Why I Love De Ronde van Vlaanderen

Seven years ago almost to the day, I was sitting in the bar of the De Kalvaar Hotel on the outskirts of Ninove eating fritz and mayonnaise while trying to make sense of Het Nieuwsblad’s coverage of the forthcoming Ronde van Vlaanderen. In Flanders this bike race, to be held this year on Sunday 5th April, is the sporting event of the year. It’s F1 Grand Prix, the Australian Open and the AFL Grand Final all rolled into one. The whole of Belgium and especially the area known as Flanders (Vlaanderen) will go completely cycling crazy. Roads will be closed, fairs (kermesse) set up on village greens and the whole of Belgium will come to a stop and/or be glued to their TVs. Such is the power of De Ronde.

When in Belgium....
When in Belgium….

I’d made the 1,000km round trip from Liverpool in the UK to Belgium with my son Roldy. Bikes, wheels and cycling kit all piled high in the back of a very inappropriate, low slung, drug dealer styled Mercedes coupé. On the ferry from Dover to Dunkirk, we sat next to a heavily pierced conceptual artist from Oudenaarde who had spent a weekend on Tyneside getting a Celtic design tattooed on her shin. When I mentioned our trip to De Ronde, she rolled her eyes. “People think the Flemish are obsessed with cycling,” she said, “but obsession is not the right word. It is more like a neurosis.”

Likening a national interest in bicycle racing to mental illness may seem an exaggeration, but anybody who has spent time in Flanders in the week leading up to the Ronde will regard it as a typical Flemish understatement. I’ve been a regular visitor to mainland Europe to watch bicycle races for the last 25 years. In my late teens I’d harboured thoughts of being a professional bike rider before reality got a grip. The previous year I had travelled to Belgium to watch the midweek semi classic race Ghent-Wevelgem. On the slopes of the Kemmelberg near Ypres, I stood next to a beautiful young woman who, as the riders pedaled past, held up her 10-month-old baby son wrapped in a Lion of Flanders flag and whispered into his ear their names, Nelissen, Vanderaerden, van Petegem, Tafi softly, devoutly, like somebody reciting the catechism. It was a touching cathartic experience.

Het Nieuwsblad carried a profile of my Flandrian cycling hero Johan ‘The Lion of Flanders’ Museeuw. As a small boy I had, belatedly, learned to read by studying Cycling Weekly (The Comic), which my Dad came home from work with every Thursday evening. This had left me with the vague feeling that I might master a foreign tongue simply by staring at Gazzetta dello Sport or Marca. To a large extent this policy had worked with L’Equipe, though it had skewed my vocabulary to such an extent that while capable of a relatively fluent discourse on Bernard Hinault’s latest medical crisis, I couldn’t buy a train ticket without pointing and making chuff-chuff noises. Het Nieuwsblad had always proved a good deal less penetrable than L’Equipe. This is because it is written in Flemish, a language that seems to include far more vowels than are strictly necessary. In fact, looking at Het Nieuwsblad’s piece that evening, I became convinced that at some point the Flemish publishers had bought up a job lot of As, Es and Us and told the printers they weren’t getting any more consonants until they’d used them all up.

As my mind wandered in this witless fashion, the owner of the bar, a kindly middle-aged lady who wore a green floral pinny and a look of unfathomable disappointment, arrived with another glass of Leffe beer that I hadn’t ordered. “It is from the Germans,” she said in excellent English, indicating a thirty something couple sitting on a nearby table. When I looked across, the man raised his glass and the woman smiled. I smiled back and, taking this as an invitation, the Germans came over. Having established that they were not disturbing my peace, they began to ask me about the Tour of Flanders. Was Museeuw as strong as everyone said, the man asked? Because, his wife added, there were rumors of a knee injury. What of Andre Tchmil? And how would the weather affect Fabio Baldato?

The church at the top of the Kapelmuur made from the traditional pink bricks found across Flanders.
The church at the top of the Kapelmuur made from the traditional pink bricks found across Flanders.

The Germans asked their questions and when I answered they listened very attentively, nodding in approval at my obvious cycling wisdom. It was all very flattering, like being the subject of a SBS TV special. In such circumstances it is difficult not to become pompous, and after a while I eased back in my chair and began speaking more slowly, with orotund flourishes, until I began to sound rather as the Yorkshire cricket broadcaster Don Mosey used to when delivering his close of play summary on Test Match Special.

Before they left, the German couple asked if they might have their photo taken with me. The bar owner took the snap and the Germans sat on either side of me, putting their arms quickly and bashfully around my shoulders as she called for us to smile. “Super,” the man said, shaking my hand. “We will see you at the race on Sunday also I’m sure?” yes I said “on the Kaplemuur, just before the cobble section where the Walloons and Flandarians stand on opposite sides of the road shouting insults at each other”. After they had gone, the bar owner came over to pick up the empty glasses. “That’s funny,” she said with a dry chuckle. I asked what was funny. “Those Germans,” the lady said, nodding in the direction of the door. “You see, they thought you were Tom Steels”. Steels is a classic Flandarian having won Omloop Het Volk, and Gent-Wevelgem, was Belgium national champion four times and with 9 Tour De France stage wins; quite a palmares. All those races won astride a Colnago C40 while rocking the cubes of glory of the Mapei team. I asked who she wanted to win De Ronde. “I don’t really care,” she said. “As long as they are Flemish. And if not a Fleming, then someone like a Fleming.” She meant gritty, tough, stoic and down-to-earth. The sort of man who might travel the world making millions of Euros from bicycle racing but still take his family holidays at De Panne or Oostduinkerke. “As Museeuw says,” the bar owner said, pointing at the newspaper, “you don’t have to be Flemish to be a Flandrian.”

DKHQ Partner Tim Dalton attacking the cobbles in full Mapei on a Colnago.
DKHQ Partner Tim Dalton attacking the cobbles in full Mapei on a Colnago.

This lady has a point, my good friend and ex-footballer, Damo, is known by all as the ‘Flandrian Fox’. He is a proper dyed in the wool Flandrian, despite hailing from Wolverhampton in the UK. Fast, smooth and stealthy on a bike he glides over the cobbles looking all schmick and purposeful. My other good friend, the Pink Flea, who sometimes lives in Oodenaarde is originally from Liverpool. He came here in the 1980’s to escape Thatcherite Britain and swap unemployment for the pro peloton, Belgium mix and the rough and tumble of continental bike racing. Both are official honoree Flandrians, one even has the T-shirt to prove it. After the De Ronde I always meet up with these characters in a bar called The Black Hole. It’s a shit hole that the European law banning smoking seems to have bypassed. In a bid to keep us captive and buying more beer, the hostess, who is in her late 50’s and looks it, normally takes most of her clothes off, with her husband’s full approval, to sing terrible Euro-pop karaoke on top of the bar. As if fully assimilated into Belgium life we stay and drink more Leffe beers and try to critique and analyze the race, without batting an eye at the barmaid.

DKHQ Partner Tim Dalton with his cousin Craig Dalton at De Kalvaar before heading out to test out the cobbles.
DKHQ Partner Tim Dalton with his cousin Craig Dalton at De Kalvaar before heading out to test out the cobbles.

But De Ronde van Vlaanderen is not just about the professional riders hammering it over the 264km cobbled course. This is a two day event and on the Saturday the weekend warriors get their turn with a choice of three courses; 100km, 160km or the full 264km hit. During De Ronde weekend every hotel is full, every couch has an occupant. One year at the De Kalvaar, my cycling cousin Craig turned up from San Francisco in the USA and had to share a bed with my new Australian girlfriend and I. Not knowing any different, and being too polite, she went along with this, thinking it was normal European behavior, which it kind of is for De Ronde. That year was exceptional weather. I briefed my cousin and girlfriend about the cold, rain, possible sleet and inevitable cobbles. Bring gloves, overshoes, Gortex in fact bring all the cold, wet weather cycling gear you own. We all rode the sportive in glorious 22-degree sunshine, a first for me.

Dalton Koss Partner Dr Rebecca Koss attacking the Kapelmuur.
Dalton Koss Partner Dr Rebecca Koss attacking the Kapelmuur.

The first year I rode the sportive there was snow all the way along the drive from Dunkirk to Ninove. The day of the sportive the rain was coming down at 45 degrees and it was barley above freezing. I turned and looked at my son and he said “proper Belgium weather” with a sly grin. Luckily we arranged to meet up with two out of work professional bike riders and their girlfriends. They towed us round at an incredible pace and never mentioned the weather once. These are the type of people the Flandarians love, hard case bike riders fully integrated into the Belgium lifestyle. After the ride they introduced me to strong black coffee with caramel stroopwafles, left to soften on the top of the coffee cup. They both now ride for top UCI World Tour teams. That’s what the Ronde van Vlaanderen is, its character building.

This year I’ll be glued to the TV set in the Melbourne suburbs dreaming of cobbles, beer, Euro-pop, rain, cold and the fanatical Belgium cycling fans. I once witnessed some stropping young guys rolling a huge beer barrel up the 325 meters of a 17% gradient over the cobbles to the top of the Molenberg, now that’s dedication. I’ll be there in spirit if not in body. I may even don my retro Mapei team kit, jump on the Colnago and ride up and down the Beach Road doing my best Tom Steels impression.

The church at the top of the Kapelmuur. Unfortunately, this cobbled 17% gradient climb is no longer part of the one day classic.
DKHQ Partner Rebecca Koss reaches the church at the top of the Kapelmuur in one hit. Unfortunately, this cobbled gradient climb is no longer part of the one day classic.

The Beach Road

You’ve probably never heard of the 27 kilometers of road stretching from Brighton, a wealthy southeast suburb on the outskirts of Melbourne, to Mordialloc along the edge of Port Philip Bay. Officially this is ‘State Route 33’ but known by all and sundry as ‘The Beach Road’. It’s hardly in the same mythological league as Alpe d’Huez, or the Ventoux but hosting 7,000 riders every Saturday, according to the 2013 Victorian Road Census, must make this one of the great cycling routes by sheer numbers alone? Add in the number of riders on Sundays, weekday commuters and the evening/early morning lycra warriors and the rider numbers are colossal. You get all types along this hallowed stretch of tarmac, mainly amateur ‘choppers’, but also families, tri-athletes, ex-pros now in retirement and the infamous ‘Hellkrew’ riders, considered so dangerous they elicit the attention of Melbourne’s law enforcement community. All shapes, sizes, styles and tastes are catered for on The Beach Road, very metro-sexual and very Melbourne. It’s so easy to dismiss 90% of these riders as ‘new agers’, converts from golf so that they can ride 27kms on their $20,000 Italian bikes head to toe in the latest designer threads and to sip their low fat, soya, lattes at the “Moordi” coffee shack. If you believe my 80 year Yorkshire father, Karl, who’s ridden a bike since his 12th birthday all over the world and at every discipline known, there are only two types of people in this world “those that ride bikes, and those that don’t”. Thanks Dad it a useful thought, then the Beach Road is definitely inhabited by “the right people”.

I arrived here in Melbourne 18 months ago, January 2013. Straight from the middle of a Liverpool winter into a 40-degree Melbourne summer – BOOM! One of my old Scouse cycling mates arrived at the same time for a ‘work project’, at a carbon composite company that has a factory within Melbourne’s outer suburbs. He’s a real hard-case ex-pro bike rider who now lives in Oodenaarde, Belgium. He stayed on there after a successful European racing career; some places are hard to leave. The bike was an escape mechanism from 1980’s Thatcherite unemployment in Liverpool, transforming into a life of pave, Belgium mix and the rough and tumble of the pro peloton. For our first ride along the Beach Road we meet at 09:30, Euro style, at the cycling mecca of Café Racer in trendy, Bo-Ho St. Kilda. But there’s a problem, where are the 7,000 cyclists? The roads are deserted, no wheels to sit on, no one to show us where to go. Even at 09:30 the temperature is approaching the mid to high 20s, not a good sign. We push on down the Beach Road, through Elwood by the kite surfers, Brighton Beach and all the tourists looking for the brightly painted beach huts, to Black Rock with the famous brick tower clock in the middle of the round-a-bout. Past the bike shop run by two ex-world and Olympic champions Kathy Watt and Steve McGlede, on over the ‘bonks’, which the locals consider hills to Moordi. It’s a great feeling to be free of overshoes, leggings and gloves; the roads are pretty good here too. In a tad under an hour we’ve covered the famous Beach Road in its entirety. Coffee at Moordi, no thanks we’ll leave that to ‘The Choppers’, we push on up to Frankston, another 16kms up the road and then another 11kms over Mt Eliza and drop down to the seaside town of Mornington for our coffee. A 30-minute stop and we hit the road back for the 50km return to our start at Café Racer. Now we understand where everyone is as the temperature hits 40 degrees. This ride home isn’t going to be fun for two middle-aged blokes straight from a Northern European winter. We buy, beg and even contemplate stealing water on our return ride, we’d drink form puddles but there aren’t any. Now we know where all those thousands of cyclist are, they ride at 6am; they get four solid hours in and are home by the pool or on the beach by the time the heat kicks in. It’s a mistake you only make once, lesson learnt.

In a classic case of neo-liberalism state intervention there is no parking on the Beach Road up to 10am on a weekend. This allows enough space along this four lane, with bike lane in places, route. Enough room for the masses to chop, weave, undertake, surge, slow, baulk and fan out three or four abreast. This certainly isn’t Europe. From the age of 11 I was out on club runs with the Hull Thursday Road Club riding around East Yorkshire in neat symmetrical pairs, doing a turn at the front and then swinging to the back at the command of my dad’s whistle. Everything was very regimented, organized, very British, as one would expected by a cycling club run by working class, ex-national service squaddies. Just because these cyclists can afford $20,000 dollar top spec bikes doesn’t mean they know how to ride them. Money can’t buy knowledge or skill though there are plenty of people trying to sell it along the Beach Road. Search the Internet and you will find a cruel satirical web site called “Pro Kit Wankers”, lots of these riders could feature on this web site.

There are some unwritten Beach Road rules, which go thus: –

  1. Always ride in your big ring, over geared is always best, never go over 54rpm and it makes for a slow and knee cracking start at traffic lights.
  2. Its shorts, always shorts not matter what the weather conditions. If its cold, not often, then its shorts but with hefty overshoes.
  3. Wheel choice on this parcour is crucial. It has to be 80mm deep section carbon with flashy graphics. Lots of shwooshing on the Beach Road.
  4. Always stand up and get the center of gravity as high as possible when coming to a stop at a junction, a little weaving/wobble is also good here.
  5. Why sit neatly on a wheel when you can leave gaps and weave about all over the place?
  6. Never ride tempo when you can surge and brake, surge and brake.
  7. Ride on the left out the way of traffic – NO! Ride as far right as possible, into the second lane is best.
  8. Half way to the Moordi coffee stop always have a gel or two as the cake at the stop might not be enough to keep the bonk at bay.
  9. Taking turns at the front is overrated; the pros have got it all wrong. Always sit on the front guy and let him get slower and slower until you can jump him and then sit on the front until you get jumped.
  10. Crash helmets are the law in Australia; as everyone knows riding around with a polystyrene hat makes you a safer rider/target.

Sometimes the inverse of European rules apply, well it is a land down under. For example in Europe if you don’t do your through-and-off turn some gnarly Belgium will threaten you or put you in a ditch. Here you can’t join in a through-and-off session unless you have, and are wearing, their club jersey. Here sitting on the back in the ‘armchair’ is the default.

All satire aside the Beach Road is probably one of the world’s great cycling routes. My Dad is probably right; if you ride a bike then you are a cyclist. No room for my elitist Euro snobbery here in Australia. Bike sales, cycling clothing and accessories make for a boom cycling industry here. No old shabby steel bikes, and cycle jumble sale clothing. In Melbourne the bike shops are spotless, modern boutiques and there are lots of them. The bikes and clothing match the salaries and house prices. This isn’t Hull or Liverpool it’s the Beach Road, Melbourne, Australia.

The Herald Sun Tour

This article was written by Tim Dalton for the cycling magazine Conquista (http://conquista.cc)

Think of early season professional cycling and most people think of Tour Down Under, which is held each year in mid January in and around the city of Adelaide. But there is another race which passes through some equally stunning countryside and has a much more rightful claim to be Australia’s longest running professional bike race, the Herald Sun Tour. Melbourne was recently voted the world’s most polite city and is regularly voted the world’s number one city in which to live. That’s not to say that Melbourne doesn’t have rivals, namely Sydney and Adelaide. Back in 1996 Melbourne secured, some would say stole, the Australian Formula One Grand Prix from Adelaide. One gets the feeling that Adelaide didn’t take this too well and was out for retribution. In some people’s eyes at least, mainly lazy journalists, is the view that Adelaide is simply Melbourne’s smaller cousin. The state of South Australia is a major investor in the Tour Down Under, the only UCI World Tour race in Australia. Granted the Tour Down Under is the better-known event, but the Herald Sun Tour is a gem of a race, the shrinking violet, the bridesmaid and not the bride. Rated by the UCI as a 2.1 stage race, the Herald Sun Tour is a third tier competitive event, open to UCI Continental and national teams.

The race started back in 1952 and was won in true Aussie style by Keith Rowley, a sheep farmer from the rural town of Maffra. Keith beat his brother Max by 49 seconds to win with a time of 42hr 57min 55sec. At the back of the peloton, 19-year-old Roy Underwood, the youngest rider in the field, spent five of the six days arriving at the finishing towns in the dark. His father made a £50 bet with him that he would not finish. The Saturday stage saw a search party sent out to find him. After finishing the last day’s stage, his father handed him ten crisp £5 notes. The race’s total prize money was only £1,500 sponsored by the local newspaper.

It is not unusual for newspapers to support cycling events with many European bike races connected to news media. A bike race is a great way to stimulate newspaper sales, think Tour de France, Giro de Italia, Het Volk, etc. The original Sun Tour was no different. Originally named the Sun Tour after the Sun News Pictorial, it changed its name to The Herald Sun Tour in 1990 when Melbourne’s local daily news paper, The Morning Herald, merged with the Sun News Pictorial. The race is owned and backed by the Herald Sun newspaper, Australia’s largest daily newspaper and part of the global News Limited Group. Rupert Murdoch’s interest in cycling keeps cropping up.

The first Sun Tour in 1952 was the first professional stage race held in Victoria since the 1934 Centenary Thousand Classic. An estimated 500,000 people throughout Victoria saw the ‘Sun Tour’, as it was known then, pass along local roads. Of the 56 starters, only 18 finished the six-day event throughout Victoria. Sixty editions on and the Herald Sun Tour is now cemented as a significant event within the state of Victoria and its cycling heritage. With significant support from key sponsors, including caravan manufacture Jayco and the Victorian State Government, this iconic event now demands daily electronic and print news coverage as the stars of today and tomorrow go head to head in the battle for supremacy in Australia’s oldest stage race.

The Herald Sun Tour became a part of the State Government hallmark events calendar in 2005, with an injection of State funding to support its growth and development.  A major revamp including a new business plan, management team and enhanced world ranking has laid the foundation for strong growth with a dramatic increase in the number of riders and entourage, global media coverage (200 countries in 2007) and local coverage via TV and radio. The 2012 Tour de France champion, six-time world and Olympic champion Sir Bradley Wiggins won the tour in 2009, further highlighting the quality of riders required to win this prestigious event.  After this win he stated “If I was going to pick a tour to win other than the Tour de France, the Jayco Herald Sun Tour is the one“. The race took a year off in 2010, during which Melbourne and Geelong hosted the UCI World Road Cycling Championships.

Australia in January and February is becoming a mecca for professional continental cyclists. The attractions include a huge country with fabulous vistas, empty well surfaced roads and superb weather conditions making it a warm place to skip the northern hemisphere winter. Spectacular sunny beaches also help with the tan when not out on bike. The three major Australian summer cycling events are a good measure of warm weather training. Starting with the Tour Down Under (late January), it is followed closely by the newly established Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Classic and the Herald Sun Tour as the finale in early February. These three events make for a great racing itinerary before returning to Europe for the Classics.

Continental Pro and former Irish National Champion, Matthew Brammier after the prologue TT.
Continental Pro and former Irish National Road Champion, Matthew Brammier from team MTN Qhubeka after the prologue TT.

To avoid the northern hemisphere winter, a large peloton of professional cyclists descend upon the old gold rush city of Bendigo, 150km north of Melbourne at the geographical center of the state of Victoria. Every morning large bunches of professional cyclists head into the hills around Bendigo with almost everyone ending up at The Old Green Bean Café for post ride coffee and analysis. John Herety’s JTL Condor team has made this town their center of operations for the last few years. Julien ‘Ju-Ju’ Bérard of Ag2r La Mondiale arrived in early December 2014, quietly stacking in the miles while taking in a kangaroo or two along the way (according to Twitter and Instagram). Think of Bendigo as an Aussie Girona if you will.

Tim Dalton and John Herety of JTL Condor at the Tour's prologue in Melbourne City Centre.
Tim Dalton and John Herety of JLT Condor at the Tour’s prologue in Melbourne City Centre.

In the 2015 edition of the Herald Sun Tour, Bendigo confirms its status as cycling central Australia by hosting a finish (Stage 2) and start (Stage 3). Victoria might not have the mega climbs of the Alps or Pyrenees but the rolling terrain; grippy roads and warm 30 plus Celsius degree summer heat can take its toll. The 2015 edition started on Melbourne’s Southbank Promenade with a lung-bursting 2.1km prologue, an event that attracted over 25,000 spectators in 2014 and an even larger crowd in 2015.

The evening prologue along the south bank of the Yarra River in central Melbourne from Federation Square to Queens Bridge Square is a photographer’s delight. The world’s most livable city is bathed in fading summer light with the CBD and river making a stunning backdrop. The 2.1km parcour is tough, with some early technical turns to negotiate followed by just over 1km of ‘full gas’ along the south bank. This is a prologue that’s built for spectators with the course meters from the front door step of Melbourne’s most trendy bars. The Tour then moves to regional Victoria for the longest stage, a 152km hike from Mount Macedon, past Hanging Rock, before finishing in Bendigo.

Stage two was a shorter 120km route from Bendigo Velodrome, through the beautiful Heathcote-Graytown National Park and across the Goulburn River into Nagambie. The 148km stage three route showcases the Nagambie Lakes as riders loop around the Mitchelton Winery, where the stage began, before heading back to Nagambie. The final 122km stage of Arthur’s Seat is where the race is traditionally won and lost. The climb of Arthur’s Seat may only be 304 meters in height but it’s climbed from sea level, three times. The crowds rival anything seen in Europe with every meter packed with screaming Aussie tifosi. This climb is the highest point on the Mornington Peninsula and provides spectacular views from the top. On a clear day the view from the summit of this extinct prehistoric volcano extends as far as the Melbourne city skyline, the You Yangs and Mount Macedon. Melbourne’s hard-core club cyclists ride from the city, watch the race and then ride home in a gigantic, seething chain gang, a round trip of some 180kms, down the Nepean Highway.

This race is a good barometer of early season form judging it by past winners. From the Herald Sun Tour’s start in 1952 up until Malcolm Elliot’s 1985 win, all winners were home grown Aussies. It took a Yorkshire man to break the Aussies’ 33-year stranglehold on the race. Past winners include hard case British Cycling Technical Director Shane Sutton OBE (1983), ably assisted by Tour de France stage winner Neil Stevens. Flying Dutch man Adri van der Poel won in 1988 with a massive attack on Mount Hotham and German breakaway specialist Udo Bolts took out the winnings in 1990. As mentioned earlier, Sir Bradley Wiggins won this event in 2009. The son of Australian track cyclist Gary Wiggins, the locals claimed this as a home win. Even my next-door neighbor, Saturday morning riding partner and local bike shop owner, Terry Hammond, has won this race twice (1978 & 1982) and finished second and third a few times.

Former Herald Sun Tour winner Terry Hammond at his shop Terry Hammond Cycles with a very cool Colnago C59 frame.
Former Herald Sun Tour winner Terry Hammond at his shop Terry Hammond Cycles with a very cool Colnago C59 frame.

Terry takes great delight in reminding me that he was the 1983 National Australian Road Race Champion and that as a European professional cyclist, won many races. According to Terry the winner of the Herald Sun Tour is “a sprinter that can also climb”. Evidence of this manifests itself in the form of Barry Waddell who won a record 5 straight Herald Sun Tours from 1964 to 1968. Though best known as a road cyclist, Waddell also won 17 National track titles and the Australian National Road Race Championships in 1964 and 1968.

The 2015 version of the race has attracted a fantastic field. Newly registered continental Team MTN Qhubeka are here with Aussie star Matt ‘The Boss’ Goss. Desperate to validate their wildcard entry to the 2015 Tour de France they are hungry for early season results. Team sprinter of MTN Qhubeka, Tyler Farrar, confirms that the Herald Sun Tour is far from being an exotic training race. With vital UCI points on offer for this 2.1 event everyone is racing hard for the win. With only small teams of five riders controlling the race over this deceptively lumpy course, it is extremely difficult. Farrar was keen to point out that himself and many others are here direct from a cold Northern hemisphere winter with little more than ‘base’ miles in their legs.

The local Australian contingent is coming to the end of their racing season and are race fit. They also have the added incentive of prime time TV coverage, are eager to impresses potential continental teams of their ability and revel in getting one over the hot-shot European pros. DraPac Professional cycling are here with newly appointed sports director, ex-UK professional cyclist Tom Southam in the team car. After this race many of the riders will depart for Europe for the shock of spring weather and the Classics. Orica Green Edge always takes this race very seriously having won last year with Simon Clarke. The stages may be short, but with lumpy roads and hot weather, it is a hard race to win.

Anyone wanting to escape the harsh northern winters could do a lot worse than de-camp to Australia for a month or so. Ride your bike; take in the Tour Down Under, Cadel Evans’ Great Ocean Road Classic and the Herald Sun Tour. The countryside is classic storybook pretty; it is dappled in light, dotted with quaint villages and bustling towns. The stunning views from the Victorian hills and big blue skies take your breath away. There is no shortage fine gastronomy here, with acre after acre of vineyards and orchards over gentle rolling hills and fields full of the prettiest cattle and sheep. Stood at the side of the road waiting for the race to pass, I have been serenaded by Galahs, Cockatoos, Rainbow Lorakeets and Rosellas. One day I even met a field full of fluffy headed alpacas.

JLT Condor rider Felix English ready to give it Bigpowa on the course.
JLT Condor rider Felix English ready to give it Bigpowa on the course.

A month long of Australian cycling events attracts all types of international visitors, making the 27 hour long-haul international flight bearable. This year my good friend and ex-international rider Terri Riley and her husband Brian did just that to take in all these races and more. Arriving in Australia in early November 2014 they spent the first few weeks riding the 3,064km from Adelaide to Sydney via Melbourne camping every night. I bumped into them on the climb of Mount Buninyong at the Australian National Road Race championship, then at the Tour Down Under, the Great Ocean Road Classic and finally at the Sun Herald Tour before they headed back to the UK.

This reminds me of my adventure a number of years ago with my son where we loaded a beaten up old car with bikes and drove from Liverpool to Province in the south of France for the Dauphine Libré race. Our expectations where pretty low having attended the Tour de France a number of times. In actual fact the Dauphine proved to be a superb race with stunning countryside and easy access to the star riders. The lack of security staff, fencing, barriers and throngs of spectators actually provided a much better experience than the Tour de France. In a similar way the Herald Sun Tour provides a much better experience of Australian stage racing than the Tour Down Under. The Herald Sun Tour offers fantastic countryside, a low-key atmosphere but with easy access to the riders and some great racing. As they say biggest isn’t always best.

So how did the Aussie cyclists stake up to the Continental Pros for the 2015 Herald Sun Tour I hear you ask? Well the results run like this:

Prologue – Melbourne 2.1km

1st Cameron Meyer (DPC) 2:35.53

2nd Caleb Ewan (OGE) 2:36.42

3rd Breton Jones (DPC) 2:36.85

Stage 1 – Mt Macedon to Bendigo 146.2km

1st Cameron Myer (OGE) 3:29:47

2nd Joseph Cooper (ART) +0

3rd Patrick Bevin (ART) +10

Stage 2 – Bendigo to Nagambie 117.9km

1st Caleb Ewan (OGE) 2:38:51

2nd Steele Von Hoff (AUS) +0

3rd Samuel Witmitz (BFL) +0

Stage 3 – Mitchelton Wines to Nagambie 146.7km

1st Caleb Ewan (OGE) 3:25:17

2nd Tyler Farrar (MTN) +0

3rd Steele Von Hoff (AUS) +0

Stage 4 – Arthur’s Seat 122km

1st Patrick Bevin (ART) 2:54:38

2nd Cameron Myer (OGE) +0

3rd Simon Clarke (OGE) +0

Overall

1st Cameron Myer (OGE) 12:30:55

2nd Patrick Bevin (ART) +11

3rd Joseph Cooper (ART) +19

So why not pack your bike bag and make your way down here to crack open a bottle of local wine, throw a shrimp on the barbie and enjoy the racing?

The Tour Down Under 2014

This is an article that Tim Dalton wrote for UK cycling quarterly magazine ‘Spin Cycle’ (www.spincyclemag.com/content/issue-7) about the 2014 Tour Down Under in Adelaide.

It’s almost a year since I left Europe for a different life down under. Moving from Liverpool to Melbourne was a huge decision, especially being a life long cyclist and leaving the European cycling scene behind. To be honest the only thing I miss in Melbourne is the proximity to European cycling mainly Belgium, France and Mallorca. It was all too easy living in Liverpool, jumping a cheap flight to the mainland to watch races in Europe or loading up the car with bikes and heading to Dover for the Belgium Spring Classics. Living in Melbourne, Australia the European cycling scene is over a day away and is also cost prohibitive. Indeed being in Melbourne is like doing cold turkey to break the continental cycling addiction. Don’t get me wrong Melbourne does cycling but it’s cycling as the new golf, cycling for the Armstrong generation. Cyclists pedal up and down the flat Beach Road for espressos on their $15k Italian bikes, with deep section carbon wheels, head to toe in Assos, all essential for that 20km Saturday ride. With this in mind, I am heading to Adelaide to get my first European cycling ‘fix’ in over a year, the Santos Tour Down Under, but will it be up to scratch?

Having visited Adelaide many times in my previous music business life, this trip was going to be an interesting one. With modest expectations I grabbed a low cost Friday evening flight, the businessman’s shuttle, for the 1-hour journey to South Australia. As I arrive at Adelaide International Airport, I’m struggling to break through the sea of grey suited office drones and wage slaves. The Santos Tour Down Under is the first event of the 2014 UCI Pro World Tour calendar. Santos is Australia’s biggest gas supplier; they need the publicity to sell more gas, as most Aussies do not need the warmth of gas central heating. This event is in its 16th year and becomes more popular with riders and fans each passing year. It appears everyone has Tour Down Under fever, even the airport is full of cycling related bike junk presented as ‘sculptures’, gaudy plastered images of past TDU winners on the walls and then of course there are the omnipresent skinny, shaved leg, Oakley’s on top of head brigade hanging about for no apparent reason. Most of the pro teams have been here for a couple of weeks all ready to escape the clutches of the northern hemisphere’s winter weather. Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler came and rode for ten minutes, crashed into a car and broke his collarbone and went home for treatment. A 54 hour round trip for a 10-minute bike ride, this sport is cruel. Of course the cruel irony of the weather pattern is that South Australia is in a severe heat wave with temperatures hitting 51 degrees. Perouse Twitter and the pro peloton are all moans and groans about hitting the road at 6am to get 4 hours in before the temperatures make training impossible. It’s nice to have these first world problems.

This 16th edition of the Santos Tour Down Under formally kicks off on Tuesday 21st January and runs until Sunday 26th January, covering a total of 875 kilometers. This race covers beautiful countryside including the famous wine regions of the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and the Adelaide Hills, with reputably over 200 cellar doors within one hour’s drive of Adelaide. This area is a foodies delight with the irony being that none of the pro peloton will be partaking. My initial concerns about this race are immediately proved to be unwarranted. The immediate area around Adelaide is a super location for an international bike race. Roads are wide, well surface and sparsely populated with traffic. The towns and villages en-route all support the race. No Daily Mail reactionaries here complaining about paying road tax and not having access to the public highway for 15 minutes of the year like in the UK. The amount of cycling fans out on the route is amazing; I didn’t think Australia had this many cyclists. Speaking to the roadside Tifosi at various points it obvious that there are people here from all over this continent sized country. The Tifosi come in all shapes, sizes, colours and varieties, its great to see so many people out on bike. The Aussies love sport, this is a great sporting nation, and they cheer every single pro rider, they cheer the cycling policemen and they cheer each other. The countryside is classic storybook pretty; it is dappled in light, dotted with quaint villages and bustling towns. The stunning views from the Adelaide Hills and big blue skies take your breath away. Acre after acre of vineyards and orchards over gentle rolling hills and with fields full of the prettiest cattle you’ll ever see. While waiting for the race I was serenaded by Galahs, Cockatoos, Lorakeets and Rozellas. One day I even met a field full of fluffy headed alpacas. The hills aren’t in the league of the Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez but Willung Hill (3km long) The Corkscrew (2km long) and Menglers Hill (2km long), nothing over 600 metres in height here, are effective in splitting the peloton especially if climbed twice or towards the end of the stage.

Yakima Arashiro and his seriously cool Colnago.
Yakiya Arashiro and his seriously cool Colnago.

To get things started, there is the stand alone People’s Choice city center criterium on the evening of Sunday 19th January. The TDU race schedule gives the riders a day off on Monday 20th which facilitates a chat between Andy Fenn of the Omega Pharma Quick Step team and Spin Cycle. We met with Andy at the Hilton Hotel race HQ to discuss the life of a professional UCI World Tour team professional. This is Andy’s first Tour Down Under and he’s quietly confident. Sprinters are normally the exuberant, flamboyant type; think Mario Cipollini, Mark Cavendish, Tom Steels or Alessandro Petacchi. Andy breaks the mold as he is modest but also aware of his considerable talent, accepting that a rider has to improve in increments to reach cycling’s heights. Andy’s mother is Scottish so he’ll be riding for Scotland at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer, one of his main goals for this season.

Come on be honest, who doesn’t dream of landing a cushy job as a professional cyclist on a top UCI world tour team, riding top spec bikes, travelling the world and sharing the prize money? After all you only work a few months out of the year and it’s hardly the daily grind is it? Andy finished his 2013 season at the Tour of China on 30th September and it’s been a busy winter sorting the shizzles. After been based in Belgium for the past three years, Andy made the move to Lucca in Italy to be with his celebrity cycling girlfriend. Originally from Kent in the UK, Andy was billeted in Belgium with the support of the Dave Rayner fund; Andy’s apprenticeship was done the hard old-fashioned way. Long-term mentor, friend, ex-professional and 1989 GB Pro road race champion, Tim Harris, assisted Andy in this epic move. Tim playing the Dean Moriarty character to Andy’s Sal Paradise on the 30-hour road trip across Europe in Tim’s old furniture van. A transcript and Spotify playlist of that Kerouac-est on the road journey would have made interesting reading and listening. Could this move be read as a sign of maturity as, 24-year-old Andy puts down some roots with a loved one?

Tim Dalton interviewing Andy Fenn at the TDU 2014.
Tim Dalton interviewing Andy Fenn at the TDU 2014.

Italy also opens up other possibilities in terms of better weather, terrain and training partners, namely seasoned pro Steve Cummings. “Now I live in Tuscany, an area that I love and that I’ve known since I was an amateur. There, I’ll also have the chance to train with professionals of the calibre of Petacchi, from whom I can learn a lot”. Omega Pharma Quick Step obviously have faith in Andy signing him in 2011 from the An Post Team and keeping him in 2014 when many good pros are looking for work. Andy, who in 2008 won the junior version of Paris-Roubaix, loves the Italian lifestyle. “I like the language and I absolutely want to learn to cook Italian food, especially pizza, which I sometimes try to make at home.” 2013 did not bring great satisfaction to the British talent, but he’s ready to make up for it. “My goal is to work hard to reach a good level, gain experience through the right mix of races, and, last but not least, taste the joy of victory again.” Andy looked slim and fit, but somewhat pale due to winter weather of Europe when we met up with him. Clothed in OPQS casual sports wear he doesn’t look out of place even with Marcel Kittle sat opposite us doing his own rock star styled interview.

Sprinter Andy is here at the TDU as support to newly signed team leader, and former TDF maillot jaune wearer, Jan Bakelants. But isn’t the TDU just a Koala cuddling, glorified pre season training camp with corny photo opportunities, where the local Aussie riders humiliate the European pros just awakening from their winter hibernation? Andy is keen to point out this is not the case any more and that the TDU carries the same amount of UCI points as winning Paris Roubaix or fifth place in the Tour de France. Teams come here “primed and ready to ride” according to Andy. The aptly named old school, ex-pro, no nonsense Belgium OPQS team manager, Rik van Slycke, is looking at the form of his riders at the TDU with an eye for the spring classic and the grand tours later this year. Andy’s first grand tour, the Vuelta last year, didn’t exactly go to plan. Eliminated on stage 10 for holding onto the team car for a bit to long, lessons were learnt, but at this stage of his career its all a learning curve.

I’m sure us wage salves are all too familiar with key performance indicators, performance related pay and impressing the boss, so no different here then you assume? You may think that rest days for cyclists are all about sitting around drinking espresso, Skype calls to girlfriends back in Europe and deciding which exotic sports car to buy. Not for Andy, we met him at 3pm and he’s been up since 6am on his day off. At 7:30am he was out on bike with a peloton of 50 Aussie Specialized dealers for a couple of hours followed by a meet and greet to help sell those bikes. The brand is desperate to re-ingratiate itself with the general cycling public after Roubaix Gate late last year. This is followed by: lunch, then an afternoon of team media duties, which includes talking to me, an afternoon massage, team meeting about the TDU racing strategy, with finally an evening meal at 8:00pm with everyone in bed at 10:00pm sharp.

Race day and Andy is up and eating breakfast three hours before the 11:00am start, where the course is an hour’s drive away. Gone are the luxuries of racing in Europe such as rock ‘n’ roll style team busses. At the TDU, its one Skoda estate car and a humble Hyundai mini bus for all teams, all except Team Sky who seem to have their own rules when it comes to cars, they drive Jaguar team cars, and have three of them. All riders and teams arrive on the start line at 10:00am for signing on and the chaos of the daily media scrum. The races rolls out at 11:00am sharp for a few kilometers of neutralized riding, which allows for those final nature stops (and commissaries’ fines) before the race starts proper at the zero km board. Once the neutralized flag is pulled in it’s the same story every day; the local ‘pro’ outfit go on the attack to gain the vital publicity they need to continue in business. There’s no need to worry though that attack won’t last and the Euro pros just keep it in check until they are ready to reel it in.

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Sky rider Richie Port at the Signing On Board at the TDU 2014.

With day one complete, the OPQS rider Carlos Verona Quintanilla is in the best young rider jersey. No need for a sprinter over the next few days, so Andy and the team’s work is all about protecting that jersey. You know the score here, fetching, carrying bidons and food, riding in the wind and all the day-to-day routine things all that are similar to chores we have to do in our own jobs? Finesse Carlos to the bottom of the final climb, in Andy’s case, and then find that ‘laughing group’ to ride with to the finish. Stage one and Andy rolls in with the gruppeto in 86th place 2:21 down on winner Simon Gerrans but with Carlos securely in the young rider jersey. Stage two sees rising start Diego Ulissi takes the win with Andy 130th 9:10 down. Stage three and Cadel Evans drops the entire peloton on the climb of the Corkscrew with Andy rolling in 6:55 down in 110th place. Andre Greipel takes stage four, the first of his two TDU stage wins, with the bunch split into two almost equal sized groups on the Myponga climb close to the Victor Harbor finish. Andy is in the second group in 132nd place 13:55 down on Greipel. Stage five sees the race climb the famous Willunga Hill twice with the finish at the summit on the 2nd pass. Richie Porte is a very convincing winner here with Andy in 110th place 11:32 down on Porte. The final 85km street race in Adelaide, around a 4.5km circuit, sees our first proper bunch sprint with Andy in third place, a fantastic result. Overall our man Andy is 116th 43:50 down on one-second winner Simon Gerrans from Cadel Evans.

Those daily time gaps don’t tell the full story though, Rik is happy, Andy is happy and the team is happy, it’s a job that has to be done and there’s a procedure to the daily grind. At the finish it’s play the find the soigner game, while dodging the media, race workers and various hangers on. Four out of the six finishes at the TDU are within an hour’s ride of Adelaide. In true old school Belgium style Rik has the team riding back to the hotel behind the team car on these days. Back at the hotel time, its showers, massages and getting the racing kit to the team’s soigners for washing. There’s an evening meal at 8:00pm, “we all eat together or not at all”, “if its been a good day then we might have a glass of red wine” and then bed at 10:00pm. “We maybe in bed by 10:00 but often we are awake until midnight catching up on daily life outside of the bubble via the Internet”. Andy isn’t a massive contributor to Twitter but loves Instagram, more looking than posting in his case.

As with most riders, Andy is somewhat shy, he prefers to let his legs and his results do the talking. Once primed though, Andy gave me a real insight into his world, which by and large isn’t as far removed for our own worlds’ of work. Andy obviously loves his job and is very good at it. If you want to know how good he is YouTube the final stage of the Tour Down Under. Andy is right in there at the finale with Greiple and Renshaw, taking third place, despite been given a really rough ride by Lotto Belisol. “I’m a bit of an all-rounder, maybe more of a sprinter,” was his assessment of his attributes. “I’m not a climber, that’s for sure! I’ve got a fast finish and I think I can do different things in different types of races.” I’m guessing his end of year review meeting with his boss will have all the ticks in all the right boxes.

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Richie Port being interviewed prior to Stage 5 at the TDU 2014.