When the start list for the Santos Women’s Tour was announced, it contained a few surprises. Not only were the Australian riders turning out in strength but some of the best riders from the rest of the world were joining them.
Arguably the best sprinter in the world was here in Kirsten Wild (Cylance) whilst perennial favourites like Lisa Brennauer (Canyon-SRAM) and Chloe Dygert (Sho Air Twenty20) were also on hand.
Wild had a nice start to her 2017 season, taking two wins and a second en route to third overall in the race. She was one of those that was thrown off by the late Qatar cancellation.
“Well, I was really focusing in my head on Qatar,” said Wild, “but since it’s cancelled there’s a big gap of racing. It’s nice that it’s going so well here, I wasn’t planning to be good, we thought the course would be too hard.”
With Qatar off the UCI calendar, can the Australian block of racing fill the void and emulate the success of the men’s positioning as the place for many in the peloton to start their season?
Gene Bates, sports director for Orica-Scott, believes that the race along with the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and a possible women’s Herald Sun Tour could make Australia the de facto start of the women’s season.
“Yeah definitely, I think that’s probably the logical next step for the racing in Australia," Bates said. "It’s a great opportunity for the Santos Women’s Tour, Cadel’s race and potentially the Sun Tour. It’s a great time of year to get the women’s teams down to Australia, much like the men have done for almost 20 years now.”
"It’s a great time of year to get the women’s teams down to Australia, much like the men have done for almost 20 years now.”
“We’ve won the race for the last three years and each time we’ve been here there’s been a marked improvement.
There are not too many races left on the calendar that you can say that about. In terms of how to improve it, definitely, coverage is a big one.”
There has been continued growth in the event, originally a loose collection of criteriums to a National Road Series event and now its current status as a 2.2 UCI sanctioned race. Race director Kimberley Conte was pleased with how the 2017 edition evolved and was cautiously optimistic in flagging future growth.
“You want to be committed to getting the right things done for the women,” Conte said, “putting on a really good race for them and taking care of them whilst they’re here. Those were the two main goals for this year, lift the level of competition and lift the level of what we could provide for them.”
“We’ll go back and look at how to better the racing next year. The great thing about racing is that you can spend the time afterwards debriefing and trying to hone a better event for next year. Everything is on the table, we’ll see how we end up going.”
Calls for increased live coverage of the race were made across social media and voiced by riders and staff and appears to be the next logical step for the event given the infrastructure already in place for the Tour Down Under men’s event.
One moment that highlighted this was Stage 2, which was run just before the People’s Choice Classic and had the cameras set up, the helicopter in the air shooting the race and big screens showing the event to spectators around the course but that broadcast didn’t make it any further than the few square kilometres in the centre of Adelaide.
There will be a one highlights package televised on Channel Nine, expected to air on 5 February but sport thrives on live broadcasts and it’s hard to imagine that removing it over two weeks from the end of the race will drive many to watch a run and done event.
“Every race as it grows you have to work out what works in coverage and what works for the event,” Conte said. “The more people who hear about the more want to come out and see what it is like, you can see that here tonight.
"Live TV is always great but, as we know, it’s expensive. We want to take the time to ensure we grow it correctly and make sure it’s done to showcase the race properly.”
Julien Knuppel, sports director for Holden Women’s Cycling, a domestic team that competes entirely within Australia highlighted what made the race special for domestic female riders.
“If we can have this quality of racing on our back doorstep it’s a great opportunity for these girls to race against the big internationals during our summer,” Knuppel said.
“Being in a bigger bunch, positioning tends to improve confidence and they (riders) get the opportunity to see what it takes to ride at this level. They don’t have to spend thousands of dollars and get a plane ticket over to Europe or the States, you can do that here.”
The benefits of growing the Australian block of racing are obvious, and it won’t take much more in terms of coverage and organisation for the events to be viable staples of the early season that attract the majority of the top riders in the world.
That will lead to growth in the perception of the women’s peloton in Australia, the competitiveness of Australian cycling and confirm the Australian summer of cycling as the true start of the season.