Sunday night marked the start of the 17th Tour Down Under, a race that is simply a stunning success story.
Each year, well over half a million people flock to the side city and country roads, clamber up hill sides and cram onto balconies to watch the peloton pass by.
About 95,000 people were in Adelaide’s East End on Sunday night to see the now traditional opening night Classic, the curtain-raiser to the Tour proper which starts on Tuesday.
As races go, the People’s Choice Classic was nothing extraordinary. It was fast and furious, and Marcel Kittel justified his pre-race favouritism with a blistering sprint to claim back-to-back Classic wins.
As a side note it was the fourth straight year a German has won the Classic – Andre Greipel won in 2012 and 2013.
The Classic is always popular, especially with families. You can head to the East End in the early afternoon for a drink or some lunch then loll around in the parklands through which the 1.7 kilometres circuit runs, until it’s time to grab your piece of race ‘real estate’ by the fence.
An hour later it’s all over, with the live TV audience in the UK, Europe, North America, South East Asia, China and New Zealand tuning in to see images of South Australia’s beautiful capital city.
It’s a great night out and a terrific appetiser to the Tour Down Under.
In three years the Tour Down Under turns 20, an anniversary the race organisers probably never dreamt of when the plan to create the event was hatched in the mid 1990s.
Each year race director Mike Turtur strives to keep the TDU fresh by tweaking the race format. The introduction of a second climb up Old Willunga Hill was a significant alteration in 2012 and this year we have a second uphill finish – Torrens Hill Rd – albeit one that won’t be as decisive as Willunga.
In the past few years Turtur has also found new climbs to take the race over – such as Corkscrew (2013 and 2014) and this year, Checker Hill in the opposite direction to which it’s normally climbed.
The logistics that underpin the success of the Tour Down Under are also one of the reasons the format is so hard to change. The teams stay at one hotel in the Adelaide CBD. There’s a beautiful Tour Village across the road where the mechanics service the bikes in relative luxury. And, no stage starts or finishes more than two hours’ drive from Adelaide.
It’s all rather perfect, but it’s also relatively predictable, and there’s a great chance to do something really amazing.
The Tour Down Under has long modelled itself on being a mini Tour de France. Certainly in terms of organisation it’s as good as the Tour and ultimately that’s what everyone wants, good organisation.
But something else the Tour de France has is the Grand Depart.
Each year, countries from around Europe bid to host the opening few stages of Le Tour, and it’s always a massive success. Last year’s Grand Depart in Yorkshire and Cambridge drew nearly five million people to the roadside and pumped plenty more into the local economy.
This year, Utrecht in the Netherlands hosts a prologue and the opening road stage before the race heads towards France. So what’s to stop the Tour Down Under having its own Grand Depart?
Clearly it can’t be multiple stages in another country, but it could be the Classic in another city. Just imagine, 133 bike riders racing a loop around Circular Quay and Darling Harbour before finishing outside the Sydney Opera House. Maybe, they could even ride across the Harbour Bridge.
On the weekend before the traditional Tuesday start in Adelaide, why couldn’t another Australian city host the Grand Depart of the Tour Down Under? The Classic is usually held on Sunday, but if travel is an issue, run it on the Saturday.
Why not? The teams can still come to Adelaide to train as they do. It’s just a matter of getting the teams to the particular city and back again.
Yes, it sounds relatively expensive, but the city that successfully bids to host the TDU Grand Depart would meet all the costs, so there should be no problem. And a bid process would bring a few extra bucks into the South Australia’s economy, which can’t be a bad thing.
Sydney, as our most famous city, would probably want first dibs at a TDU Grand Depart, and with so many famous landmarks it seems an obvious choice. And if that were to happen, no doubt other cities would like to host a Grand Depart as well.
The beauty of it is that we don’t have to have another city host a Grand Depart every year. It could be every second year, or whenever the TDU organisers want it to. Some might say that by doing this Adelaide is taking a step towards losing the race, but surely as long as the South Australian Government and the UCI are happy, then there’s no risk.
While Sydney could host a magical Grand Depart, its geography isn’t as compact as Adelaide with the hills, beaches and city so close together. And Melbourne is in a similar position too.
Neither are as suitable as Adelaide.
The saying ‘if it ain’t broke’ is perfect for the Tour Down Under, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of innovation. The TDU’s 20th anniversary is looming large, and it represents an opportunity to do something truly spectacular.
I’m sure Mike Turtur is already thinking about what he might be able to do.