The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
Orica-GreenEDGE may have won the Jayco Herald-Sun Tour on Sunday, completing the nationals, Tour Down Under (TDU) and Sun Tour treble, but things didn’t go exactly to plan.
Everything was set up for a triumphant finish, a chance for their leader to stamp his authority on the race with a strong performance on the steep slopes of Arthurs Seat and claim a deserved victory.
Sadly, Simon was robbed of the chance by the cancellation of the tour’s queen stage, an entirely correct decision by the race organisers which is nevertheless a massive shame for everyone concerned.
Of course, we’re talking about Simon Clarke rather than Simon Gerrans, perhaps an unexpected outcome but nevertheless a fair reward for a rider who has played a strong supporting role for his team throughout the Australian series. His attack in the national championships detonated that breakaway and paved the way for Gerrans to win.
The overall victory in the Sun Tour is a fair reward for his work.
Clarke has spent half the summer in breakaways, and it was about time that one paid off for him.
His attack from the break on stage 2 from Ballarat to Bendigo wasn’t the biggest win of his career – he won stage 4 of the 2012 Vuelta a Espana after a long breakaway with Tony Martin, who he defeated in a sprint – but it still required some serious strength and a canny finish.
The minute he gained on that stage would almost certainly have been enough for Clarke on Arthurs Seat, given his talents as a climber.
His only real competition would have come from the gregarious Cameron Wurf, better known as a man for drilling it on the front for hours than as a punchy climber, and the talented but green Jack Haig.
So it’s fair to say Clarke was robbed of an opportunity to enjoy his overall victory with a strong performance on a stage that should have suited him.
Given Simon Gerrans’ history as a consummate team player, it’s difficult to imagine he would be anything other than stoked for his teammate, despite perhaps a touch of disappointment at missing the chance to claim an historic treble.
I really enjoyed seeing 2011 winner Nathan Haas winning a stage and leading the race. Throughout 2012 he had the air of a rider who can’t quite believe he’s made the big time with Garmin-Sharp, but he seemed out of sorts in 2013.
The signs for Haas in 2014 are already positive: he looks in great form and seems to have his mojo back.
The performance of Jack Haig (perhaps Australia’s next great ‘former mountain biker’) was worth taking note of. He was the only rider able to go with Clarke and Cameron Wurf in the stage 2 break. That’s particularly impressive for a 20-year-old.
Another young guy who surprised the more experienced pros to win stage 3 was Robert-John McCarthy, riding for the Jayco-AIS U23 team. He’s just 19.
Between Clarke’s overall victory and the efforts of McCarthy and Haig, it seems like the Sun Tour fulfilled one of its functions: give Australia’s up-and-coming talent the chance to race with and learn from some of the world’s best.
Despite this, my overall impressions of this Sun Tour are mixed.
The prologue along the Yarra was an excellent touch, bringing the race right into the eyeline of Melbourne’s sporting public.
Anyone who cycles in Melbourne’s CBD will recognise the irony of staging a race past Federation Square and then along Southbank, as on ordinary days these are two of the worst possible examples of how to bring cyclists into conflict with pedestrians.
Fortunately the race organisers had cleared the area of oblivious tourists and surly office workers before it was time to drop the hammer.
Seeing riders flying across Princes Bridge, where the recent installation of a dedicated bike lane caused shock-jock apoplexy on some of Melbourne’s angrier talkback stations, was worth more giggles.
Overall, the short, sharp prologue in the evening sunshine was a great start to Victoria’s premier stage race, and I hope it stays.
But the rest of the parcours was overly similar to last year. The repeat visits to Geelong and Ballarat might demonstrate that race organisers are leaning too heavily on their contacts in those regions: between the Bay Crits and the National Championships, those two towns seem to feature in every major bike race in the state.
I’m also not convinced the stage based around Gerry Ryan’s Mitchelton winery near Nagambie doesn’t leverage his synergies just a touch further than is necessary.
It’s wonderful that cycling promoters have built good relationships with the local authorities, but it would be great to have some more variety.
Perhaps some stages around the Victorian High Country, the King Valley, through Gippsland, or the Yarra Ranges would help keep the race fresh.
The cancellation of the final stage on Arthurs Seat robbed the race of its best asset.
It was absolutely the right call.
Sunday was one of those nightmare late-summer bushfire days in Victoria. Stretched emergency services simply had higher priorities than supervising a bike race.
I enjoyed the race’s new spot on the calendar: riders were fresher than the old October slot, and the international teams sent better riders. This is great for the profile of the race.
Overall, it was a worthy but unlucky edition of this famous race, but there’s still room to tweak the formula and really make it into a great event.