On the road with the Tour Down Under
Australia's William Clarke from team UNI SA Australia. AAP Image/Benjamin Macmahon
Yesterday, I was fortunate to be invited to ride in one of the VIP Skoda Tour Down Under race cars, to experience a stage of the event from on the course with the riders, their teams and the supporting cast.
Yep, I was one of the lucky few on the road with the World Tour, just for the day, being waved at by kids, diehard cycling fans and the thousands of intrigued locals looking on (sorry, kids, no one special, just me).
But there were folks inside the car worthy of a wave. Chauffeur for the day was John Robertson, a highly experienced figure formerly behind pro-tour team Barloworld, team manager of the South African national team, who now spends each Le Tour in the cavalcade giving a lucky few an insider’s look at the great race.
Then there was Phil Anderson, the first Australian to don the leader’s yellow jersey at Le Tour. Not bad guides.
We were ahead of the race when it left Lobethal in the Adelaide Hills, following the events behind on race radio – every breakaway, time updates at regular intervals, even which riders required assistance from their team car.
Wildcard team UniSA’s Will Clarke and BMC’s Martin Kohler broke away from the start of the stage, building a big enough gap for the cavalcade to pullover and slot in behind yet ahead of the falling behind peloton, following Clarke at a speed that was far greater than I expected.
While Clarke was riding the stage of his life, eventually dropping Kohler, the peloton, who were out of sight to us from before the start of the stage till the finish, were having an easy day gasbagging amongst themselves, according to Anderson.
Riding in the car and driving through the townships, with their inevitable climbs, twists and turns through the Adelaide Hills, you gain a real appreciation of the task pro riders face. And Stage 2 was relatively tame compared to what’s coming today and tomorrow, where the climbs are steeper and the stages more laborious with much hotter weather expected.
Clarke, despite having a helicopter above, dozens of cars immediately behind and an occasional visit from his team car, was alone out the front for most of the stage. He seemed like such a lonely figure, as I started to feel guilty watching on from an air-conditioned car as his solitary ride went on and on.
What a psychological and physical toll such an effort would take out of you. At that moment, watching him attack a relatively easy stage yet feeling his pain, I thought, weirdly, of doping in the sport (that familiar black cloud that hangs over cycling) and I could understand why riders, faced with so much more difficult stages with far greater rewards at stake, resorted to it.
Moving on, seeing how the whole show functioned from within was just as impressive as the riders’ efforts – the logistics involved in a 148km stage on held public roads. Yesterday’s stage visited the following townships within the space of a few hours: Lobethal, Gumeracha, Birdwood, Mt Torrens, Charleston, Cudlee Creek, Lenswood, Woodside, Balhannah, Oakbank, Ambleside, Hahndorf, Mylor, Aldgate, Bradbury, Stirling, not to mention their connecting roads.
Most of the roads aren’t even closed. Policemen on motorbikes lead the cavalcade, clearing the roads of any traffic (everything from tractors, to buses, to taxis (hope they turned off the meter!) to thousands of bicycles of all shapes and makes). Yet they have between 30 to 50 cars and about the same number of motorbikes, from the teams, race judges, VIPs, media, police and more, not forgetting the 100-plus riders often split in parts – breakaways, the peloton and everything in between – to navigate through towns that are dots on the map with one major road if they’re lucky.
Seeing this organised chaos in person was staggering, from the start-line and the teams unpacking the gear from tiny vans, riders squeezed in basically on top of each other, bikes worth tens of thousands of euros scattered en masse along fences within touching distance of the crowd as riders geared up, to the whole procession winding its ways through the stage with thousands lining the streets. And this was nothing on the chaos that is Le Tour, my hosts stressed throughout the day.
Crowds of four to five deep along the finishing straight at Stirling highlighted cycling’s great strength; its ability to come to country areas that, given their remoteness and size, often miss out on major events – sporting or otherwise – with a free event the public can get close to and, with their own bikes, all but participate in it in their own way.
Upon seeing the Stirling finish ahead of the peloton, Anderson predicted Clarke would survive for a career breakthrough win – one of those riders on the periphery of the sport but given opportunities in home event’s.
Clarke had built a lead of over 11 minutes, although, as inevitably happens with breaks, the peloton organises itself and certain teams, protecting their own interests, set the pace at the front to hunt down the leader. What of that psychological toll I spoke about earlier if he had lost out with a stage win in sight? Happens all the time.
But sure enough, Clarke survived by a minute at stage’s end – the crowd, most probably not knowing Clarke from the lycra-clad lads amongst them in the crowds, were just happy that an Australian riding for a local team had won the stage.
Overall impressions of the day? How unique, intricate and complex pro-cycling can be, while still appealing to fans with its universality.
I’ll never see the sport in the same way again.
Adrian Musolino is editor of V8X Magazine, and has written as an expert on The Roar since 2008, cementing himself as a key writer who can see the big picture in sport. He freelances on other forms of motorsport, football, cycling and more.