Australian Michael Matthews has just missed out on a podium finish at his maiden Tour of Flanders, won by unfancied Italian Alberto Bettiol.
Chris Froome is coming to Melbourne to race at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour. This is massive news for the race, and for the profile of cycling in the Australian media. It’s a promoter’s dream – the reigning Tour de France champion in a humble Victorian stage race!
The Jayco Herald Sun Tour is the oldest, but least prestigious – according to the UCI – of the three big races in Australian cycling’s summer.
It starts on February 3, just a couple of days after the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race (January 31) which itself follows the Tour Down Under (January 19-24).
Froome’s Team Sky will be racing both the Tour Down Under and the Cadel race, but the Tour champ will sit them out, saving himself until the last.
But why would the Tour de France champion travel halfway across the world to roll around with a bunch of Continental teams, in a (relatively) lowly race?
Don’t get me wrong, the Jayco Herald Sun Tour – or just the Sun Tour, if you’ve been around a while – is an important race on the Australian cycling calendar, and it has a great history going all the way back to 1952.
But in the present day it’s a UCI 2.1 race, plonked at the very beginning of the road season. It’s a useful shop window for up-and-coming local riders like Nathan Haas or Calvin Watson, whose victories in 2011 and 2013 provided a springboard into the World Tour. Also, it’s an ideal chance for local riders to test themselves against a smattering of internationals.
But the Tour de France champion? Surely he’s above all this? Wouldn’t the Tour Down Under be a better race?
Not necessarily. Froome generally likes to show good early-season form at the Tour of Oman, which he has won twice, and which comes just two weeks after the Sun Tour, but four weeks after the Tour Down Under. Four weeks’ gap is too big to provide a proper tune-up for Oman.
The Tour Down Under also brings an undeniably higher intensity than the Sun Tour, and more international scrutiny. Far better to ease back into racing, away from the attention of the global cycling press (most of whom will be in the Middle East covering the Dubai Tour in the first week of February).
The race route for the Sun Tour will present enough challenges, particularly Stages 1 and 2, which both roll through the beautiful hills around Warburton – the area will be very familiar to any Melburnian rider worth their salt – and Stage 4, with its three climbs of Arthur’s Seat. And yet the stages are short, by World Tour standards.
The warm weather will be a much better preparation than training in Europe, the scenery and food will be a highlight, and with Team Sky likely to spend half the year at altitude in the bored seclusion of Tenerife, I’m sure he’s in no rush to go there.
Sky have no Australian riders on their squad for the first time in the team’s history, but a visit from Froome will more than satisfy the local branches of the team’s sponsors – Jaguar dealers around the country will already be shaving down in preparation.
Chuck in a couple of weeks seeing the sights, training in the hills around Adelaide, perhaps a trip to the Victorian alps for a look at our best climbs, and it’s easy to see how a visit to the Jayco Herald Sun Tour strikes a perfect balance between training camp, easing into early-season racing, and pleasing the team’s backers and fans.
The bigger picture is that cycling, our humble little sport, now has a fighting chance of holding its own in the nation’s sports bulletins and newspapers for a solid three-week block at the height of summer.
This is great news for sponsors, TV broadcasters, team owners, racers and even your average recreational rider who just wishes more people understood.
It means casual fans who watch the Tour but not much else will come down after work in Melbourne’s CBD to watch the prologue, see one of their heroes up close, and see some great bike racing in person. They might even make the trip down to Arthur’s Seat for the finale, to see him climbing and soak up the atmosphere with the local cognoscenti.
Every NRS rider with ambitions of making the leap to the pro peloton will be licking his lips at the prospect. If Froome sometimes rides like a man fighting an octopus, wouldn’t you love a chance to be the octopus?
It’s fantastic news all round. Race director John Trevorrow must be pinching himself.
Should we expect Froome to arrive in top form and blow everyone away? I wouldn’t count on it, he’s obviously got much bigger octopuses to fight, but just having such a global superstar on the start list is one of the best things ever to happen to the Jayco Herald Sun Tour.
Don’t miss it.