And they’re off. With home and bookies’ favourite Simon Gerrans claiming the Tour Down Under’s Maillot Grubby-Orange - it’s “ochre”, apparently - the cycling season is well and truly underway. Non-stop racing between now and Rio. Viva!
Sorry, what? The next World Tour event isn’t until Paris-Nice in March? In that case, if you’ll excuse my Australian, what was the bloody point in that… er, cobber?
From the small set of views I’ve sampled this week, “what’s the point?” appears to be the consensus, with my own enthusiasm and interest, passing at best. I did try to get myself up for it, and the debut of Dimension Data among the echelons of the elite had held a genuine glimmer of interest. But with the biggest of the team’s big-name summer signings conspicuously absent, even that felt anti-climactic. (It also doesn't help that the team’s new jersey looks like it was designed by a company with a name like, well, Dimension Data.)
It’s not that I haven’t had a big enough break from pro cycling either - quite the opposite in fact. After returning home last Saturday, having aborted my club ride before we’d even passed through Croydon because Oh My God it was cold, wrapped in a blanket I proceeded to re-watch the 2012 Olympic Time Trial in its four hour entirety. Spoiler: Wiggo walked it.
Uninspiring parcours apart, there was nothing really wrong with the racing in Oz. Caleb Ewan’s burst of acceleration to claim the opening stage win being a - some might say Cavendish-esque - highlight. That said, context counts and strong though the guys he charged away from are, does anyone expect Renshaw, Blythe, Wippert to contest many of the big sprints this year?
Nor will the podium three realistically be up there at any of 2016’s grand tours. At 35 Gerrans is older than Cadel Evans was when he won in 2011, and showing few signs that his best days lie ahead; Richie Porte looks likely to lead BMC in France, but a new team probably won’t transform him into one of the greats; Sergio Henao, who came third… seems like a very nice man.
The Cycling Podcast’s Lionel Birnie has described the Tour Down Under (and the Tour de San Luis) as “the pre-season friendlies of the cycling season”. Although I like the analogy it doesn’t feel quite right. Rather than resembling that funny little tournament they play at the Emirates each year, to me the race looks more like the league cup - a real competition, featuring all the real teams, but missing most of the big names and, more importantly, any sense that anyone thinks it matters. Just as football fans reluctantly trudge along to watch the second stringers, as a cycling fan-slash-journalist I feel obliged to pay attention to the TDU, yet the race being neither one thing nor t’other, wind up feeling a bit short-changed.
Of course it doesn’t help that it takes place halfway round the world, but the Australian Open, The Ashes and Neighbours seem to manage. The scheduling does seem to be the TDU’s biggest problem - on Saturday Chris Froome dismissed the suggestion that he would ever start his season this early - so how about shuffling it down the calendar a bit, or even swapping it with the ugly highway cruise that is the Tour of California? Australia is a big beautiful country and there ought to be a big race outside of Europe that the top riders take seriously. It is the World Tour, after all.