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ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) — The 2023 season kicked off with a bang at the Santos Tour Down Under.
There were lots of sparks, but thankfully no wild fires. The race kick-started the WorldTour racing calendar that revealed some story lines we’ll see all season long.
Australian calendar endures COVID stop
The race was back after a two-year COVID hiatus, and Australian riders were relieved to see it back on the calendar.
With the Herald Sun Tour on hold this year, many were fearful that Australia could go the way the U.S. racing scene went down the tubes. The U.S. domestic scene is now all gravel, off-road, and a suddenly busy criterium calendar, but there’s not a lot for roadies.
Aussie riders know how special it is to have a marquee, WorldTour-level stage race on home roads. Coupled with the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, the Aussie scene came out of the COVID still on fairly firm ground. The women’s race was elevated to WorldTour status, and insiders say the institutional and commercial backing is still there to keep the racing going well into its third decade.
The Tour Down Under is that rare race that a community fully embraces (for the most part, anyway). The cloverleaf design and its ideal date on the Australian summer holidays have transformed the race into a destination for cycling fans who come in for the week to ride the Adelaide Hills and take in the racing.
It’s no surprise the Australian riders in the peloton step up for the race. Both the men’s and women’s races were dominated by national riders. For better or worse, they have the pressure to deliver on home roads very early in the season.
The disappointment was real in both Michael Matthews, who saw a chain-slip ruin his GC ambitions in stage 2, and Caleb Ewan, who was shelled in the crosswinds in stage 4. Neither came away with a stage, but Ewan left with a crit win and Matthews brought home the points jersey. That’s certainly better than nothing.
All the big Aussie names scratched out something from the week, with the possible exception of Jai Hindley. With the Tour de France on the horizon, the TDU simply came too soon for the defending Giro d’Italia champion.
Despite fears of major disruptions from protesters, the race was not impacted at all, and demonstrators stayed safely off the roadway during the week.
The only downer? There were no baby kangaroos on display.
One of the traditions of the Tour Down Under was the arrival of a pair of “joeys” who were cuddled and preened over by the riders before the start of one of the stages. Turns out animal rights activists pressured officials not to include the popular meet-and-greet so as to not stress the little jumpers.
Spratt is back, Brown throws down
Everyone was equally pleased to see Amanda Spratt back on the attack. The Aussie star was sidelined for part of last season and saw her in the recovery ward for months. Her searing attacks over Mount Lofty and the Corkscrew almost delivered her first since 2020. She said on Twitter afterward that the finish lines on both stages were 1km too far. Her attacking style is back, however, and a fresh start at Trek-Segafredo bodes well for her return to Europe.
Also read: Brown fends off Spratt to win overall
Grace Brown also confirmed her rising star status with a well-executed victory. She had the turbos to reel in the attacking Spratt on the two decisive stages. She’s hoping for big things in Europe this summer and is putting a target on the world TT title. With the way she’s racing, she might be hard to stop against the clock. Human Powered Health brought home a nice stage win to open the season in the best possible way.
The overall buzz was that the promotion of the women’s race to WorldTour status is the start of something bigger. There’s talk of adding another stage and perhaps even whacking a stage from the men’s race to bring them to parity.
The women’s field was relatively thin as all the WWT were not required to travel to the race. That will change next year, and coupled with the CEGORR, the TDU field will be a lot more competitive in 2024.
Fine Vine confirms his GC chops
How huge was Jay Vine’s win? Three years ago he was snubbed when he was trying to get a spot on the UniSA team that’s usually loaded with young trackies and up-and-comers.
Vine later went to hit fifth at the Herald Sun Tour in 2020, thinking that would finally be his ticket to a pro contract. COVID hit, and Vine found salvation on the Zwift racing academy.
There were no doubts that he deserved to be in the WorldTour, especially after he won two stages in last year’s Vuelta a España, but his dominant TDU win was a just reward for the well-spoken Aussie.
Also read: Jay Vine confirms GC future
Everyone admitted that Vine was the strongest rider in the race, and even the powerful and motivated Jayco-AlUla had to bend to his will.
Vine’s TDU victory only heightens expectations for his Giro d’Italia debut.
UAE Team Emirates officials told VeloNews that will Vine will see protected captain status at the Giro.
He bristled at a question about how his national TT title might have been viewed as a “surprise,” countering that all he needed was a proper bike setup to squeeze the most out of his power against the clock. Ex-pro and TDU race director Stuart O’Grady stated flatly he believes Vine can win a grand tour.
Vine certainly handled the stress of leadership and seemed to be enjoying his moment in the Aussie sun. Rather than slink away from the pressure or ride with some sort of chip on his shoulder, he wrapped up the week with untouchable dominance, saying racing last week was “thoroughly enjoyable.”
A big fan of cars, Vine hinted he might be buying a Bentley to go along with the Corvette that his wife promised she’d buy him after he won a stage at the Vuelta a España. Vine’s already updating a Mini Cooper and drives a VW Golf GTI around Europe. If he wins the Giro, what’s next? A Ferrari perhaps?
Points on the radar
One surprising talking point all week at the TDU was the early discussion of UCI points.
Teams who dodged the bullet in 2022 were already jumpy in the race and tried to scoop up as many UCI points as they could. No one wants to get caught out by surprise like half the men’s WorldTour did in 2022 when they hit the panic button midway through the season when they realized their WT licenses were on the line.
The points aren’t just for at the bottom of the barrel. Last year, anyone who was paying attention also saw that Ineos Grenadiers, Jumbo-Visma, and UAE Team Emirates were chasing points all the way to the end of season. Why? The top teams wanted to have the badge as the world’s No. 1 ranked team. That might absolutely nothing to almost everyone, except for a handful of team managers trying to make their big-dollar sponsors happy.
Also read: UCI points battle already shaping 2023
Teams were also pulling out of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race the next week to bring their squads back to Europe to race. Why? For points, of course. A weeklong stage race can pack more potential points than a one-day race unless someone wins it outright.
And speaking of points. The UCI race jury quietly halved a fine they dished out to Alberto Bettiol after he threw a temper tantrum on live TV, threw water bottles, and gesticulated at the TV cameraman who was following him after he cramped up and was dropped while wearing the leader’s jersey.
The initial fine was 2000 CHF and 100 UCI points. Both were cut in half. The money wasn’t that big of a deal, but the jury later thought the points penalty was a bit steep. After all, a team’s future could be decided by less.
O’Grady’s bet pays off
The 2023 edition was the first for ex-pro Stuart O’Grady as race director. He took over the role after the 2020 edition, but COVID shut down the world just weeks after the race ended. Organizers kept things going with a local cycling event for 2021-2022, but the 2023 races were the first for O’Grady as race director.
Also read: O’Grady shakes up TDU blueprint
Insiders at both the women’s and men’s races said they were pleased with how O’Grady seemed intent on shaking up the race routes. The women’s race was more challenging than in recent years, and the men’s race saw its first time trial — in the form a 5.5km prologue — in race history. O’Grady also ditched the popular Old Willunga Hill climb in favor of the Mount Lofty summit finish.
Both races were hotly contested and the courses served up drama each day. There was a risk of screwing up a good thing, but everyone trundled away happy with the week.