2014 will bring his Tour Down Under count to an even dozen. Anthony Tan looks back at his 12 years covering what is now indisputably Australia’s premier road cycling event, and how the race has moved with the times.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

Geez, six weeks' holiday in South America goes awfully quick.

This isn't a travel blog, but if you see me in Adelaide, where my butt will be for the next seven days, feel free to ask what it's like to see the once lost city of Machu Picchu, sail round Cape Horn, (attempt the) tango in Buenos Aires with two left feet, or visit one of Rio's infamous favelas – at your own peril, of course.

For now, it's all about the Tour Down Under.

2014 will mark my twelfth straight TDU I've covered in the field, but I almost lost count after three or four, since until two years ago, the race parcours remained largely unchanged from year to year, before race organisers threw in a hilltop finish at Willunga for the 2012 edition, changing the GC dynamic from sprinter to puncheur.

For me in fact, what changed the race dynamic more than the inclusion of the Willunga summit finish was the decision by race director Mike Turtur to elevate his race to ProTour (now WorldTour) status in 2008. The good was that the Australian public got to see the world's best teams – and riders – compete on home soil, a scenario previously thought unimaginable when this once modest shindig began in 1999.

The bad was that aside from a hodgepodge national team, it effectively shut out all non-ProTour teams and riders, since until this year with Drapac, no Pro Continental team has been invited, and UCI rules don't permit Continental or any other national teams to race. Also, with all ProTour/WorldTour teams on roughly equal footing, no matter the parcours, or the changes made to it, the racing became noticeably more controlled and more predictable (read: less interesting); aside from the Willunga stage and very occasionally, one or two others, successful breakaways became a thing of yore, alas.

Just look at the eclectic list of winners pre 2008 – everyone from Stuart O'Grady to Michael Rogers to Patrick Jonker to Luis León Sánchez to Simon Gerrans – then take a squiz at those from 2008-11… André Greipel, Allan Davis, Greipel again, and Cameron Meyer. All bar one won by a sprinter; had Meyer not craftily got himself in a stage-winning move en route to Strathalbyn three years ago, it would have been four sprinters winning the TDU on the trot, since Matthew Goss, Ben Swift and Michael Matthews all finished less than 10 seconds behind the West Australian that year.

But as Turtur told me in an interview back in late 2010, the Tour Down Under is a tourism event, mainly funded by the South Australian Tourism Commission, who, in turn, is funded by folk like you and me – that is, the taxpayer. "Our objective, for this race, was to create a significant tourism event and achieve the highest status possible – that's the business plan, that's what it's all about," he said.

Actually, the main reason why I called Turtur was over comments elicited by the owner of the Pro Continental team he's now, slightly ironically, chosen to invite this year, Michael Drapac believing at the time the race did little to support domestic cycling in Australia, and no doubt offended his team was snubbed when it came to riding our country's premier road cycling event.

"The Santos Tour Down Under, over 12 years, has done more to develop sport in this country than any team, State, institute or anyone else, as far as I'm concerned," Turtur said.

"So the opportunities on offer by our race are immense – not only for young, up-and-coming guys. If you go through all of them – and I mean all of them – you'll find that 99 percent have raced in our event, either with the under-23 team when we did it, or the national team. So that's a fact that should be made quite clear, apart from promoting the sport of cycling.

"(Michael) Drapac's argument about his team and what he's accused us of not doing is completely wrong. They were Pro Continental for one season (in 2007); they were given a licence when they really should not have been given a licence. I believe it was a sweetheart deal done to develop the sport here – it was the wrong decision. And they didn't have the roster or the finances. We chose not to invite them that year because simply, in my eyes, they weren't good enough. Now you can argue and toss about all you like, but at the end of the day, the (race) organiser has that choice and no-one else."

Continued Turtur: "I'm saying we've given opportunities to many, many Australians, and predominantly nearly all the (Australian) guys who have got ProTour licences have ridden in the under-23 team when we had it during those times, or the national team. And the majority of them have been identified by the ProTeams because they participated here."

"I can show you figures from the year that we were a hors-class race (2005) to the year we were ProTour (2008); the visitation, the economic benefit, the participation level in every aspect of the race went up by at least 40 percent. That's business. Now, whether he (Drapac) accepts that or not, unfortunately that's the way it is.

"If we turn around and say, 'We don't want a successful race, we want to cater for the handful of Australian teams that operate in Australia', we're going to hold back the race from getting to the highest level, (and) the race would last one year. The race would die because visitation wouldn't be there, economic benefit wouldn't be there... all the aspects that this race requires to reach, in terms of maintaining funding, would cease. Then you'll lose the race.

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"We continued on throughout the years not having participation by Australian-registered teams because during our time in those years, in my opinion, none of the Australian-registered teams were offering this race any interest, in terms of promotion or bringing extra people to the race. And secondly – more importantly, in my view – they weren't at the level required to participate at this race.
Because everyone knows during that period, from '99 to the present day, the Australian teams were barely in the development stage. It's got to another level now but still, nowhere near the American level.

"When we started (the Tour Down Under) in '99, there were no Australian registered teams worthy of a start in our race. Full stop. Zero. Even using the word 'semi-professional' would be very, very complimentary – they were just basic teams with a group of guys that were racing together with a jersey. America in '99 was vastly different: they were fully-formed, structured teams, participating in a very strong domestic program."

How times have changed.

In my opinion, Australia's domestic road scene is near par, and, if we look at the three best teams and its riders from last season's National Road Series (NRS), occasionally trumps that found in America, the UK and mainland Europe. Just look at the composite national team at this year's TDU – four of the seven riders are products of the NRS. Drapac has taken another tilt at Pro Continental level, and with a beefed-up roster, is, at least on paper, looking better than it ever has – even doing enough to convince the hard-nosed Turtur to grant them a guernsey. I, for one, will enjoy seeing how they fare against the big guns of world cycling this week.

In the wild, in the country, or in the city, animal or human, one must adapt to survive. While you may not agree with all the decisions made by the organisers since the race's reception, the Tour Down Under has adapted, moving with the times, and 15 years on, is not just surviving, but thriving. It's a tourism success story many other events and State tourism bodies envy.