A retrospective on the Australian summer of cycling by Australian Cycling Insider editor Jamie Finch-Penninger.
Ok, that was pretty great. It’s taken me about a week to come to terms with it, but reflecting on the Australian summer of cycling has been an enjoyable time for me, now in my fifth year of covering these races. This is an opinion piece, really almost a retrospective diary in some ways, looking at what was significant about each race on the calendar, split up into performances from the mens and womens races, as well as a point about the vibe of each event.
Lexus of Blackburn Bay Classic Criteriums
The only event of the summer I didn’t go to. While I feel a bit guilty about that, looking back after five and half weeks on the road away from my home and loved ones, I’m not too distraught. I work on a budget, drive from event to event, stay with Airbnb hosts on my own expenses and unfortunately that didn’t stretch to heading down for the first races of the year. They were covered well by SBS Cycling Central via live stream and CyclingTips’ Matt De Neef in my absence.
As an event, I always value it for the small community atmosphere and the chance for a hit-out for the riders ahead of nationals, but it probably needs a shake-up to revitalise it at this point. Not just to attract me to covering it but cycling fans who have a summer full of options to go check out their favourite riders, rather than the Bay Crits being one of just a few events like years past.
Federation University Nationals
Aussie nationals are consistently one of my favourite events of the summer and while it wasn’t this year, that was more of a reflection of the quality of the others in 2020.
It always offers those ‘big moments’, Sarah Gigante proving she’s here to stay with her time-trial win, Marcus Culey’s ridiculous ride for third in the road race, an emotional win for Cameron Meyer and Justine Barrow showing the field how it’s done at 40 years of age. Add in that chance to look at the younger riders and it’s a must-travel weekend for the Australian cycling fan.
Jarrad Drizners, Luke Plapp, Tyler Lindorff, Pat Eddy, Jaime Gunning, Alyssa Polites And Haylee Fuller are names we’re going to be talking about for a long time, just take a look at Sarah Gigante to see how quickly the youngsters can become a force to be reckoned with in the elites.
It was a particular memorable moment for me when Marcus Culey’s ride turned out to be the sensation that it was. For those that don’t know, Marcus has been involved with the precursor to the Australian Cycling Insider website, the BrakeDown Podcast, for years. To see him develop as a rider and friend over those years has been a privilege and then to watch him take a top-tier result against those WorldTour riders with a race situation which was far from perfect for him was special.
The reaction to the course change for the time trial was positive and the road race continues to throw up good races. Ballarat has been a good host for over a decade now and it’s getting to the point where Cycling Australia feels very comfortable doing the event there, not even canvassing for bids from other regions before re-signing with Ballarat for another three years.
Womens Santos Tour Down Under
In 2017, I sat on the side of a road, 400 metres down from the cross roads of a town with maybe 500 people, with 15 other people in attendance to watch the finish of the first stage of the then Santos Womens Tour. I think all of them were paid to be there.
This year felt different at the Tour Down Under. Dave McKenzie announcing the riders rather than the local Cycling South Australia people, top-notch streaming coverage with helicopters, great commentary and a level of commitment to the event which rendered my normal operational procedure from past years unnecessary.
In previous editions, I’ve been one of the few journalists on the race, with my tweets one of the limited information sources for anyone who wants to follow the event. This year, there was no burden to try and stay on top of the race at all times, the stream was my friend as I’m sure it was for you at home. It’s all for the better as we got to watch some exciting racing play out in the Adelaide Hills.
Mitchelton-Scott’s reign over the race being broken by Ruth Winder and Trek-Segafredo is an inevitable development as the race increases in prestige. It seems like the race is not far away from WorldTour status and more and more teams will look to make South Australia their destination for the first race of the season.
A varied parcours for each edition is probably the way to go for organisers. The set piece of Willunga Will every year would result in a climber winning every year, and the past few years of mixing and matching with start and finish towns in the Adelaide Hills has worked well.
Mens Santos Tour Down Under
This was actually a good race to go with the high quality event! Normally I’m a bit of a complainer about the actual racing at the Tour Down Under, with the WorldTour teams normally a bit conservative in how they approach the early season calendar.
That probably would have been the case this year but instead Mitchelton-Scott really lit up the race with their aggressive tactics in trying to force the sort of race that would enable Daryl Impey to claim his third successive overall win.
While the tactic didn’t work ultimately, it created the conditions for a consistently interesting race, as opposed to the snooze fests on offer in the past.
A superb festival of cycling as always, a regular pilgrimage of thousands for a joint celebration of cycling is a rarity within the sport and Australia’s lucky to have the event.
It seems a bit odd to sandwich a 1.1 UCI event into the calendar between the mens WorldTour events, but it was fairly well received by teams… until they turned up and saw that they’d need to make do with either picnic tables or what shade they could grab by the side of the road. In near 40 degrees of heat it was a wonder there wasn’t a pre-race protest by the women’s peloton starting their race near midday.
The course itself was good, hard enough to create some doubt about a sprint finish, with a breakaway win in the womens and a bunch sprint in the mens. However, more people were there to go the famous Torquay beach than attend the race, and it hasn’t really fit its niche within the cycling calendar yet.
Cadel Evans’ Great Ocean Road Race
Unfortunately, the first Womens WorldTour race in Australia will be remembered more for intermittent live coverage and a horrendous crash than courageous solo winner in Liane Lippert. It was hard to get too much more insight into the race after the awful crash heading into the decisive stages of the race shaped the outcome so much.
What could have been helped was the provision of broadcasting options, normally a helicopter is the primary way for cameras to beam the race action from the motorbikes to television screens., but a plane is often a backup in cases of bad weather. In this case, there was no plane and no footage aside from Robbie McEwen’s phone camera during the race.
Liane Lippert was a superb champion, but it was less of a spectacle with the coverage problems and the crash marring the outcome.
The mens race is always more fun, with the multiple laps of the Geelong loop allowing a building in tension for the race and giving a more varied set of possibilities to try and win the race. Dries Devenyns wasn’t a name that many picked coming into the race, but he’s a rider who has been good in Australia in the past and has more than enough strength to fight his way into the finish. Daryl Impey was the strongest, but had to settle for his third successive podium.
Jayco Herald Sun Tour
The interaction of the womens and mens race is an ongoing puzzle for organisers, running two stage races alongside each other is a taxing experience for everyone involved in the race outside the teams and riders. Essentially everything is doubled, there are some savings in terms of time and reusing start/finish locations.
The stages for the women started and finished in the finishing locations for the men, which had a scheduled 30 kilometre descent from Falls Creek for Stage 2. With storms predicted, the start was moved down the mountain, for the best, but an example of the weird outcomes that occur when trying to accommodate two races on the same day.
The Sun Tour gave us the two best post-stage interviews; Ella Harris breaking down after winning atop Falls Creek and Seb Berwick speaking candidly after his impressive surge up Mt Buller. Overall winners Jai Hindley and Lucy Kennedy will be ones to watch in Europe this season.
Melbourne to Warrnambool
The move of the ‘Warrny’ to February, just after the UCI-level races, is in its second season now. Giving the NRS a chance to show itself alongside the higher profile races is a good idea, and while it hasn’t yet attracted attention beyond it’s normal standing, I’m optimistic for its future.
The new course is an upgrade on the old one and incorporates a bunch of interesting features including some punchy climbs, potential crosswind sections and even a bit of gravel. Running along the Great Ocean Road into Warrnambool should be hyped up more than it is, it’s more of a Great Ocean Road Race than Cadels!
The lack of a livestream for the event was a major disappointment, it leaves a lot of potential viewers in the yesteryears of following the race via Twitter. Nonetheless it was a well-run event, the massive field always complicates matters but makes for a format that it is rarely seen in this level of racing, top-level athletes lining up against B and C grade riders.
Brendan Johnston has been a threat in this race for years, and to have him, Mark O’Brien, Michael Freiberg and WorldTour rider Ben Perry as the final four was a good indicator of the quality of the field.
Rider of the summer
– Womens: Amanda Spratt – Mitchelton-Scott
The past four or five seasons have seen a steady improvement in Spratt from a good rider to world-class athlete. It wasn’t her best return of results this year, but she’s super consistent and will be riding around in the green and gold bands for the rest of the season alongside her fourth in the TT, third at the TDU and third at Cadels.
– Mens: Richie Porte – Trek-Segafredo
Harder to pick in the mens, so went for the winner of the biggest race. Porte added two stage wins to go along with the overall, and is showing no signs of slowing down at this stage of his career. The presence of Simon Yates and the attacking style of Mitchelton-Scott didn’t faze the Tasmanian and even though his reign as the King of Willunga has been broken, he still stamped his authority on the climb.
Underrated rider of the summer
– Womens: Jaime Gunning – Specialized Women’s Racing
An Under 23 nationals win, 2nd overall at the Herald Sun Tour and consistent placing in the TT and the TDU may not sound like anything that should be underrated, but Gunning did go under the radar for much of the Aussie summer. She’s shown that she’s ready for more in 2020, hopefully she snags a ride overseas or Specialized pursue a prolonged stint in the US, Europe or Asia.
– Mens: Kaden Groves – Mitchelton-Scott
I wouldn’t have thought that this would need saying, but after Groves slipped into a domestique/leadout role in the recent UAE Tour, it’s clear that his 2020 Aussie summer has been overlooked. Winning a stage at the Bay Crits, finishing second as a lone rider at the national criterium championships, two stage wins and a second at the Herald Sun Tour, when he had to do a lot in each of the stages in the final kilometre to secure those positions.
There weren’t any armchair rides to the finish for Groves and he still performed superbly.
Young rider of the summer
- Womens: Sarah Gigante – TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank
The elite time trial victory came out of nowhere for Gigante, who has never been a specialist against the clock in the past. It’s a testament to her work ethic that she can achieve such a massive improvement to beat some really impressive talents.
Add in her second on the queen stage of the Herald Sun Tour, and there’s clear evidence that Australia has an impressive athlete who will transition well to WorldTour level. Where she will struggle is in positioning and knowing when to use her energy, that was shown at the Tour Down Under, Cadels and the nationals road race, where she didn’t get the opportunity to show herself.
Honorary mention to Ruby Roseman-Gannon.
- Mens: Jarrad Drizners – Hagens Berman Axeon
Very close to giving this to Seb Berwick, but it’s clear that Drizners is the complete package and he turned a lot of heads during the earlier part of the summer. The 2019 National Road Series champion delivered on his favouritism status to win the Under 23 mens road race as an individual, then backed up that showing with a controlled general classification ride at the Tour Down Under.
His season will be one keeping a close eye on for 2020, as no doubt a number of WorldTour squads will have the South Australian on their radar.
NRS team of the summer
- Womens: Roxsolt-Attaquer
Not one to die wondering, the UCI-continental squad really put the question to Mitchelton-Scott and then the other WorldTour teams. Justine Barrow, Emily Herfoss and Peta Mullens are riders that wouldn’t be out of place on WorldTour squads and they’ll use the summer of cycling to launch an ambitious plan for 2020 and beyond.
- Mens: Inform TM Insight MAKE
From Luke Plapp’s time trial win at nationals onwards, it was a series of impressive performances from the Melbourne-based squad, even when they weren’t officially on the startlist and operating as the national team. They’ll probably look back on a few missed opportunities, but it won’t take much improvement for them to start cleaning up on a regular basis with a bit of natural improvement from young riders like Rudy Porter and Carter Turnbull.
A mention for ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast who took a stage win in the Tour de Langkawi to go with their consistent showings in Australia.
Honorary Aussie: Ben Perry – Canada – Israel Start-Up Nation
It’s not uncommon for riders to get an early start to their season in Australia, but when Perry arrived in Melbourne on New Year’s Eve, he wasn’t even scheduled to ride the Tour Down Under. Instead, he became an adopted member of the Melbourne bunchies and competed in the smaller races like the Bay Crits, Herald Sun Tour and the Melbourne to Warnnambool.
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Written by Jamie Finch-Penninger