• UniSA-Australia at the Santos Tour Down Under. (AAP)Source: AAP
Searing heat and World Tour opposition greeted the birth of a new concept within the Uni-SA national team at the Tour Down Under.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

27 Jan 2018 - 8:36 AM 

The Uni-SA team saw a shake-up from previous seasons, with the top achieving National Road Series (NRS) team from the previous season given the priority in selecting the first five riders for the team, as well as provide the staff for the outfit.

There was a much-publicised mistake in the process which saw only four of the team Bennelong-SwissWellness line-up able to take the start, but the overall experience for team director Andrew Christie-Johnson was a positive one.

UniSA-Australia loads up on veteran talent for TDU after CA misstep
Cycling Australia today named the seven riders who will make up the UniSA-Australia squad for the Santos Tour Down Under with some missing the cut due to miscommunication over a change to the UCI anti-doping rules.

"It was a pretty awesome event," Christie-Johnson said. "Any WorldTour event for that matter. I've been to a few of them, always as a spectator and to finally be involved in one... it's extremely professional, everything is laid on and it makes life for everyone real easy."

While preparation and organisation made things a breeze pre-race, it wasn't the case out on the road, with tough competition against the WorldTour field.

"Other than just the riders being of higher quality, the other thing is for riders to get any respect. Not that you've earned respect, but you get disrespected a lot," Christie-Johnson said.

"You go to the bottom of the tree and at the end of the day, it's really hard to find your spot on the road. The other teams don't want you anywhere near, they want you out the back.

"I think Sam did a really good job, but the ability of our team to deliver like the World Tour teams, it's just not possible. It's a bit of a lottery, they have to look after themselves.

"It's not just us though, it was messy at the final of those stages. Every other sprinter is trying to get in there as well. I think the result that Sam got in the People's Choice Classic and Steele got today (6th) showed some of their potential."

Sam Welsford (Australian Cycling Academy), Alex Porter and Scott Bowden (both Bennelong-SwissWellness) were younger riders within the set-up, each given their own eye-opening experience of what it takes to step up to World Tour level. Scott Bowden was the most active of the three, getting up the road into breakaways on three stages to animate the race.

"Scott's a bit of a special case," said Christie-Johnson. "He hasn't done a single National Road Series race but his palmares is pretty big, he's done an Olympics Games road race and a World Tour race.

"It's hard to learn at that highest level. He's done a good job, he's certainly learnt a lot. He could have just sat back but he put his hand up to have a crack and credit to him he did very well and still had the legs to finish it off."

A track specialist come road sprinter, Sam Welsford had high expectations coming into his maiden WorldTour event, with a strong recent series of results on the track and a win in under 23 nationals criterium.

"With Sam, he's got plenty of track experience but hasn't done a lot of road riding." Christie-Johnson said. "All these young guys, they can hold their heads high. Outside of what they've done on the road, they'll walk away with a large amount of experience that they'll have for years to come."

The heat was a big talking point within the peloton, with many struggling in the 40 degrees plus South Australian temperatures present for a number of the stages.

"For the riders, it was tough out there," Christie-Johnson said. "The average we were seeing coming back from their computers was 46 degrees out there on the road. That's tough, trying conditions. 

"While some people will say that we're Aussies and should be used to it, I think we dealt with that pretty well and it showed out on the road because we still had riders out there in the break on those hottest days."

The initiative of Cycling Australia, in providing that slot in the UniSA team, was one that was applauded by Christie-Johnson. The difficulties in not having riders included within the UCI registered testing pool is one that can be overcome for next season and offer a fuller prospect of advancement for promising riders.

"It's a massive opportunity and we were the benefactors of that this year," he said. "And you can see there's been a lot of teams that have turned Continental for this year and they'll be queuing up to challenge for that spot. I think the concept is great and finally, there's a good reward for performing well in the NRS.

"While there were a few issues in the selection that was disappointing, we get on and next year there'll be another team that can start the Tour Down Under and Cadel's. I think that's awesome for our domestic racing. What we've learnt here, from riders to staff is a really good appreciation of what that higher standard is."

The next race for the Uni-SA team will be at the Cadel Evan's Great Ocean Road Race, where there will be a few small changes to the line-up from the Tour Down Under.

"The team for Cadel's will basically be the same team here except Nathan Earle and Zak Dempster will be riding for their Pro Continental teams at Cadels. Michael Rice (Axeon Hagens Berman) will be a replacement and I don't think the final place is decided yet."