Five months have passed since Rohan Dennis abandoned the Tour de France in mysterious circumstances, climbing off the bike seemingly without cause during stage 12, the day before the race’s major time trial.
The racing in this year’s Tour Down Under has been as good as I can remember. As always race director Mike Turtur made only subtle changes to the course, but his judgement was again spot on as those subtle changes proved decisive.
Every day we saw something unexpected from the break that stayed away on Stage One to Stage 6, where the world’s premier sprinter Marcel Kittel failed once again to win on a day tailor-made for him.
We learned about both riders and the race.
The addition of a second uphill finish (Stage 3) to complement the traditional Saturday finish in Willunga was perfect. Only 1.25 kilometres in length with an average nine per cent gradient, you don’t want a climb any longer than this otherwise the time gaps will be too big. This is the stage that put the cat among the pigeons and cost pretty much anyone who’d made a bet on the TDU podium from collecting their money.
We learned more about Rohan Dennis who confirmed his status as yet another rising star of Australian Cycling. We’d seen him at the Tour of California taking out high mountain stages. We’ve seen him on the track, dominating like so many Australian riders have. And we’ve seen him show glimpses of his potential mat previous Tours Down Under.
But his blistering attack from being one of the last onto the Torrens Hill Road climb to winning the stage and with it the race lead showed what Dennis really had in his locker.
And then on Saturday when he cajoled every last ounce of energy to cling on to his race lead at the top of Willunga Hill. It was a remarkable display of fight and will power to prevent a rampaging Richie Porte winning not only the stage but also the race. Just two seconds was the margin.
Speaking of Richie Porte. Is this finally going to be his year? The Tasmanian has started off 2015 in blistering fashion with a win in the National Time Trial Championships followed by his incredible win at Willunga and second place at the TDU.
To see Porte accelerate on three separate occasions to firstly shake off the peloton, then Cadel Evans and finally Rohan Dennis was just immense. Hopefully Porte isn’t peaking too early. His race weight is already dangerously low and he’ll need physical reserves for later in the year. If he can maintain his form though, Evans may soon not be the only Australian with a Grand Tour title to his name.
Which segues nicely to Cadel and his final World Tour race. Clearly not able to match it with his younger opponents in Grand Tours or stage races – though not too far off it either – Cadel is leaving the sport at the right time.
Maybe he could’ve refocused and just raced the one-day races and Classics for a couple of years, but BMC weren’t interested in that option for Cadel and so he will leave the sport as a rider on February 1.
Personally I’m glad we’re seeing him go now while he is still competitive. It’s too often that you see champions go on a year too long, and Cadel won’t be doing that to us. Thanks Cadel for memories that will never be forgotten.
Nor shall we forget the efforts of Jack Bobridge. He defied the odds on Tuesday to win Stage 1 of the TDU, and then rode 129 kilometres in a three-man break on Saturday to all but win the King of the Mountain Classification. Defying his rheumatoid arthritis and seemingly disregarding the toll this week’s effort might have on his World Hour Record attempt next week, Bobridge is as exciting to watch as any rider I can think of. He only knows one way and that is to get stuck in.
We learned about the incredible depth in Australian cycling. If the past golden generation (Evans, McEwen, O’Grady, and Rogers et al) wasn’t exciting enough, the list of riders rising through the ranks is quite simply frightening. Aside from Bobridge and Dennis, plus Caleb Ewan and Michael Matthews who didn’t even race at the TDU, there’s (in no particular order) Campbell Flakemore, Jack Haig, Calvin Watson and Robert Power who all made an impression on the race.
Then there’s Steele von Hoff and Will Clarke who showed (again) that they both deserve to be riding in World Tour teams.
In terms of the racing we learned that the stages probably are a little too short. 150 to 160 kilometres is probably long enough in January, but the 130 to 140-kilometre races are perhaps a little too short. What we see with the shorter stages is more riders arriving in good condition at the finish line, creating faster sprints and the potential for more crashes.
The sprint into Mount Barker when Heinrich Haussler clipped the wheel of Lorenzo Manzin and brought down around 20 riders in a spectacular bingle was faster than sprints at the Tour de France. Some riders were doing 82km/h when they crashed. At le Tour, the speeds generally are between 60 to 70km/h, essentially because everyone is so much more tired due to the longer stages.
Mike Turtur can fix this either by making the stages a little longer or putting a slight incline into his finishes so that the speed backs off a little. But Turtur maintains what happens to the riders is down to them.
“The race is only made hard by the riders. The terrain and the roads we use are moderate due to the time of year,” he said.
“Every time I drop the red flag, the first thing they do is attack. The riders make the race hard. If we made the race 200 kilometres, with harder climbs, it would kill the race. I think we got the balance right.”
And when it comes to balance, we need a combination of international and Australian success.
We need to see Aussie riders, regardless of whether it’s a Cadel level star or an up-and-comer here and racing at their peak. It keeps the general interest sports fans interested in cycling and helps to make the sport more mainstream.
But we also need to see the international riders wining here too. Success for them is much harder because of the climatic challenges they must suddenly overcome when arriving here in mid-summer.
Success for the internationals will help attract the big names Down Under and even though some of them might not be big names now, in a few years’ time we can look back and say, things like, ‘Hey, did you know Alberto Contador won a stage at The Down Under once!’
And finally, in 2016, do we really need to see podium girls at the Tour Down Under? This race is so good in so many ways, but what do the podium girls add to the Tour Down Under apart from a few smudges of lipstick the day’s winner must clean away.
Our premier bike race could really set a precedent and do away with this tradition.