Aspects of some races are done better in one place than in others and there’s a lot to be learnt for organisers and promoters of cycling in Australia.
Best Elite Racing:
If you’re looking for a race-long spectacle that includes interesting tactics, attacking moves and situations where teams and riders are placed under extreme pressure, it’s the less prestigious races that offer the best viewing.
The FedUni Road National Championships consistently turns in memorable events across the whole spectrum of racing levels and disciplines. The Jayco Herald Sun Tour was lit up by attacking racing, contained a gruelling finish with a gravel climb that offered tremendous viewing and featured breakaways that actually had an impact on the outcome.
What do these races have in common? They both feature a variety of teams, from national and Continental teams, all the way up to WorldTour squads. Sure, there is an imbalance in the talent of the teams, but what that imbalance creates is a situation where the lesser teams have to attack to beat the teams with the best riders.
If I was instructing a friend to watch the Santos Tour Down Under (TDU), I’d tell them to watch the final 15 minutes of each stage and not much else. At the Cadel Evan’s Great Ocean road race, the day barely lit up until the final two ascents of Challambra, far too late to see meaningful splits on the course.
Whereas in the non-WorldTour events, Michael Freiberg won nationals after it was made hard for Mitchelton-Scott to get their key riders into position to win the race. At the Jayco Herald Sun Tour. Team Sky recognised they were unlikely to beat Michael Woods and Richie Porte in a straight battle and had to get creative.
I’m a proponent of adding this element to the TDU and the Cadel Evan’s Great Ocean Road Race men’s events as well. UCI rules prevent local continental teams from being given a berth at World Tour events but Pro Continental teams can be invited and could address issues with the at times predictable racing. Those teams would be much more inclined to attack to make the most of the prestigious invite and TV time they have been afforded.
With the women’s racing, however, the opposite applies. There were very few times where the domestic teams, or even the national team took up the racing to the bigger squads during the summer. A lot of that comes down to the gulf in quality between Women’s World Tour riders and those at the domestic level. Often local teams will have one rider who has the potential to match it with the highly-credentialed riders present and they go all-in for her (for instance in the case of Jaime Gunning and Specialized Women’s Racing).
Regardless of the reasons why it’s Mitchelton-Scott and the overseas WorldTour-level teams that create the action within the race. They’re only going to do that when they feel that they’ve got the chance to win, so we do get races where nothing happens until Mitchelton-Scott decide they want to put their stamp on proceedings. I’m all in favour of giving domestic teams the chance to race against the big teams and offering local riders a spotlight, but that means giving yourself the chance to win something and not just rolling around on the back of the peloton.
The king of the hill in this regard is the TDU. No other race approaches the festival atmosphere of Adelaide during the first WorldTour race of the year, and while the numbers roadside were clearly down this year, the race itself is arguably secondary to what is just a fun experience in and around the village for people who like to ride.
Other events haven’t been ignorant of this fact, and every big race includes some sort of organised mass participation ride adjacent to the main game. The thing that makes the TDU the must-go event isn’t the organised rides, but the fact you can hop into any old bunch and be riding the spectacular Adelaide hills in less than an hour.
That’s hard for the other events to replicate and it’s the product of decades of continuity from a race that has established itself as a premier festival of cycling, not just elite level racing.
The best community engagement you see is when events are held in locations that are well-known by the local cyclists and are also near to population hubs. When the Herald Sun Tour went to Arthur’s Seat, or in past years Kinglake, both of which are cycling magnets for local bunch rides, riders flocked to the side of the road. When the race went into Churchill this year, with an exciting finish in the offing, next to no one was present.
Of course, hub races, races based out a single location, are going to be more successful in this regard than others, with travel requirements a significant dampener on cycling tourism. Currently, the Herald Sun Tour is the only non-hub race.
The Nationals are perhaps showing the biggest signs of positivity in its recent growth. New events have been added to engage fans outside the racing, more racing events across age groups and para-cycling have increased participation and the Mt Buninyong loop is now established as a famous course that is a near must-do as a cyclist.
I personally get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing Sarah Gigante and Michael Freiberg upstage the better-known riders in Australian cycling, but watching sport is only relevant to most people in its ability to tell a narrative that people understand. Even casual cycling fans understand the difference between when a Richie Porte, Peter Sagan or Elia Viviani takes a win, less so when Nick White wins against two other under 23 riders.
It tells a familiar story, with established characters that we’ve seen doing the same thing in the biggest races in the world. Sure, those stars come to Australia at 70 per cent of their normal level, but stars are important in determining the legitimacy of a race.
Alistair Donohoe’s ride to hold on for fourth on the queen stage of the Herald Sun Tour wouldn’t have been so remarkable if he hadn’t held on in front of Michael Woods, Kenny Elissonde and Lucas Hamilton, riders who will be up there in Grand Tours this season. Or the potential of Chris Harper or Jenna Merrick isn’t easy to realise unless you have that yardstick of the top-level riders present.
I believe the biggest names get paid to be out here, but how much is a closely guarded secret. Richie Porte hasn’t been out to the Herald Sun Tour since 2011, but came this year and did a lot of tie-in publicity for the event, even with a column published under his name daily in the Herald Sun. I doubt that happened because he felt like turning up to the race this year.
The same can be said for Peter Sagan, he came out for the TDU but not Cadel’s, which would offer the three-time world champion a lot better chance at winning. Cadel’s get its pulling power from its titular star, I doubt they feel the need to pay high-profile riders to turn up.
The Nationals suffers the most from a lack of star power. There was no Caleb Ewan for the criteriums this year and no Richie Porte or Michael Matthews at all. There’s no easy fix for Cycling Australia in this regard, you can’t bring in foreign stars and I don’t think anyone would argue that it would be a smart use of the budget to do so.
The main pillars of the Australian cycling season are now well-established and it’s difficult to see them displaced any time soon. The surrounding cast of races are in a bit more of a precarious position.
The Bay Crits:
I didn’t go to the Bay Crits this year, its return to the calendar after a year off in 2018, but I was informed by a number of sources - and also observed via the live stream - that it wasn’t particularly well supported. Attendance had fallen markedly in the past few years preceding the hiatus, which also coincided with the inaugural running of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, which is now the premier event based out of Geelong.
The race has its place as a warm-up for nationals, but with criteriums and short circuit races present at all the other the other major events of the summer, the format is feeling a little tired.
Track Exhibition Event:
The track exhibition event during the TDU was gauged a success. A good crowd turned up, the events were competitive and gave the fans a chance to watch some of the best track athletes in the world race and enjoy the experience of racing in front of crowds that they only see at a Commonwealth or Olympic games.
Towards Zero Race Melbourne:
This year saw a different format for the race, unfortunately that wasn’t promoted publicly and the day itself was an absolute stinker with temperatures over 40 Degrees Celsius. The weather certainly had an effect on the reduced crowds, and it picked up a little in the evening, but the event has yet to find purchase within the sport-crazed city of Melbourne.
I count myself as a pretty keen follower of the local races, but I along with my colleagues in the media were entirely blindsided by the format change, only finding out when we turned up and had a look through the technical guides.
It was one that had a positive impact and is different to a normal circuit race which could find a foothold. There’s been the idea of a course change floated by the organisers and that would be a good idea, with the Albert Park circuit not designed for compelling racing.
Various Zwift virtual racing events:
I went to a few of these events. I watched Andrew McCosker from domestic team Phoenix Cycle Collective from their accommodation in Ballarat attempt the Zwift nationals, then I watched the 10km event they staged with a number of the best local cyclists in Adelaide.
It’s a very different event from a spectator’s point of view, there’s no sensation of speed, positioning or bike handling. Instead it’s all effort and you get to see it writ large on the competitor’s faces, up close and personal.
Without the commentators I would have been lost to what was happening in the race. Maybe there needs to be some sort of isolation system for racing, as it was quite confusing when watching the screens and trying to work out who was in the race, and who was just someone riding the community course.
The summer of cycling will extend on a few weeks from here, the six-day event and the Melbourne to Warrnambool are still to be run. Maybe those events can establish themselves as staples of the Australian summer calendar in the future. If so, they would do well to learn from what the current events do well and where they fall short.