Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Tour Down Under – The future of Cycling in a global world?

Adelaide is a small grid like (cuadricular) city known as the city of churches. It is laid out on a hot dry plain wedged between the Mount Lofty ranges and the Southern Ocean. To the south the Ocean stretches to Antarctica. The landscape in colour is reminiscent of the plains of Castille Leon. However here there is a lot less water than any part of Spain.

Immediately inland lie some of Australia's best vineyards, the regions of the Barrossa Valley, the Claire Valley and McLaren Vale. Beyond that Adelaide sits in isolation. It is surrounded on three sides by the vast Australian interior, an open flat wasteland fit for the making of films such as Priscilla Queen of the Desert, and Mad Max. Out here are mines of opals, gold and uranium and there are the atomic waste lands of Maralinga, where in the 1960's Aboriginal people where exposed to the devastation of the British Atomic tests.

Adelaide is the only one of Australia's original colonial capitals that was not created as a penal colony. It was settled in the mid nineteenth century by a more puritan middle of English who were followed by a wave of Germans who established the local wine industry. It became a colony distinct from the rest of Australia and seen from the east as a backwater. In its isolation it has remained more conservative than the eastern coast capitals and has always sought to boost its image through the staging of 'great' events. In the 1970's its most progressive government sought to put Adelaide on the map with the creation of the Adelaide Arts Festival which has blossomed into a cultural event of world standing. In more recent times Adelaide hosted the first Formula One Grand Prix held in Australia before losing it to the much more cosmopolitan and savvy Melbourne.

Partly in response to the loss of the Grand Prix ex cyclist Mike Turtur convinced the South Australia Government to support the initial Tour Down Under held in 1999. The inception of the TDU and its brash marketing style contributed to the death of one of Australia's great classic stage Races, the Commonwealth Bank Race. The humble Bank Race, where riders such as Jan Ullrich, Jens Voight, Robbie McEwen, Nick Gates and Matt White cut their teeth, is now long gone.

The TDU has turned itself into the premier Australian race, but beneath the hyperbole there is an ever present sense of insecurity amongst the race's organisers. Adelaide always seems to fear losing its 'major events' to Melbourne or one of other the Eastern State capitals. It might be this insecurity that drives the hyperbolic style surrounding the races promotion. A style that has already ruffled a few feathers in Europe and it might also explain some of the overt micro management and control that pervades the race's organisation.

Today Adelaide hosts the TDU and a few touring car races. Both are seen as integral to the State's economy. The importance of the TDU to the State's economy is exemplified by the race's number one backer, the State Premier, Mike Rann's comments on the announcement of the race obtaining Pro Tour status when he compared the importance of gaining Pro Tour status with the expansion of South Australia's massive gold, copper and uranium mine, Olympic Dam.

This statement in itself says something about how cycling and the TDU is viewed in South Australia. Unlike in old Europe, here cycling is firmly linked, not to a century of racing tradition, but to the global economy and increasing the State's finances. Who in Old Europe would ever consider comparing the staging of one of the great classic bikes races to something like the ability to mine and export more uranium?

Mike Rann obviously feels that money speaks volumes in the new global Pro Tour world and intends to travel to Europe later this year to meet with UCI President Pat McQuaid to discuss future plans and funding for the event.

More than a place to train in the Sun?

Since its inception the TDU has been seen as a good place for a few European teams to come and escape the cold and dark of the northern winter. It has also been a place for Australian riders to try and impress the visiting Europeans in the hope of themselves moving north to the centre of world cycling tradition. The race has been more than often won by a rider who manages to escape in a breakaway which survives as the peloton behind sits up and enjoys the good weather and conditions. If there is one thing that said about the TDU gaining Pro Tour status it is that the manner in which the race is played out has changed.

This year not one of the races escapes succeeded in staying away until the finish. Each day saw a bunch sprint and those sprints were dominated by the possible next big thing from Rostock Andre Greipel. His only real rival in thee sprints and in the end the General Classification, being Oiartzun's Australian hero, Allan Davis.

Many of the European riders were surprised at the way they race progressed. The amiable Pablo Lastras said that the team had thought that the trip would provide a chance for a good training session (bien entrienamiento) "but with the competition that has been here, it has been a real race ... I am enjoying these races that make yup the new formula of the Pro Tour, such as the Tours of Germany and Poland ... I like this idea of the globalisation of the Pro Tour, it gives us the ability to see the world, to meet new people and new cultures so from that perspective I think it is a good idea".

One visitor to the race was Cadel Evans who observed that "in the past the race has often been decided by small breaks getting away, I have been in that situation myself in the past being able to escape on Willunga Hill" (the TDU's one climb which is itself barely a three km category three climb) "but this year it really seems to have changed. With the top teams here, the style of racing has changed. It is a Pro Tour race now, the teams seem prepared and the race is being much more controlled. In some ways it seems like a mini Tirreno Adriatico this year. With the sprinters winning the race has changed. It is a lot more predictable, a more European defensive style of racing."

Past winner, Luis Leon Sanchez was of a similar mind. "I have noticed a lot of changes in the way the race is ridden. This is my third Tour Down Under and this year the level of racing is much higher, I think all they lack is a stage to break it up a bit more ... maybe we could climb Willunga Hill two times – that would make it more selective. This year it has been very different to the other years, with the Pro Tour teams here it has been much more competitive and controlled."

Some of those who have commentated or written about the race are not sure that making it harder is a good thing. Phil Latz, Managing Editor of Australia's oldest cycling magazine 'Bicycling Australia' believes one of the keys to the race's success has been that it is not too hard. He thinks that the TDU is more successful than the Tour de Langkawi which has many stages of great difficulty. "It is too early in the season to have too many tough stages."

Commentating on the race where Phill Ligget and Paul Sherwen. They are the Englsih speaking equivalents of Carlos de Andres and Perico Delgado. Unlike the Spanish pair Phil And Paul have a worldwide audience and have witnessed the globalisation of cycling at first hand.
Phil Ligget, known as the 'voice of cycling' in English, has commentated for TV since the days of Hinault and LeMond. He thinks "that to be honest the race has changed a lot ... it has obviously changed by the fact that it has got Pro Tour status now … you have all the top teams. But at this time of the year I don't think you can expect all of those teams to bring their top riders. The teams are just giving their young riders a chance to stretch their legs because they don't really want to race flat out in January when their expected to ride and win the Tour de France in July. But the thing with the Australian people is that they love this event, it has had on average about 70,000 spectators everyday and you can't get much more than that in this small town really because there is not a huge population once you leave Adelaide. But the crowds have been big since day one, the very first time the race was run in 1999 the crowds were huge. but some of the riders are saying the race itself has changed because it is Pro Tour, they are saying that it is a bit boring but if you try and make the stages too hard at this time of year the riders will rebel by going slower ...."

Phil's co-commentator Paul Sherwen who himself rode the Tour de France a number of times in the 1970's and 1980's (Fiat - La France, La Redoute – Motobecane, La Redoute, La Redoute - Cycles MBK, Raleigh – Weinmann, Raleigh – Banana) thinks that "the race this year came down to a fight between four or so teams – the one's with sprinters in form. Because of that and because these are very strong Pro Tour Teams, even if they are without some of their best riders, their professionalism means that they can nail back the breakways in the space of the final ten kilometres with ease. So as you have seen, they let a small break go, take the pressure off themselves and then pull in the last ten to twenty kilometres to bring it all back together for the sprint. That is a change that has occurred because of the race's Pro Tour status".

Business Class – Tourist Class

For many of the European Directors and riders attending the TDU for the first time the most impressive thing has been the races organisation. Riders and team Directors flew to Australia in First Class aboard one of the race's sponsors Malaysian Airlines. Mechanic and masajistas on the other hand travelled tourist class. A similar division was evident in relation to the press. Two categories of press existed – the 'hosted media' and the rest. Hosted media enjoyed access to the race's various gala events and dinners. They obviously worked in close cooperation with the TDU and at times some appeared to be an extension of the race's organisation rather than independent voices. One small example illustrates this relationship. A 'marcha ciclo turista', the 'Mutual Community Challenge Tour' was held in conjunction with Stage 4 of the Tour. Stage 4 was the hottest day of the race with the temperature peaking at over 36 degrees. During its live coverage of stage 4 (there was no live television coverage of the race until the last stage) reported that a number of the marchas 3,403 participants were being given medical treatment for heat exhaustion on the side of the road. Within minutes of reporting this fact its editor was asked by one of the organisations media liaison staff to remove the reference to the medical treatment., one of he race's 'hosted media' quickly complied. It was a small detail but shows the level to which the Tour's organisation is prepared to go in micro managing its image.

Having said that there were many aspects of the race's organisation that were very impressive, Pablo Lastras said that his first visit to Australia had been a "unique experience, very impressive, overall because of the fans and the organisation – the organisation is very good".

Spanish cycling's 'Mr Marketing' Saunier Duval's Matxin was similarly impressed. "For us this is not an opportunity for us to train in the sun. It is a Pro Tour race, and things like the team's classification are very important for us in the overall context of the season. The Tour Down Under made us a very good offer, they wanted us to come earlier but this time of the year is hard for us, with out team presentation and the traditional Dia de los Reyes holiday which is very important in Spain ... our problem was not about coming, but the dates that they had originally proposed. The economic and other conditions are very good … so we have come with riders that need to start the season with good form. .... Next year what they need to do is add another harder stage to try and make the race a bit more difficult and interesting ... the climb is not very hard and they need something to make a selection … we didn't come for a holiday but to race in the Pro Tour."

In Europe the races have tradition and the dates ... what I think needs to happen is that some of the organisers of races in Europe should come down here and see the level at which the TDU is organised. Then they might realise that they are not as important as they think they are ... there is a lot to be learnt from the way this race is organised for races in Europe. There is more to organising a race than tradition and the dates ... what I have seen is that in the countries with less cycling tradition organise the races much better than the way races are organised at home."

The TDU's special guest, Miguel Indurain enjoyed the races atmosphere. "What is impressive about the race here is that is more than just bikes, it is a cultural event each day and the it brings more people to the race ... each day is like a fiesta, a cultural event ... In Spain it is just a bike race but here they combine it with marchas cicloturistas, tourism promotion, music and other things. I think it is good to see the Pro Tour being globalised, we cant just cut these new countries out of cycling .... the number of fans here is very impressive and cycling here is much more mixed with many people involved, women, men, children. In Australia you have a small population but with a very strong sporting tradition – in Europe you are either professional or you don't do anything. It is starting to change at home but here sport is much more a question of lifestyle."

Close Finish

In the end the race came down to the final sprint on the final stage. Stage Six and the Tour itself was in the end decided by a question of mathematics between Team High Road's Andre Greipel and ex Discovery and Liberty Seguros rider Allan Davis. In Australia a win for Davis was being promoted as a way for him to find his way out of the post Operacion Puerto maze and maybe as a way for him to obtain what he has yet to gain this year a contract with a Pro Tour team. There was an obvious nationalistic groundswell of support for Davis who is being promoted in Australian as an innocent victim of the Spanish doping scandal.

Davis's makeshift team UniSA had the support of other Australians in the race, most notably the support of Stuart O'Grady's CSC team who pulled the peloton at crucial times to try and set up the intermediate sprints or to neutralise the dangerous escape of Luis Leon Sanchez, Nicolas Portal, Koen De Kort, Wim and Francesco Gavazzi. If the group had stayed away and Sanchez had won the sprint the finish would have been a three way affair.

UniSA did not seem capable of neutralising the attack of Sanchez and it was left to CSC to do so in the penultimate 5.5km lap. Davis needed to finish first in the final sprint with Greipel no better than third if the Australian was to achieve the victory. In the end Davis finished second behind the German powerhouse. Greipel in all took out four of the races 6 stages the overall. He also won the misnamed Glenelg Classic, short criterium held the Sunday before the Tour.

After the race Greipel acknowledge the work of his teammate Scott Davis – the brother of his rival on the day Allan Davis. In many ways it was possibly the hardest day in the lives of the two Oiartzun based Queensland brothers. Allan Davis feels that his career is in purgatory as it becomes increasingly difficult for him to find a way out of his Puerto predicament. He is a victim of cycling's old ways, the secrecy laws governing the Australian Sports Anti Doping Agency and the Australian Federation's mismanagement of the situation.

Soon after the race finished the likeable country boy, Allan, quietly left the hotel with his family without waiting for the Tour's final celebratory dinner. Two hours later, his brother Scott sat in the Hilton Hotel's bar with his teammates and Director celebrating the High Road victory. Greipel had spoken to Scott Davis at the start and said that he understood his difficult situation. Scott told El Pais that "it was difficult and it was playing on my mind quite a bit - I had divided loyalties, but in the end I am a professional and I rode for my team against my own brother who really needed to win this race in order to get his career going again ... It was hard, but I did the job I am paid for".

As the other teams, the race organisers, politicians, friends, sponsors and 'hosted' media entered the Hilton's Grand Ballroom for the Celebratory Dinner, Scott Davis asked permission for his wife to attend with him. There was of course a spare seat, that of his brother Allan. Scott's request was refused and as a result the celebratory dinner of the First Pro Tour event to be held outside of Europe proceeded without the race's winner and team. High Road left the hotel to eat pizzas at a restaurant around the corner. It was a sad end to what could have been something much greater – all that was needed was a little understanding of the toughness of the day for the Davis brothers and a little humility and flexibility on the part of the races organisers.

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