New calendar position heralds a new beginning for Suntour

Jono Lovelock Columnist

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Stuart O'Grady, centre, says GreenEDGE is crucial for Australian cycling. (AAP Image/Benjamin Macmahon)

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Tradition tells us a tale of one race but two very different experiences. For the European professionals, it was the ‘Fun’ tour. The end of season junket.

On the other hand, for the domestic teams it was the pinnacle of their season. They had been itching to race above and beyond their regular domestic races all season.

With the enthusiasm of a 1st round draft pick thrown straight into the fray, they were keen to have a crack at the big boys.

And so the story would unfold.

The Pros would be out having drinks the night before each stage amid a sea of smiles and back slapping. To the shock and frustration of the local riders, all of us abiding by our monk lifestyles, the previous night’s festivities only hardened the resolve of the big boys to teach us all a lesson the next day.

During the 2008 Sun Tour, I became witness to Stuart O’Grady and his ability to ‘celebrate’ on the drinks at night but still comprehensively decimate on the pedals during the day.

It was the stuff legends are made of.

Aside from a chance for the Euro pros to let their hair down it also provided the domestic teams with the chance to garner experience, exposure and results.

For any Australian sponsor, this was the best chance you had to get true national and international coverage.

A victim of its own success, the Tour Down Under (TDU) has grown to a World Tour status whereby any of the local continental registered teams (think Drapac, Budget or Huon-Genesys) cannot even start.

So the Sun Tour became the Holy Grail for local teams looking to please their sponsors; nightly TV highlights, daily coverage in the tabloids.

It was big.

Alas the Sun Tour has come under hard times. As cycling has globalised and moved into China with the Tour of Beijing and the ‘proposed’ Tour of Hangzhou, a clash has arisen that means the Sun Tour has no chance of attracting the big teams.

Faced with the trade-off between becoming obsolete in October or fighting for space in a jam packed January, the race now finds itself plonked in a less than ideal position.

The New Year will be less than 24 hours old before the Bay criteriums kick off in Geelong.

These heated races will capture hearts, minds and collarbones for three intense days.

All the while teams will be facing selection trade-offs between who to race and when to race them because the Herald Sun Tour now begins on the same day that the Bay Criteriums finish.

Then in a half-hearted anaemic version of its former self, the Sun Tour will mosey along for three days after the initial prologue and finish without its normal Lygon St circuit race. But the disappointments don’t stop there.

It has no UCI status meaning that there will be no Orica-GreenEDGE, Garmin or Saxo-Tinkoff. The domestic teams can chase results, but without UCI points as reward, what will local riders have to show for it?

The whole thing just lacks the romance of old.

Let’s be clear, the Sun Tour had no choice but to move.

It certainly doesn’t appear, however, to be getting much of a helping hand in its new calendar position.

As a precursor to the TDU, it has the potential to be huge. Imagine all of the teams coming out to contest the Sun Tour as a warm up race before the TDU. The cycling fans would get a two for one deal and the domestic riders would be again be given the chance to show their wares against the world’s best.

So what’s holding it back? Is the downfall of the Sun Tour a result of corruption, incompetence, or just the culmination of bad circumstances?

Long story short; Mike Turtur was the Oceania president and he is the TDU race organisor.

Many people believe he had a hand in making sure the Sun Tour did not overshadow his race.

Further accusations hold Turtur responsible for holding back the whole Oceania region. There was definitely a conflict.

Holding one man to blame, however, for the demise of a cycling ‘region’ populated by such cycling powers as Guam and Fiji seems a bit over the top.

At the end of the day the logistics of a bike race make the mind boggle.

Police permits, council permits, road closures, transport arrangements, state sponsors, regional sponsors, government approval, TV rights, accommodation packages and so on. Most of us have enough trouble coordinating a family Christmas party let alone an international cycling tour.

There are that many parties to please that ticking all the boxes to ensure that a more traditional Sun Tour in a new January position may just be impossible. So for the time being, compromise we shall.

But this article is not just about having a whinge. It’s about having a review, a look back and now a look forward.

The Sun Tour has been a part of Australian cycling history for over half a century. Its honour roll does little but affirm the heritage of this race; Neil Stephens, Baden Cooke, Simon Gerrans, Bradley Wiggins and most recently; Nathan Haas.

Yeah sure, it’s been pushed around. And yeah sure it’s not quite what it used to be.

But who’s to say that this new beginning cannot grow the Sun Tour back to its former glory?

January is the month of Cycling in Australia.

I believe we need a few things to go our way, but with the right circumstance the race will be big yet again. We need the new Oceania President Tracey Gaudry to settle for nothing but a return to UCI status for the Suntour.

And we the fans, need to get out and show that we love this race.

So on Sunday the 6th of January, you could be anywhere. So why not be on the slopes of Arthur’s seat with a bike, maybe a bratwurst and definitely a beer, whilst some of the best riders suffer on by.

Show the riders we care. Show the sponsors we care. And show the UCI that we care.

The next winner of the Sun Tour will be crowned and I’m sure a great day will be had by all.

I know I’ll be there. Who else is coming along for the ride?

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