With the past three editions of the Tour Down Under won by sprinters, Anthony Tan believes it’s time for a course rethink before the next edition of Australia’s premier stage race.
By
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM


If you saw SBS TV's live coverage of the Santos Tour Down Under last Saturday, you would have heard Phil Liggett, the doyen of English TV cycling commentators, make a bold claim.

The Englishman, with his clipped accent many say is akin to aural velvet, said the fifth stage around Willunga was the greatest he'd ever seen in the race's 12-year history.

I disagree.

Not entirely, however: it was a great stage to watch, the hordes of fans atop the three-kilometre ascent of Old Willunga Hill were numerous and rabid, and one of the four who escaped the second time up the climb, Luis Leon Sanchez of Caisse d'Epargne, just held on to win the stage.

And of course, the break contained our own rainbow warrior in Cadel Evans.

But out of this power quartet, two were trying to win the race, and one – Alejandro Valverde – had dedicated himself to helping Sanchez do so.

Try as they did, in all honesty Sanchez, Evans et al. didn't stand much of a chance.

Personally, I think it sends out the wrong message, and even though race organiser Mike Turtur is reluctant to do so, the time is ripe for a course change.

Because if the best four climbers in this year's race Рone a current world road champion, one a current Vuelta a Espa̱a champion, one a past TDU champion, one a 19-year-old revelation from Slovakia Рcannot wrestle the tour lead away from a sprinter after a bold, ballsy effort like that, I doubt anyone can.

You might say the efforts of HTC-Columbia were as good as those in the break, and in the end, Sanchez only lost the race to André Greipel by 11 seconds.

However, the 19km run to the finish (10km of which is false flat) was really what cost the break a chance of winning the race overall, and according to past history, 11 seconds is a fair margin at the Tour Down Under.

It's also worth noting that Greipel did not take a single time bonus on the final stage – something he could easily have done if his lead was truly under threat, based on his sprinting form all week.

I guess what I'm trying to say is not that Greipel is an undeserving winner, more that Sanchez or Evans deserved to win the race. They risked everything and in Evans' case, got nothing.

At the start of the TDU, I asked Turtur the following question: If a sprinter wins the race again, will you consider a slight change of course – or are you happy seeing a sprinter win for say, the next three or four editions?

"That's the style of the race," was his flat response. "The headlines last year were: 'Too hard, too early'."

"I've got no problem whatsoever that it's a sprinters' style race – Paris-Nice, (Tirreno-) Adriatico, Tour of Suisse, the Dauphiné (-Libéré)… they're all races that suit certain types (of riders). And we're just one of those races that suit a certain type of rider," Turtur said.

I'm not asking for 200km-plus stages, or 25km hilltop finish with a gradient that would send mountain goats toppling backwards. Or even an individual time trial.

But three years ago, wasn't the whole idea of including a second ascension of Willunga to give someone other than a sprinter a chance of winning the race?

Instead of two circuits around Snapper Point/Aldinga Beach, how about one circuit for the obligatory Graham Watson photos and in place of that, a third time up Old Willunga Hill?

The stage would not be any longer, it would only mean an extra 3km of climbing that surely every rider can handle, and it would put the race for overall honours back on a knife's edge that may not be decided till the final stage.

Because if brilliant escapes like the one we saw last Saturday continue to be thwarted, in years to come they may not try so hard anymore.

Or worse still, not try at all. And that would make choosing a winner a foregone conclusion.