Attempts to extend cycling's traditional calendar have often fallen flat, but the Tour Down Under is a race that has earned its place on the WorldTour through merit.
There is nothing artificial about an event that has, over 17 previous editions, built up a sense of being the natural and proper place to begin a global sporting series, despite its geographical separation from cycling’s European heartland.
Sport lies at the heart of Australian culture and its riders are well represented on the global cycling stage. Australia’s track cycling team topped the medal table at last year’s World Championships in Paris, and Antipodean riders amassed enough WorldTour points collectively in 2015 to rank eighth from 34 nations. Australia has a healthy, indigenous cycling culture, and so the Tour Down Under is not a race that is imposed upon the populous: a truth evidenced by the sizeable crowds at the roadside.
To the Tour Down Under’s credit, it has become a showcase for homegrown talent, without any sense of it being a local benefit. Australia’s riders compete against the world’s best on home turf and even terms, emerging, more often than not, triumphant. Ten of the 17 editions held since 1999 have produced an Australian winner.
It is fitting that Simon Gerrans is the most prolific winner (overall victories in 2006, 2012, and 2014), and when Adelaide’s Rohan Dennis rolls out for BMC Racing in 11 days time (January 16), it will be both as defending champion and local hero.
Riders from the home nation have embraced the Tour Down Under. To take the most recent example, half of the stages, as well as Dennis’ aforementioned GC triumph, were claimed by Australian riders.
Adelaide does not suffer the choking smog of the now defunct Tour of Beijing, and while it can be even hotter than the so-called desert races that follow in February, the Tour Down Under can point to large crowds and strong representation among the home riders in mitigation.
It serves a wider, international purpose as a bearer of global good tidings, especially to fans in the sport’s European heartland, many of whom will not have seen the sun for months, and who are likely to take pleasure even from this vicarious dose of vitamin D.
More importantly, however, the Tour Down Under ends the drought of the off-season. However diminished the break has become in the modern era, for the diehard fan, it can still seem too long.
Taking the Giro di Lombardia as the season’s traditional full-stop, the break from top level racing extends to nearly four months. Vincenzo Nibali raised his arms in Bergamo on October 4, 2015; the Tour Down Under will roll out of Prospect on January 19, 2016 – just over 15 weeks later. It is long enough.
Granted, the Tour Down Under lacks the history of its more celebrated European counterparts, and its position as season-opener can be a curse, as well as a blessing: while the Australian contingent will have trained to show well in Adelaide, few among the peloton's European constituency will be doing anything more than rediscovering their legs.
Still, the season must start somewhere, and cycling gains something by kicking off in Adelaide in January, rather than waiting another fortnight for Marseillaise or Bessèges. More significantly, the Tour Down Under is not held in direct competition with either of these time-served, early-season outings, as are February’s exercises in the Middle East.
Good on ya, then, Tour Down Under. Here’s to a further six, sun-soaked stages to banish the winter blues for rider and spectator alike. The season starts here - no bad thing, in my opinon.