Equality and ‘giving back’ drive Evans to build Great Ocean Road Race

Credit: Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race

A commitment to giving something back to cycling is driving Cadel Evans to do what he did during his career as a professional athlete, work hard to constantly improve. Australian Cycling Insider caught up with the Tour de France champion to talk about the growth of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.

This was part of a larger discussion with Cadel Evans, published on SBS Cycling Central.

It’s not hard to draw a straight line between the first edition of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. The Australian sport and cycling public, buoyed by Evans’ victory in the 2011 Tour de France, was jumping on bikes and flicking on their televisions to watch racing.

It could have stayed as a one-off, a farewell event for Evans in 2015, or stayed as relatively low-level event, riding the coattails of the Tour Down Under. However, the commitment of the organization and namesake of the event has seen it grow year on year to its current status.

“I’ve been involved in the race since its inception,” said Evans, “that was a few years before the first event. I suppose I had a distant hope that one day we would make it to the World Tour and the fact that we made it in the third year was more than what I hoped for.

“The women’s race will in 2020 be in the World Tour and we’ve got things like the Vegemite Family Ride, which may seem like small things, but they are great for the local community. It’s the little details around the big names and the big event that have really gone beyond my expectations.”

Equal standing for women in terms of the racing level in 2020 joins the race’s commitment for equal prize money across the genders, and was a key tenet for Evans when the idea of the race was initially proposed to him.

“We were looking to build a bike race for everyone,” said Evans. “That’s why we also have rides for kids and people my age as well in the People’s Ride. To have races for the elite women, now World Tour level, is a big part of that.

“My long-term dream is that there is a little girl that watches the women by the side of the road and is inspired to take up cycling and come back and win the race in the future. Having the WorldTour status means we’ll have some of the best riders in the world present and hopefully fit and racing for the win.”

Before the first event in 2015, Visit Victoria wanted to bring a new large event to the state and the match was made in a moment when the Australian ‘summer of cycling’ was only a recent concept. The Herald Sun Tour had only recently moved to the summer slot and while the nationals and Tour Down Under were consistent fixtures, they were isolated events, with little incentive for international teams to make more of an early season January trip.

The scene has changed significantly since Evans’ days as a top-level racer.   

“We have the Australian summer of cycling and certainly earlier in my career it was different,” said Evans. “One of the first races where I came to be known on the road was the Bay Criterium Series in Geelong, ironically enough. That was even before I lived here.”

“The sport has changed in the last five to ten years. The early season races have become very important on the calendar and that’s why we wanted this spot in January. The fact that we fit in with the Tour Down Under and the Herald Sun Tour is the fact that the riders instead of going to Spain or Tenerife and doing their early season training they come down to Australia to train and race.

“They can do one or all of the races down here, and that’s where I think we’ve created a great springboard for the top international riders to start their season in Australia.”

The Cadel Evans-effect is a phenomena following his 2011 Tour win within Australian cycling, a popularisation of cycling well beyond its previous standing on the sporting scene. The Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race now operates as Evans’ legacy in this regard, though the man himself shies away from the personal nature of it.

“I don’t know if legacy is the word, or at least a word I like to use, but the race carries my name and if something goes wrong I’ll most likely get the blame,” joked Evans. “It is a responsibility for sure. I’m grateful for what cycling gave me as a rider and just as a human being and a participant in the sport.

“To be able to give back in some way to cycling is something that motivates me every day. Having an event is the best way that I can give back to the sport. Running a cycling team or coaching riders is great but to a smaller group of people. With a race like this we’re reaching 100,000 plus spectators that we have on the side of the road every year. Hopefully we’re bring cycling to a lot of people.”

A major shift in the larger event will be the change in the lead-up event, in previous years called Race Melbourne, now moved to Torquay, after three years where the circuit of Albert Park failed to capture the imagination of fans. The kermesse format over the flat, non-technical course led to fast races which most years led to sprint finishes after very hot days in the saddle.

The heat likely kept many away as the race had poor luck with the weather with the mercury regularly topped 40 degrees during previous editions. Regardless, the event didn’t really find a niche in the same way that the weekend’s racing had done, and the race will move locations in 2020, heading down to the coastal town of Torquay.

“I think and hope that every year we try and improve the race,” said Evans. “Certainly, for the riders I think they are going to enjoy it more and also part of the reason for the race is for the community and the region and I think in this case it will be something special for Torquay. It’s a small town and it will be quite a big race, a 1.1 UCI classification and for a small place to host a race like that will create a great festive atmosphere for the town.

“I hope from the rider’s perspective it offers a good race, and especially for those sprinter guys, your Vivianis and Nizzolos, it’s another opportunity for an early season win. The riders will enjoy their stay, you can ride from the hotel down to Torquay, an area where they will have already been training, and it makes the week easier and nicer for them.”

The race reaching top level in both the men’s and women’s and the good numbers of the viewing audience and spectators at the event isn’t the end of the push for continued development of the Great Ocean Road Race.

“We’ve always got room to improve,” said Evans. “I hope participation in the People’s Ride continues to improve, that would be great. On a sporting level, I really want the riders that come here really set themselves as a season goal for them to win the Great Ocean Road Race. You look at Viviani, he’d been close before then sets it as a goal for 2019 to come and win the race in 2019 as a goal for the year. That means that we’ve moved to the core of the elite level of cycling.”

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Written by Jamie Finch-Penninger