Watching Special Broadcasting Service’s (SBS) live coverage of the Australian national road cycling championships last weekend, it was impossible to ignore the weight of UCI WorldTour team jerseys. Whether Australia is a globally competitive road cycling nation is no longer a question.
33. That’s the number of Australian cyclists competing in the sport’s highest division, the UCI WorldTour. Globally, that’s 6.5% of all WorldTour cyclists. This ranks Australia sixth amongst all cycling nations; behind Italy (13%), Spain (12%), France (10.3%), Belgium (10.1%) and the Netherlands (7.7%). The USA (4%) lies in seventh position.
Much like the post-career spread of many a professional cyclist’s waistline, the UCI’s racing calendar continues to expand well beyond the radius of Euro-centricity. Professional cyclists barely get time to break-in their season-end rewards – apartment; new car; Patek Philippe (Breitling, if it’s been a lean year…); etc – before it’s “camp time” with the team again then, if the DS is kind, fleeing Europe in favour of a multi-week ‘race lite’ odyssey in warmer climes.
Even prior to gaining UCI ProTour (now UCI WorldTour) status in 2007 (in time for the 2008 edition), Australia’s Tour Down Under (TDU) had become a reliable platform from which European professionals could begin their Northern Hemisphere spring preparations. Terrific (often scorching) weather, highly regarded organisation and almost complete lack of stage transfers, have been useful offsets to time zone and travel qualms.
Though TDU’s top-tier billing has made participation by all WorldTour teams mandatory, its elevation has not been a catalyst for format change. In 2012, it will again start with the ‘Down Under Classic’ criterium on a Sunday night, before taking a one-day pause ahead of six consecutive stages. Willunga Hill aside, it is mostly a flat race suiting sprinters that have carried over form from the past season. Some pro’s appear to enjoy their time in Adelaide so much, one wonders if it’s too easy. [In Beijing today, a Chinese cycling journalist compared the TDU to Tour of Beijing, saying they were both “easy races for sprinters” – that’s his opinion, but worth noting].
Which leads to the question: is Australia pandering to professional cycling’s bell-shaped seasonality complex that’s shaped around the Tour de France? Moreover, given Australia is the apparent epicentre for professional cycling in the Asia-Pacific region, should it take more leadership in the development of a Grand Tour standard of racing in the APAC region?
[NOTE: the above chart is updated to 27.03.2012, and compiled from database information made publicly available by the UCI. 2012 UCI WorldTour and UCI ProContinental teams were finalised in December 2011, whilst 2012 UCI Continental team registrations were concluded 26.02.2012]
Australia has the all of the elements for a Grand Tour; roads (more than Spain and Italy combined), great weather, support infrastructure (hotels, airports), advanced epicurean standards, and a sports-crazy population that is developing a sophisticated cycling culture. To hold a three week tour in Australia in January would be to reciprocate a gift; giving European cycling fans the joy of watching a multi-week Tour, in their mid-winter, before they go to work.
A recent partnership with Amaury Sports Organisation, owner of Le Tour, may place a freeze on TDU’s development into a longer, harder, race; or, perhaps it could be just the expertise that is needed to make that development happen. Will it happen? What are the barriers? Should the calendar be left alone, with a season that’s long, but apparently soft at the edges? I’m curious to learn what others think.