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 idea to bring around 100 of the world’s best cyclists to Adelaide for a bike race was doing laps around Mike Turtur’s brain a long time before it became a reality.
All the Tour Down Under race director needed was an opportunity.
That precious moment came in 1995, when Melbourne ‘stole’ the Formula One Grand Prix and the South Australian government set about identifying an event that could replace it.
There was an idea for a $1 million bike race from Melbourne to Adelaide, but the major events team didn’t know if it that was the answer. So it sought the opinion of the state’s highest profile cyclist at the time, 1984 Los Angeles Olympics gold medallist Mike Turtur.
He quickly dismissed the plan and instead suggested the Tour Down Under concept, a bike race based on the Tour de France model where tourism and cycling worked hand-in-hand, foot-in-pedal.
The government liked what it heard, and when the contracts were signed, determined that the Tour Down Under would be a world-class event.
And from day one it was.
The teams would stay in one of Adelaide’s best hotels, when in most other races there’s a new bed every night. Mechanics were given pristine facilities to service the bikes. And the race route was designed, like any tourism-themed event, to showcase the best sights.
That remains the case today, with Turtur’s team perfecting its craft over the years and never resting on its laurels.
It’s no easy job either.
Given the TDU’s logistical limitations, Turtur admits it’s hard to keep the race fresh. In January it can’t be too difficult for the riders, and no stage start or finish can be further than two hours’ drive from Adelaide’s CBD.
Introducing different climbs, new roads (75 kilometres for 2016), and the evolution of the TDU from a sprint-oriented race to one that mostly favours the ‘punchier’ riders have all stopped the event from going stale.
Without Turtur’s drive and passion, and a government prepared to back him unflinchingly, it’s unlikely the Tour Down Under would still exist.
There are regular rumours that Victoria is poised to steal it, but Turtur keeps delivering the goods while maintaining the premium standards he established in 1999.
The Tour Down Under is now a ‘festival of cycling’ with many supporting events, including a women’s series, and an annual ‘legends’ dinner.
It’s undeniable though that Turtur’s creation has also benefitted from simply being in the right place at the right time.
Several times a cycling ‘moment’ has significantly boosted the Tour Down Under, proving critical to its 17-year history.
Just months before the first edition in 1999, South Australian cycling fans had a new hero to worship, when Stuart O’Grady won a stage and wore the yellow jersey for three days at the Tour de France.
It was publicity Turtur could only have dreamed of, and with O’Grady working as an ambassador for the event, it gave him extra kudos in convincing riders to travel to Australia the following January.
It helped too that O’Grady won that inaugural TDU title, before triumphing again in 2001.
The TDU’s arrival coincided with a UCI push to globalise cycling. The success of those early editions, and rapid emergence of Australian riders in Europe helped cement the race’s profile.
Then in 2005, the UCI upgraded the race to 2HC, the highest rating outside Europe. Three years later, it was awarded ProTour Status, compelling all the top-tier teams to travel to Adelaide.
This decision saw the final of several adjustments to the race format, essentially giving us what we see today.
None of those changes though have been bigger than the story of Old Willunga Hill.
For the first four Tours, the Barossa Valley hosted the Queen Stage. As one of South Australia’s key tourist destinations, it’s a logical choice for a tourism event.
The McLaren Vale wine region isn’t as prestigious as the Barossa, but its proximity to some spectacular coastline and a well-known climb made it an excellent alternative.
So Willunga Hill graduated from Stage 3 in 2002 to Stage 5 in 2003, and a classic day on the Aussie cycling calendar was born.
The crowds that flocked to Willunga quickly justified the change, but there was still one more tweak in store.
In 2010, Andre Greipel managed to stay with the climbers on Willunga Hill to claim his second TDU crown in three years. Turtur wasn’t entirely happy that sprinters were dominating the Tour’s honour roll, so he did something about it.
In 2012, Willunga became a hilltop finish, and since then the racing on that climb has been utterly captivating.
But Turtur’s vision wasn’t solely to make the Tour Down Under a great race for the riders. He also wanted to involve the fans.
Study his race routes and you’ll notice a number of stages feature large loops. It means fans by the roadside see the riders pass several times.
Turtur also wanted the race to be more than something wonderful to watch. The school holidays guaranteed the crowds, but how would it be if fans could actually experience what the riders go through?
The obvious solution was to again ‘copy’ from the Tour de France handbook (ala L’Etape du Tour) and give the public a chance to ride a stage route for themselves.
So in 2003, around 600 riders took part in the first ‘Breakaway Tour’. Twelve months later, 1400 pulled on their lycra, with 2000 riding in 2005. In 2010 an incredible 8000 people registered for an event that included different distances for riders of all ages and abilities.
Many were from interstate, as the government-backed event aggressively marketed itself as Australia’s premier cycling race.
And that government-marketing arm went into overdrive when, in 2008, Lance Armstrong announced he would return to cycling after a three-year retirement. They wanted the Texan’s first race back to be the Tour Down Under.
The multi-million dollar deal was widely praised and criticised, but the differences between the 2008 TDU and the 2009 edition were incredible.
Everything was bigger.
The economic impact on Adelaide shot up from $17 million to $39 million.
Total attendance rose from 548,000 to 760,000.
Interstate and overseas visitors increased from 15,000 to 36,000.
The media contingent doubled, with coverage increasing from $43 million to $210 million.
It was a circus, but raised the TDU’s profile to an almost unimaginable level.
Once again, the race was in the right place at the right time, but once again, the organisers were clever enough to seize an opportunity.
Armstrong was back in 2010 and a Twitter ride he organised attracted thousands. Adding to the hype, for the first time since 1999 there was a World Champion in the peloton, and Cadel Evans rode with the panache you’d expect from the rainbow stripes – especially on Willunga Hill.
The Tour Down Under was also now a part of the World Tour.
The circus continued in 2011, when Armstrong made his farewell appearance shortly before his proper retirement and long-anticipated fall from grace.
Despite the ongoing questions around the legitimacy of Armstrong’s career, the TDU team squeezed every drop out of his time in Australia.
The cancer hero was all the average sports fan cared about, and even though they now know what large swathes of the cycling community always knew, or suspected, his legacy at the Tour Down Under will always be a positive one.
Short of a reigning Australian Tour de France champion racing at the TDU (Cadel Evans didn’t ride the 2012 edition), it’s hard to imagine anything bigger than those three years between 2009 and 2011.
More Tours Down Under, as long as Mike Turtur stays creative with the race routes and keeps enticing the big names here each January.
Mike, Peter Sagan would be a nice sight on Willunga Hill on January 23.
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