• A local affair last year... But the Tour Down Under needs a big-name foreign rider or two to remain relevant. (AAP)Source: AAP
Outside of home-grown talent, this year's Tour Down Under's start list is bereft of a headline-grabbing foreign rider. Anthony Tan wonders if the race has become a victim of its own success.
Cycling Central
15 Jan 2016 - 2:51 PM  UPDATED 15 Jan 2016 - 3:15 PM

Have you been wondering why, in recent years, there's been a notable absence of Giro d'Italia and Tour de France contenders at the Tour Down Under - while over in Argentina at the Tour de San Luis, run concurrently with the first event on the WorldTour calendar and celebrating its tenth edition this year, they've already hosted the likes of Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana, Joaquím Rodríguez, Ivan Basso, Levi Leipheimer, Frank Schleck, Jurgen Van den Broeck and Tejay van Garderen?

"From 2008 to 2015, if you finished on the Paris podium, you weren't in South Australia in mid-January."

This year is no different - Nibali, Quintana, Rafal Majka, Andrew Talansky, Michele Scarponi, Jean-Christophe Péraud and Alexis Vuillermoz grace the 2016 line-up at the seven-day Tour de San Luis. They've also got a guy called Peter Sagan in attendance. Local hero and two-time champion, Daniel Díaz, will also be there: in 2013 he bested van Garderen (2nd GC, at 33 seconds), Contador (4th at 1'02) and Van den Broeck (5th at 1'47); last year he won two stages en route to another overall victory, defeating Tour de France runner-up Quintana, who finished 3rd at 1'34.

When I went through the Tour Down Under archives, I discovered that since 2008, when the race became part of the WorldTour (which happened to coincide with all three Grand Tours extricating themselves from the very same calendar, together with a bunch of the best one-day races), not one Tour de France podium finisher rode the Tour Down Under in the same year.

That's right: from 2008 to 2015, if you finished on the Paris podium, you weren't in South Australia in mid-January.

And, save for 2012, not one Giro d'Italia podium place-getter rode the TDU. Though you would have barely noticed 2012 Giro winner and third place overall, Ryder Hesjedal and Thomas De Gendt, were there: they plodded along to 39th and 58th overall, 4'17 and 18'41 behind Simon Gerrans, who that year scored the second of his three TDU titles.

The reasons are several, however I think that for those aiming high in May or July, with a full complement of WorldTour teams and the bar raised in terms of the level of competition, it's primarily a case of too much too soon, not to mention too far unless you're an Antipodean.

So, if the Tour Down Under is not suitable for Grand Tour riders, is it a place where the Spring Classics strongmen go to hone their form?

Well, since 2008, not one winner of Paris-Roubaix or the Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) rode the TDU in the same year.

Out of the podium place-getters, only Alessandro Ballan (currently serving a two-year suspension for the use or attempted use of banned substances, and sacked by BMC Racing as a result), third at both the 2012 editions of Roubaix and Flanders, and Jürgen Roelandts, third at the 2013 Ronde, rode the TDU the same year they achieved success on the stones that define the cobbled Classics.

However, similar to Hesjedal and De Gendt, Ballan was conspicuous by his absence of winning form in 2012, never once cracking the top-10 on any stage, though finishing a not unrespectable 24th on GC, 2'36 behind Gerrans. Roelandts, too, never made the top-10 throughout the 2013 TDU - though did work well with team-mate Greg Henderson to set up their sprinter André Greipel for his hat-trick of stage wins.

Speaking of Greipel, it's worth noting that last year, when he decided to skip the TDU to be good from Milan-San Remo through to Roubaix, the German enjoyed his best-ever Spring Classics campaign. "This has proved to be the right choice so we want to do the same," Mario Aerts, sport director for Lotto-Soudal at the Tour Down Under, said. "André will start the competition at the end of the month at the Challenge Mallorca."

It's not really designed to be a warm-up race for Classics contenders - that's what Mallorca and the Tour of Qatar is for - but San Luis has already welcomed Sagan, Mark Cavendish, Tom Boonen and Michal Kwiatkowski...

The point I'm trying to make is Grand Tour rider, Classics contender or sprint star, at this time of year, there are more options than ever before. And at this time, combined with the length of the cycling season - not to mention we're in an Olympic year - it seems that, for many, easier (racing, and/or less distance travelled) is better.

Of course, it would be remiss not mention the power of money. The TDU paid Lance Armstrong at least a million bucks to come to Adelaide for its 2009-11 editions. (Read: Lance Down Under: Are Armstrong's seven-figure appearance fees worth every dollar?) Chris Froome and Cavendish were most likely dangled a fat carrot to race this year's Cuddles Classic (a.k.a. the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race) and Herald Sun Tour, respectively; the TDU could do the same for a big name.

The all-Aussie showdown we had last year is great for local media outlets, but translates less well with the global cycling audience - which is what organisers need to consider and address post-haste, if the event is to remain relevant, both at a sporting and tourism level.

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