Early February will see the annual pilgrimage that is the Australian summer of cycling switch from the glitz of the WorldTour classified races to the more rugged affair of the Herald Sun Tour. It acts as a cap on road racing for the early season period in Australia and brings local battlers into contact with some of the best riders in the world, providing a springboard for later career success.
“It’s Australia’s oldest stage race,” said Scott McGrory, the men’s race director, “we know there’s another Tour in another state that has WorldTour status and draws huge interest (Tour Down Under). We endeavour to continue the legacy that the Herald Sun Tour has created in Australia, we certainly give the race the respect it deserves.
A recent bright light in the race’s history has been the addition of the women’s event. It is still a relatively new proposition as it enters its third year of competition, but it has proven a hit with riders as it operates along similar lines as the men’s race.
Local teams and riders make the most of their opportunity to compete against the best, perhaps most memorably shown by the exploits of Brodie Chapman in the inaugural edition of the race as she held off one of the best cyclists in the world in Annemiek van Vleuten to take a victory that propelled her into the ranks of WorldTour racing.
The one downside is that the race has stayed at just two days of racing with the men’s race at five days, an aspect that long-time men’s and now women’s race director John Trevorrow was quick to apologise for.
“The reaction of the riders to the racing has been terrific in the two years it’s been run, and I just wish we could have done more to expand the race beyond its two stages,” said Trevorrow.
“We’re coming to an end of our contract with the government for the race and we can maybe look to make changes in the coming years. It’s important that we can use this race to show what the race has to offer and what we can achieve in the years to come.”
That talk of the end of the contract with the government has major implications for the future of the race, as major cycling events simply don’t survive without the support of the government these days, with the cost of closing down roads ever-increasing and the lack of direct income from the spectators of the sport. The case has to be made that the race brings in tourism to Victoria, and that it is worthwhile for the government to help fund.
Thankfully, the racing at the 2.1 UCI categorised race rarely fails to excite and the weekend stages attract good crowds. The first two editions of the women’s race have continued that tradition, producing an attacking brand of cycling, with Chapman’s 2018 win and Lucy Kennedy’s 2019 victory coming on the back of long-range attacks.
“It will be an interesting race,” said Trevorrow, “the first one (Stage 1 around Shepparton) should be for the sprinters and then there’s one for the mountain goats. The thing is with that stage is that it starts at the top of Falls Creek, with a long descent to start the race. Now, good climbers aren’t always the best descenders, so maybe some of them are put under pressure there.”
“The team lists and riders aren’t fully finalised yet, but I can say that you can expect to see the usual suspects from previous years and some top international riders as well. Seeing proper climbers go on the attack on the Falls Creek stage will be quite the spectacle.”
In contrast to the larger races of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the Tour Down Under, there isn’t one hub of festive activity, like the Geelong foreshore of the centre of Adelaide CBD. Rather the Herald Sun Tour is a moveable feast, local towns playing host as school children line the route and decorate the starting straights with chalk drawings and the names of their chosen heroes.
The local flavour of the event extends beyond the setting of the race to the essence of the competition as well.
“It gives an opportunity for the local teams, the Continental teams and the national team, to race against international competition,” said McGrory. “This is the only opportunity that the local Aussies have to do that. We want to continue our legacy with the race and continue providing that opportunity for Australian athletes. That’s something that the Herald Sun can uniquely offer.”
The Herald Sun Tour has delivered upon that promise in recent years, with Australians who have excelled at the race going on to bigger and better things within the cycling world.
Chris Harper, Dylan Sunderland, Lucas Hamilton, Chris Hamilton, Michael Storer, Jai Hindley, James Whelan and Robert Power all took top results in recent years at the race and have moved into the WorldTour on the back of franking their Under 23 form against the professionals. The next Australians to make the coveted leap into the upper echelons of elite cycling will again likely be the climbers, with mountains on the agenda for 2020.
The 67th edition of the is set to visit the northern parts of Victoria, taking in some well-worn roads and climbs that are the favourites of cyclists locally.
The ascents Falls Creek and Tawonga Gap form major parts of the course, but the real addition is the return to historic slopes of Mt Buller for a summit finish on Stage 4. McGrory has issued a warning to foreign visitors who are looking to target an overall result.
“Bring your lightweight wheels and pack those climbing legs, absolutely,” said the race director of Mt Buller. “It’s such an even gradient all the way up, but once you get into the tree-line and the switchback area up the top, it really is pretty. Not that the riders will be noticing, but for spectators and those watching the race, it really is a beautiful stretch of road.”
The sprinters won’t be left out as they will have their opportunity to take the race lead on Stage 1 as the riders leave from Mitchelton-Scott owner and major event sponsor through Jayco, Gerry Ryan’s, winery in Nagambie, heading 122 kilometres into Shepparton. The women will race on a different loop around Shepparton on a 100 kilometre course that looks set for a sprint unless crosswinds wreak havoc on the open roads.
Stage 2 will be the ascent to the ski resort at Falls Creek, with the 118-kilometre route finishing with the variable 30-kilometre climb at four per cent gradient. Sections of ten per cent should split the race midway up, with a long grind to the top that should see one of the top-tier climbers triumph.
The third stage will be a mixed affair, with the race leaving Bright and heading over the well-known climb of Tawonga Gap before a long slog over the open, rolling conditions of the northern Victoria region as the riders head to a flat finish at the completion of the 178-kilometre course in Wangaratta.
Stage 4 sits as the unquestionable ‘queen’ stage of the 2020 edition of the race, with the race leaving Mansfield for two 50 kilometre laps including the picturesque Old Tolmie Rd, where McGrory has tipped the riders to hit over 100 kilometres an hour on the descent. With Mt Buller looming in the distance, the climbers will want to keep their powder dry on the 120-kilometre course. The 15-kilometre climb has a gradient of just under six per cent, with sections of up to 13 per cent and looks set to be the deciding feature of the race.
The final stage is the same as last year’s race, a fast-flowing course around the Royal Botanic Gardens, the same route ‘The Tan’, the famous Melbourne city running route. It was a course that produced a good fight last year in the only live televised stage of the race and it’s a good course for spectators as well.
The Jayco Herald Sun Tour will run from February 5-9, 2020.