The Down Under Classic: The best bike race you've never watched

Before the Tour Down Under kicks off on Tuesday, the men's peloton raced a crit on the streets of Adelaide pretty seriously

Down Under Classic
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You will likely have never heard of the Down Under Classic. Unless you're in Adelaide, or you've somehow found a stream, it's unlikely you've ever watched the Down Under Classic either. 

The city-centre criterium is a bolt-on to the men's Tour Down Under (the women's equivalent follows their race), which begins on Tuesday. It could be a procession, a simple warm-out, treated as a bit of a distraction by the 140 riders of the men's peloton before their season really begins, and understandably too, but it wasn't.

It has the makings of a good race, sure: 19 of the top professional teams, plus one representing Australia, racing a 1.35km city centre circuit around Adelaide for just over an hour. It's a classic crit. But one could forgive the riders to take it a bit easy, at least that's what I expected anyway.

And yet. The race was electric, with the tempo high from the gun, barely letting up for the 61 minutes of action. You might be thinking 'well, isn't this just any crit?', but the Otley GP doesn't normally have some of cycling's biggest stars taking part.

As it was, it felt just as hectic as the finalé of the Tour de France on the Champs Elysées, with the peloton strung out from the beginning, with a break taking 34 minutes to form. That might not sound like much, but in such a short race, the pressure was on.

Down Under Classic

(Image credit: Getty Images)

It is a race so minor that it doesn't even feature on ProCyclingStats, one with no UCI points on offer, and yet it seemed to be just as serious as ever race I've ever seen. A post-Tour de France kermesse this was not.

Pre-race, it seemed apparent to some that it would just be a ride past followed by a Caleb Ewan victory, but in the absence of the Australian, it appeared that it was all up for grabs; perhaps this explained the chaotic nature of the whole event.

You couldn't afford to pause, or look away, with each lap taking just over 90 seconds. Repeated surges, accelerations out of corners, and attempts to go clear seemed almost constant, but they were all rebuffed until finally one move was allowed to go clear. 

Those seven in the break - Isaac del Torro (UAE Team Emirates), Jhonatan Narváez (Ineos Grenadiers), Jack Rootkin-Gray (EF Education-EasyPost), Gil Gelders (Soudal Quick-Step), and Oscar Onley (dsm-firmenich PostNL), and then Natnael Tetsfazion (Trek-Segafredo) and Harry Sweeny (EF Education-EasyPost) - ended up dictating the race, a ridiculous thought when it first happened.

The only team seemingly interested in bringing them back was Bora-Hansgrohe, working in the service of Sam Welsford. The gap was 16 seconds at 55 minutes, and while that narrowed to such a fine gap on the last lap, there was no stopping the break. Narváez won ahead of Tetsfazion and Del Torro, an odd but successful start to the season for them all completed.

The gust of wind created every time the bunch rode past proved just how fast the event was raced, as did the fact that riders took on gels during just an hour of racing, in an attempt to fuel up for a final effort. Even the lackadaisical Elia Viviani, who remained at the back for the majority of the race, moved forward with enough time to try and make an impact, even if it didn't happen.

Post-race, Bora were frustrated, with their DS Bernie Eisel complaining about other teams refusing to help. It was clear that it actually mattered, which might not be strange, but somehow does. 

The pure entertainment, the fun of a crit bolted onto a bigger race was a reminder of the excitement of cycling, even for your cynical, tired correspondent. Narváez's celebration said a lot too. A win is a win, a race is actually a race, and this was one that I won't forget in a hurry.

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