There are 19 names engraved on the front steps of the Hilton hotel in central Adelaide, the home of the Tour Down Under since its inaugural staging in 1999.
Stuart O’Grady, Michael Rogers, Simon Gerrans, Rohan Dennis, Richie Porte – these etchings are a who’s who of the best Australian riders of the past two decades, with the odd international thrown in for good measure.
Following Daryl Impey’s surprise overall win on Sunday, a 20th name will be added to the steps –a remarkable achievement both for Mitchelton–Scott’s loyal domestique, and for the Tour Down Under.
Conceived after the Australian Grand Prix was “stolen” by Melbourne, Olympic gold medallist Mike Turtur suggested a high-profile tour based in Adelaide and raced around the nearby hills.
It was a radical – and expensive – idea.
“When the proposal was floated ... my initial response was ‘explain to me who goes to a bike race,’” former South Australian premier John Olsen told ABC in 2015. “It was an investment of several million dollars to put the first event on.”
That investment has paid off many times over. In a cycling world where new races often burn brightly before disappearing forever, the Tour Down Under has managed to become a mainstay of the UCI calendar.
It was granted World Tour status in 2008, the first non-European race to join that elite club, and has continued to attract high profile riders.
Lance Armstrong famously graced the Tour Down Under for his come-back in 2009, leaving a legacy that remains controversial today.
More recently, the consecutive appearances of charismatic world champion Peter Sagan have been a huge boost for the race.
20 years after the first Tour Down Under, a race that defied expectations then and continues to do so now, what might the next two decades hold?
More course creativity
Organisers have settled on a consistent formula for devising the route, which has changed little over two decades. While this may have helped stages like the Willunga Hill climb gain icon status, it has made the race increasing predictable in recent years.
Eurosport’s Felix Lowe had some bold suggestions earlier this month: “How about starting the race in a different area of South Australia, maybe even another state, and then end up in Adelaide, making it the Paris of the TDU?”
Turtur also admitted the event was considering a team time trial stage using road bikes pending UCI technical approval.
Such ideas have much to commend them, but unfortunately, commercial realities intervene. The race is underwritten by the South Australian government – it is, in effect, a week-long tourism advertisement.
While this makes the tried-and-true formula understandable, the risk of stagnation is real. There is surely a middle ground that involves a few stages further afield, before ending in the event’s Adelaide heartland?
Keep growing the women’s race
Since 2012, the Tour Down Under has had a women’s component. The calibre of this race has continued to improve, and it was elevated to UCI 2.1 status in 2018.
In some ways, though, the women’s Tour Down Under still feels like an afterthought. It precedes the men’s equivalent – starting the week prior – and lacks the same hype.
But there are some positive signs that the women’s edition will soon be on an equal footing. Ahead of the final stage of women’s race, Cycling Tips tweeted a comparison of prize money: $150,000 for men, $23,000 for women.
A week later, the South Australian government announced that they would boost the women’s prize pool to ensure equality. Whether or not motivated by the tweet, the move is a considerable step towards recognising the women’s race as an equal partner in the Tour Down Under extravaganza.
The women’s race is an obvious place for growth, with potential to improve the status of the event and attract more big-name international rider. While the men’s race has effectively plateaued – it is hard to imagine a significant increase in its stature – the women’s Tour Down Under has much scope for expansion.
Watching the final stage of the women’s race two weeks ago, I overheard a mother comment on how pleased she was to have been able to bring her young daughter to watch female athletes compete at the elite level. That early inspiration is how riders of the future are born.
Working together to boost the Australian summer of cycling
An initial caveat: this might be wishful thinking.
But if the Tour Down Under really wants to continue growing Australian cycling, it might need to take a more holistic approach.
It has been rumoured that the deal which twice brought Peter Sagan to Adelaide had an exclusivity clause, preventing the Slovakian from racing other events on the Australian summer calendar.
Although this rumour is presently unconfirmed, from a commercial perspective this seems sound. South Australia is paying for Sagan, so why should other events in other states freeride on his visit.
But such thinking is also short-termist. If the summer of cycling is going to reach new heights, cooperation – not competition – between the various events is required.
Sagan’s impact in Adelaide was highly visible, his popularity is unmatched. It would be to everyone’s benefit for the Tour Down Under to spread the love.
Long live the TDU
20 years after O’Grady opened the Tour Down Under in style and wore the inaugural ochre jersey, Australian cycling is immeasurably better off for its continued presence as the opening race of the World Tour season.
On the streets of Adelaide last week, a t-shirt with a simple message kept reappearing. “Australia’s greatest bike race”. Indeed.