It has been a tumultuous couple of editions for the Santos Tour Down Under, with the 2020 event held with the recent spectre of devastating bushfires having ripped through South Australian communities. In 2021 there won't be a Tour Down Under as we know it, with the focus instead being on national-level riders and a multi-discipline showcase of non-WorldTour road racing with the Santos Festival of Cycling.
The main event will still be the road race, with a National Road Series (NRS) stage race to hold pride of place as the mainstay of the six days of cycling events. It's been a uniquely difficult task organising the Santos Festival of Cycling for 2021 but women's race director, Kimberley Conte, has high hopes for this coming edition of the race as she told SBS Cycling Central.
"Going into the 2020 race we had those big rounds of horrible bushfires here," said Conte. "I honestly thought that was all I was going to be contending with in 2020. Obviously, that was not the case, the virus progressed worldwide.
"Safety is always in our minds in running an event but this was just such new territory for us. We started the planning, every scenario possible from A to B to C to D. We were fortunate that we’ve had really strong support from SA Health, SA Police and other stakeholders. An enormous amount of planning to see if we could make an international event work and then if not, what would another option be."
The cancellation of the Tour Down Under was announced on November 1, with the international riders and teams unable to be worked into the framework of existing quarrantine protocols while maintaining team's needs for early season training. The disappointment of no WorldTour opener in Australia was assuaged by the news within the same press release that a domestic festival was being worked on, with Conte happy with the new event has turned out.
"The silver lining of it not being an international event is that we get to host this great event now, with the focus on our domestic riders," said Conte. "The focus has been on the international riders and how it’s affected their seasons, but it’s obviously affected the domestic riders too.
"The routes are designed for the NRS series. We know that a lot of the riders here have been in similar circumstances to what we’ve seen overseas and not had much opportunity to race.
"The stages themselves have a lot of classic Tour Down Under elements to them, but they were specifically designed, both in the length and type of stage race for the NRS."
The main feature is the stage that finishes atop the traditional showpiece of Willunga Hill, with Richie Porte - the popularly titled 'King of Willunga' - defending his crown in the men's race. It will be a historic moment in the women's race, the first time the event has featured the iconic climb.
"First time for the women. I get asked about that a lot," said Conte. "Despite the rest of the stage being short, sharp and shiny there’s a few sprints thrown in there that will be on the riders' minds.
"I like all three of the road stages for different reasons. It’s nice to be back in the Barossa again and have our starts and finishes at locations that we wouldn’t normally use. Starting in Seppeltsfield winery and finishing in Golding winery, we’ll feature some of these areas that were hit really hard by bushfires.
"Golding Wines - the finish for stage 2 – was hit really hard-hit by the fires. They lost the majority of their vines. A family-owned business, as are the majority of the businesses in the hills that were so hard-hit. It’s important as a race organisation that we pay attention to that."
That nod to the unfortunate recent history of the area becomes part of the challenge of creating interesting and dynamic routes for the 2021 Santos Festival of Cycling.
"You always design with the riders and the race in mind, giving riders the opportunity to attack and hope that they take that," said Conte. "Oftentimes, it completely changes anyway, which is fun as a race director. It’s really important to also showcase South Australia though and all three of these road stages do that."
With the recent announcement of the men's and women's Greenedge squad for the race, the women's event in particular looks like it will be run with most teams looking towards the WorldTour powerhouses as to how the racing will go. Riders like Lucy Kennedy and Grace Brown shape as the favourites for Willunga Hill, though there isn't yet a finalised startlist to know who their main opposition will be.
"Clearly, teams like Greenedge bring such presence to a race," said Conte. "The riders are amazing and outstanding but for the domestic riders coming through, it’s a great opportunity for them. We’ve got some talented riders coming through the NRS at the moment and that NRS system has proved to be a great springboard up into those international teams.
"The domestic riders I’ve talked to have a ‘bring it on’ attitude when it comes to fighting it out with Greenedge. I think it will be really good."
Aside from the revamped road racing, there will be a decidedly more varied feel to this year's event, with mountain bike, BMX, road para-cycling, track and cyclo-cross events running throughout the programme of the festival.
“We’ve had some of them involved before, but to have all of them at the same time, it’s super exciting," said Conte. "I know that a lot of people have said to me that ‘I don’t know much about this type of cycling, but I’m going to go out and take a look.’ I was involved with the para-cycling program in 2012 and I’ve always had a soft spot for them, so to see them continuing in the track and the road events from last year is great."
The 2021 Santos Festival of Cycling will be an outlier event, with the South Australia Tourism Commission saying that they'll return to the UCI calendar with the Tour Down Under in 2022. In the meantime, there'll be a smorgasbord of fun events with a domestic cycling flavour for this year as a worthy replacement.