CS Comment: Don’t believe the hype

The Tour Down Under is a triumph of marketing over substance. Has the season-opener been hyped into something it isn’t?

Words by Edward Pickering

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The marketing hype behind the Tour Down Under almost had me believing it was going to be the best race ever. All the major sprinters were gathered together in one place for the first and last time before the Tour de France. Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel would go head to head for the first time since Greipel left HTC. Maybe Tyler Farrar would take advantage of the rivalry and beat them both.

Except it wasn’t the best race ever. It was OK. A nice little season-opener that I enjoyed watching, although I find the parcours a little unimaginative, and there are too many sprint finishes for an event that enjoys such a prominent place in the UCI’s hierarchy of races.

Before angry emails arrive from Australia, I’m not down on the Tour Down Under. It’s the first international road race of the year – we’ve had no racing since the Tour of Lombardy, and it’s a pleasure to see the new kits, racing under what is possibly the bluest sky in cycling. The local fans seem to love it, and show up in impressive numbers. Visually, it’s an excellent advert for the sport.

What it is not, however, is a bike race on any level approaching the Tour, or the Giro, or Paris-Nice, or the Eneco Tour.

Thanks to a combination of marketing and UCI politics, the race seems to have been elevated way beyond reality. The UCI have blessed the Tour Down Under by including it in the World Calendar. For winning it, ahead of a field largely enjoying breaking themselves into the season, Cameron Meyer gained 100 World Tour points. That’s what Jurgen Van den Broeck got for coming fifth in the Tour de France last year. It’s what Vincenzo Nibali got for coming third in the Giro d’Italia. Fabian Cancellara’s wins in Flanders and Roubaix last year, two of the athletic performances of the year, ahead of exceptionally competitive fields, got him 100 points apiece. I’d argue, and hope that anybody with a functioning set of critical faculties would agree, that Meyer’s ride in Australia was not the equal of any of these performances. Not by a long way.

Season-long rankings tend always to compare apples to oranges, and the World Tour would be no more than an amusing diversion if so much were not riding on the acquisition of points. The world championships selection criteria depend on them. Team car order in subsequent World Tour events is dictated by the individual standings – cars go in the order of participating riders’ rankings. (In 2010, Robbie McEwen found himself having to ride Flanders and Roubaix because his fourth place in the Tour Down Under had given him enough points to guarantee Katusha a place near the front of the convoy). And most importantly, they are an element in the so far unexplained UCI team rankings, which dictate who gets ProTeam licences.

Of course, with the focus on acquiring points in these events comes a move away from smaller races, which are going to struggle to survive.

By including the Tour Down Under in the World Tour, the UCI evidently hope that it will be perceived as a major race – that suits the narrative they are trying to impose on cycling, which is that it should be developing into an F1-style international travelling circus. And the race’s marketing department is extremely enthusiastic – that’s their job.

But both these groups have an interest in describing the Tour Down Under as a major race. My interest is in enjoying exciting, varied racing, with the top names competing. The Tour Down Under should be enjoyed for what it is – a nice warm-up to the season and a good place for riders to make a name for themselves. It’s not the Tour de France.

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