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.
Tour Down Under race director Mike Turtur has one of the hardest jobs in Australian sport.
Sure, he runs one of the best organised sporting events you’ll find, but each year he faces a massive challenge – one that only ever gets tougher.
Somehow, Turtur has to find ways to maintain the vitality and thus the longevity of the Tour by varying a race route which is constrained by a number of realities.
The restrictions are largely of Turtur’s own making, but they define the Tour Down Under. Yesterday we discovered his plans for 2016.
If you’re familiar with Australia’s premier stage race, there’s lots about next year’s parcours that you’ll recognise. As tradition now dictates, there’s the Sunday night curtain-raiser criterium in Adelaide’s east end, the stage finish into Stirling, the always titanic tussle on Old Willunga Hill, and the final-day sprint though the heart of the city.
So no real changes there, except for an extra loop through Stirling. If you’re planning to be roadside for the final 100 kilometres of Stage 2, then you’ll see the riders pass you five times.
Turtur could easily change any of those stages, but they’ve proven so successful why would anyone want to?
The Stirling stage has been likened to a mini world championship course, while Willunga Hill, despite the lack of altitude, offers a summit finish as atmospheric as any at the Tour de France.
Turtur calls the final day the TDU’s version of the Champs-Elysees, as the sprinters vie for glory on the wide expanses of King William Road, which borders Adelaide’s sports and cultural hub alongside the river Torrens.
The other limitations are logistical. A stage can’t start or end more than two hours’ drive from Adelaide as the riders must stay in one hotel for the entire race, and Turtur must take the peloton to all the major tourist regions in that two-hour time zone.
That leaves him with three stages to design the subtle changes that stop the TDU from becoming stale.
Stage 1, which in the past few years has ended in the Barossa Valley, offers change by finishing for the first time in the small town of Lyndoch. Turtur again utilises the loop design to give fans more than just one fleeting glance of the race, with three 27-kilometre laps on roads that only really flatten out in the final kilometres.
Another good way to change things up is to find new roads for the riders to traverse, and in 2016’s 781.3-kilometre race, riders will see more than 70 kilometres for the first time – particularly during Stages 2 and 3.
If you’ve ever ridden in Adelaide, and you like climbing, then you’ll know there are a few famous ‘bergs’ close to the city.
The menacing 14 per cent slopes of the Corkscrew is one. In its two previous appearances 2013 and 2014, the Corkscrew – named because of its four tight hairpins – has created some timeless images; none better than Cadel Evans’ win in 2014.
(The Corkscrew has also provided a devastating reality check for hacks like me who simply watch in astonishment when the pros summit this climb in half the time I spend labouring up it.)
One of the other must-do climbs is Norton Summit. Head out on any weekend and you’ll see riders of all ages tackling this 5.5-kilometre climb on the fringes of suburban Adelaide.
It’s nowhere as steep as the Corkscrew, averaging 4.8 per cent, and once past the first 750 metres – where you’ll find the steepest sections (8-10 per cent) – the gradient is consistent and manageable.
Damien Howson (Orica-GreenEDGE) holds the climb record, at 11.29, but given it begins just 300 metres after Race Neutral ends, his time could well be challenged.
Regardless, to see 130 cyclists tackle a climb that so many Adelaide riders consider a rite of passage will be a spectacular sight.
Norton Summit is part of Stage 4, which is also the BUPA Community ride where an estimated 7000 riders will get to ride the route ahead of the race. At 138 kilometres, the distance is not too daunting, but the route – beginning with Norton Summit and then heading south to the finish on the Esplanade at Victor Harbour – is one of the best we’ve seen for a while.
Mike Turtur may have his challenges in keeping the Tour Down Under route fresh, but he looks to have managed it easily for 2016.