t resist being part of the action, often!

Photo: Jean-Pierre Ronco

• Dave McKenzie can talk!

OMG, he talks and talks and talks! Some know him as the former Australian champion (or stage winner of the Giro d’Italia), many know him as the bloke who does that stuff with SBS during the Tour de France (or many other broadcasts throughout the year), but during January he is The Speaker for the TDU.

Together with Rik Fulcher, McKenzie talked. He did so at the stage starts, at the finishes, on the podium, and… well, everywhere he went with a microphone. And his knowledge of the sport – and the event – is impressive. He does a great job but, if I may, I loved it when he didn’t speak. Sometimes a little bit of silence goes a long way…

Special mention goes to Jimmy Jacques who did this job for, what? Fifteen years? Man, McKenzie can talk but he’ll relatively quiet compared to Jimmy!

 

• Phil and Paul: they’re still there (of course)

Some traditions are difficult to break. And in cycling there are two voices that have stood the test of time. Liggett and Sherwen may have been… ah, ‘moved on’ from other duties that they were once so synonymous with but at the TDU they were back there yabbering on at each other about cycling. And, if you turned on the tellie, you’d have heard them. (So they say… but I can’t vouch for that personally. We had the images in the media room but the sound was switched to McKenzie and Fulcher. And, at the end of each day – or in the morning – I never once turned on the TV in my hotel room. Who does that these days?)

Phil and Paul love to talk. They tell stories. They’ve introduced millions to some of the intricacies of cycling. They are fabulous people who I’ve been lucky enough to call friends for many years. They make me smile and their anecdotes about their respective dwellings in Africa make me raise my eyebrows and think, ‘I really should go there one of these days…’

And although I once thought I’d be happy to never hear them talk about bike racing again, now that they’ve gone (from other races) I kind of miss them (a little).

Oh, but the point of this bullet-point reference is: the TDU continues to welcome them… and people still seem to love hearing them.

GreenEdge – as many still call what is now Mitchelton-Scott – know how to win the TDU: get time bonuses! The team was back in the winner’s jersey in 2018.

Photo: Jean-Pierre Ronco

• Robbie likes his new job… a lot!

He raced his bike for a long time. He won plenty of races. He understood the nuances of pro cycling. He introduced many people to the concepts of time bonuses and sprint primes and headbutts and all manner of things that were part of his job as pro cyclist. But Robbie McEwen stopped doing all that a while ago. Of course, he still rides – quite a lot it would seem – but it won’t be long before his son, Ewan, will beat him not only up the hills (as he does in 2018) but also in sprints.

These days Robbie is a commentator. He is a media man. He is in the limelight… again. And he loves it!

Word on the street is that he stole the show from Paul at The Legends Night dinner when he was called onto the stage. (I wouldn’t know. I didn’t go.) But the story goes like this: he was introduced to talk about sprinting. He stood alongside André Greipel and Peter Sagan… did I get that bit right? And Paul asked him about his days as a rider. Robbie was always good with answers, even when they were particularly brief. He can explain racing like few others in the world. He has unique insights. He is articulate and interesting and now he even has the TV intonation that would have you believe he will be doing this gig until he is old and grey (but still, surely, riding his bike).

But, so the story goes, once he took that microphone from Paul at the Legends Night, he didn’t want to give it back.

No longer a bike racer, he’s a media man – and although he once intimated that he didn’t want to do it as a full-time gig, it’s clear he likes what he speaks. And he’s going to speak for quite a lot longer yet… even when he perhaps should take a moment to let others do just that.

He won a stage. He led the race. He entertained… He is Peter Sagan.

Photo: Jean-Pierre Ronco

• The ‘Sagan Effect’ lives on

He comes. He races. He wins. He leads. He entertains. And he builds his brand. There are few in the cycling world like Peter Sagan. Actually, there’s only one of him. And he milks the opportunities he’s given in life. If he sees an opening, he seizes it. If he gets the whiff of a win, he often takes it.

He did all that again in Adelaide this January. But he did a lot more too.

There was a press conference at the start of proceedings and he was on the panel. But Sagan got his own gig on the Thursday night – the only rider to host his own press conference in the Hilton. He is funny, at least he tries to be. He can be childish or dismissive or arrogant… but it’s all well intentioned. Well, intentioned to build his brand. And he’s succeeding.

His impact on the race is significant and he remains a major drawcard but it’s difficult to judge if his presence in 2018 was quite as influential as it was in 2017. He certainly made time for some fans and enjoyed himself and earned some headlines… but it was just different this year to last.

(Note: more on Sagan to come in the following days… once the dust has settled from the trip.)

Head down (almost) all the way to the line. Richie Porte gave it everything… and almost successfully defended his title.

Photo: Rob Arnold

• Richie’s loss at a time of victory

There’s one man who knows how to race the Queen Stage: Richie Porte has won the fifth stage time and time again – five times, in fact! He did it in style in 2018, but the celebration cost him the title of the 20th TDU. Near the top, after the final turn – and very close to the finishing line – he raised from the saddle, opened his arms in his signature salute at the top of Old Willunga Hill…

Behind him, Daryl Impey refused to concede. The South African raced all the way to the line, finished second in a stage of the 2018 TDU for a third time, earned some extra time for his effort (in the form of a bonus few seconds)… and ta dah, he would become the champion of the race.

Thems the rules: the countback of stage placings put Daryl ahead of Richie on GC and that’s how it’s going to be. Debate the concept all you like but the result isn’t going to change.

The photos of Richie with his arms out and the fans reaching out while they cheer him on are a reminder of the Tasmanian’s popularity but it also represents when celebrating a win made him a runner-up.

(In fairness to Richie, the salute was actually only moments from the line. He did pedal – head down, full-gas – almost all the way to the finish. But perhaps that moment of celebration cost him the win. Or perhaps it didn’t. We’ll never know and, frankly, it doesn’t really matter that much.)

Daryl Impey, champion of the 20th TDU.

Photo: Jean-Pierre Ronco

• Daryl deserved it…!

If a few comments on the night of the final stage are any indication, there are some out there who don’t believe Daryl Impey was a fitting winner. What a shame.

This is a guy who has put himself on the line for numerous team-mates over the years. He had a dark few months in 2014 when he lobbied out of a ‘positive’ control for probenicide which a jury later recognised to be a false positive because of a pharmacy error.

Impey is a rider who has often been in the background but, once in a while, earns the limelight. When he became the first South African to lead the Tour de France in 2013, he did so because he finished a stage in front of the rider who had worn the yellow jersey (and, even though they shared the same time on GC, Daryl took the lead from ‘Gerro’).

In 2018, he finished the TDU on the same time as Richie Porte but, because he was more consistent in each stage – finishing ahead of Richie more often – he won the race. It makes sense and even if you believe that a stage win should be more rewarded, that’s not how it’s seen by the UCI.

Daryl didn’t get to throw a victory salute in a stage of the race but he was on the podium spraying South Australian bubbly while wearing the winner’s jersey. And he deserved it.

 

 

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I could go on. There’s always more to say about cycling. And there are going to be recollections that I’ll want to share popping up in my mind for months to come. But a lot has already been said and there’s plenty yet to edit from my week of ‘work’ at the Tour Down Under of 2018 but for now I’ll post this list and get on with ploughing through what else needs to be done in the afterglow of what was another fantastic week in South Australia.

 

 

– By Rob Arnold