This is an article that I wrote for UK cycling quarterly magazine ‘Spin Cycle’ (www.spincyclemag.com/content/issue-7) about the 2014 Tour Down Under in Adelaide.
It’s almost a year since I left Europe for a different life down under. Moving from Liverpool to Melbourne was a huge decision, especially being a life long cyclist and leaving the European cycling scene behind. To be honest the only thing I miss in Melbourne is the proximity to European cycling mainly Belgium, France and Mallorca. It was all too easy living in Liverpool, jumping a cheap flight to the mainland to watch races in Europe or loading up the car with bikes and heading to Dover for the Belgium Spring Classics. Living in Melbourne, Australia the European cycling scene is over a day away and is also cost prohibitive. Indeed being in Melbourne is like doing cold turkey to break the continental cycling addiction. Don’t get me wrong Melbourne does cycling but it’s cycling as the new golf, cycling for the Armstrong generation. Cyclists pedal up and down the flat Beach Road for espressos on their $15k Italian bikes, with deep section carbon wheels, head to toe in Assos, all essential for that 20km Saturday ride. With this in mind, I am heading to Adelaide to get my first European cycling ‘fix’ in over a year, the Santos Tour Down Under, but will it be up to scratch?
Having visited Adelaide many times in my previous music business life, this trip was going to be an interesting one. With modest expectations I grabbed a low cost Friday evening flight, the businessman’s shuttle, for the 1-hour journey to South Australia. As I arrive at Adelaide International Airport, I’m struggling to break through the sea of grey suited office drones and wage slaves. The Santos Tour Down Under is the first event of the 2014 UCI Pro World Tour calendar. Santos is Australia’s biggest gas supplier; they need the publicity to sell more gas, as most Aussies do not need the warmth of gas central heating. This event is in its 16th year and becomes more popular with riders and fans each passing year. It appears everyone has Tour Down Under fever, even the airport is full of cycling related bike junk presented as ‘sculptures’, gaudy plastered images of past TDU winners on the walls and then of course there are the omnipresent skinny, shaved leg, Oakley’s on top of head brigade hanging about for no apparent reason. Most of the pro teams have been here for a couple of weeks all ready to escape the clutches of the northern hemisphere’s winter weather. Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler came and rode for ten minutes, crashed into a car and broke his collarbone and went home for treatment. A 54 hour round trip for a 10-minute bike ride, this sport is cruel. Of course the cruel irony of the weather pattern is that South Australia is in a severe heat wave with temperatures hitting 51 degrees. Perouse Twitter and the pro peloton are all moans and groans about hitting the road at 6am to get 4 hours in before the temperatures make training impossible. It’s nice to have these first world problems.
This 16th edition of the Santos Tour Down Under formally kicks off on Tuesday 21st January and runs until Sunday 26th January, covering a total of 875 kilometers. This race covers beautiful countryside including the famous wine regions of the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and the Adelaide Hills, with reputably over 200 cellar doors within one hour’s drive of Adelaide. This area is a foodies delight with the irony being that none of the pro peloton will be partaking. My initial concerns about this race are immediately proved to be unwarranted. The immediate area around Adelaide is a super location for an international bike race. Roads are wide, well surface and sparsely populated with traffic. The towns and villages en-route all support the race. No Daily Mail reactionaries here complaining about paying road tax and not having access to the public highway for 15 minutes of the year like in the UK. The amount of cycling fans out on the route is amazing; I didn’t think Australia had this many cyclists. Speaking to the roadside Tifosi at various points it obvious that there are people here from all over this continent sized country. The Tifosi come in all shapes, sizes, colours and varieties, its great to see so many people out on bike. The Aussies love sport, this is a great sporting nation, and they cheer every single pro rider, they cheer the cycling policemen and they cheer each other. The countryside is classic storybook pretty; it is dappled in light, dotted with quaint villages and bustling towns. The stunning views from the Adelaide Hills and big blue skies take your breath away. Acre after acre of vineyards and orchards over gentle rolling hills and with fields full of the prettiest cattle you’ll ever see. While waiting for the race I was serenaded by Galahs, Cockatoos, Lorakeets and Rozellas. One day I even met a field full of fluffy headed alpacas. The hills aren’t in the league of the Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez but Willung Hill (3km long) The Corkscrew (2km long) and Menglers Hill (2km long), nothing over 600 metres in height here, are effective in splitting the peloton especially if climbed twice or towards the end of the stage.
To get things started, there is the stand alone People’s Choice city center criterium on the evening of Sunday 19th January. The TDU race schedule gives the riders a day off on Monday 20th which facilitates a chat between Andy Fenn of the Omega Pharma Quick Step team and Spin Cycle. We met with Andy at the Hilton Hotel race HQ to discuss the life of a professional UCI World Tour team professional. This is Andy’s first Tour Down Under and he’s quietly confident. Sprinters are normally the exuberant, flamboyant type; think Mario Cipollini, Mark Cavendish, Tom Steels or Alessandro Petacchi. Andy breaks the mold as he is modest but also aware of his considerable talent, accepting that a rider has to improve in increments to reach cycling’s heights. Andy’s mother is Scottish so he’ll be riding for Scotland at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer, one of his main goals for this season.
Come on be honest, who doesn’t dream of landing a cushy job as a professional cyclist on a top UCI world tour team, riding top spec bikes, travelling the world and sharing the prize money? After all you only work a few months out of the year and it’s hardly the daily grind is it? Andy finished his 2013 season at the Tour of China on 30th September and it’s been a busy winter sorting the shizzles. After been based in Belgium for the past three years, Andy made the move to Lucca in Italy to be with his celebrity cycling girlfriend. Originally from Kent in the UK, Andy was billeted in Belgium with the support of the Dave Rayner fund; Andy’s apprenticeship was done the hard old-fashioned way. Long-term mentor, friend, ex-professional and 1989 GB Pro road race champion, Tim Harris, assisted Andy in this epic move. Tim playing the Dean Moriarty character to Andy’s Sal Paradise on the 30-hour road trip across Europe in Tim’s old furniture van. A transcript and Spotify playlist of that Kerouac-est on the road journey would have made interesting reading and listening. Could this move be read as a sign of maturity as, 24-year-old Andy puts down some roots with a loved one?
Italy also opens up other possibilities in terms of better weather, terrain and training partners, namely seasoned pro Steve Cummings. “Now I live in Tuscany, an area that I love and that I’ve known since I was an amateur. There, I’ll also have the chance to train with professionals of the calibre of Petacchi, from whom I can learn a lot”. Omega Pharma Quick Step obviously have faith in Andy signing him in 2011 from the An Post Team and keeping him in 2014 when many good pros are looking for work. Andy, who in 2008 won the junior version of Paris-Roubaix, loves the Italian lifestyle. “I like the language and I absolutely want to learn to cook Italian food, especially pizza, which I sometimes try to make at home.” 2013 did not bring great satisfaction to the British talent, but he’s ready to make up for it. “My goal is to work hard to reach a good level, gain experience through the right mix of races, and, last but not least, taste the joy of victory again.” Andy looked slim and fit, but somewhat pale due to winter weather of Europe when we met up with him. Clothed in OPQS casual sports wear he doesn’t look out of place even with Marcel Kittle sat opposite us doing his own rock star styled interview.
Sprinter Andy is here at the TDU as support to newly signed team leader, and former TDF maillot jaune wearer, Jan Bakelants. But isn’t the TDU just a Koala cuddling, glorified pre season training camp with corny photo opportunities, where the local Aussie riders humiliate the European pros just awakening from their winter hibernation? Andy is keen to point out this is not the case any more and that the TDU carries the same amount of UCI points as winning Paris Roubaix or fifth place in the Tour de France. Teams come here “primed and ready to ride” according to Andy. The aptly named old school, ex-pro, no nonsense Belgium OPQS team manager, Rik van Slycke, is looking at the form of his riders at the TDU with an eye for the spring classic and the grand tours later this year. Andy’s first grand tour, the Vuelta last year, didn’t exactly go to plan. Eliminated on stage 10 for holding onto the team car for a bit to long, lessons were learnt, but at this stage of his career its all a learning curve.
I’m sure us wage salves are all too familiar with key performance indicators, performance related pay and impressing the boss, so no different here then you assume? You may think that rest days for cyclists are all about sitting around drinking espresso, Skype calls to girlfriends back in Europe and deciding which exotic sports car to buy. Not for Andy, we met him at 3pm and he’s been up since 6am on his day off. At 7:30am he was out on bike with a peloton of 50 Aussie Specialized dealers for a couple of hours followed by a meet and greet to help sell those bikes. The brand is desperate to re-ingratiate itself with the general cycling public after Roubaix Gate late last year. This is followed by: lunch, then an afternoon of team media duties, which includes talking to me, an afternoon massage, team meeting about the TDU racing strategy, with finally an evening meal at 8:00pm with everyone in bed at 10:00pm sharp.
Race day and Andy is up and eating breakfast three hours before the 11:00am start, where the course is an hour’s drive away. Gone are the luxuries of racing in Europe such as rock ‘n’ roll style team busses. At the TDU, its one Skoda estate car and a humble Hyundai mini bus for all teams, all except Team Sky who seem to have their own rules when it comes to cars, they drive Jaguar team cars, and have three of them. All riders and teams arrive on the start line at 10:00am for signing on and the chaos of the daily media scrum. The races rolls out at 11:00am sharp for a few kilometers of neutralized riding, which allows for those final nature stops (and commissaries’ fines) before the race starts proper at the zero km board. Once the neutralized flag is pulled in it’s the same story every day; the local ‘pro’ outfit go on the attack to gain the vital publicity they need to continue in business. There’s no need to worry though that attack won’t last and the Euro pros just keep it in check until they are ready to reel it in.
With day one complete, the OPQS rider Carlos Verona Quintanilla is in the best young rider jersey. No need for a sprinter over the next few days, so Andy and the team’s work is all about protecting that jersey. You know the score here, fetching, carrying bidons and food, riding in the wind and all the day-to-day routine things all that are similar to chores we have to do in our own jobs? Finesse Carlos to the bottom of the final climb, in Andy’s case, and then find that ‘laughing group’ to ride with to the finish. Stage one and Andy rolls in with the gruppeto in 86th place 2:21 down on winner Simon Gerrans but with Carlos securely in the young rider jersey. Stage two sees rising start Diego Ulissi takes the win with Andy 130th 9:10 down. Stage three and Cadel Evans drops the entire peloton on the climb of the Corkscrew with Andy rolling in 6:55 down in 110th place. Andre Greipel takes stage four, the first of his two TDU stage wins, with the bunch split into two almost equal sized groups on the Myponga climb close to the Victor Harbor finish. Andy is in the second group in 132nd place 13:55 down on Greipel. Stage five sees the race climb the famous Willunga Hill twice with the finish at the summit on the 2nd pass. Richie Porte is a very convincing winner here with Andy in 110th place 11:32 down on Porte. The final 85km street race in Adelaide, around a 4.5km circuit, sees our first proper bunch sprint with Andy in third place, a fantastic result. Overall our man Andy is 116th 43:50 down on one-second winner Simon Gerrans from Cadel Evans.
Those daily time gaps don’t tell the full story though, Rik is happy, Andy is happy and the team is happy, it’s a job that has to be done and there’s a procedure to the daily grind. At the finish it’s play the find the soigner game, while dodging the media, race workers and various hangers on. Four out of the six finishes at the TDU are within an hour’s ride of Adelaide. In true old school Belgium style Rik has the team riding back to the hotel behind the team car on these days. Back at the hotel time, its showers, massages and getting the racing kit to the team’s soigners for washing. There’s an evening meal at 8:00pm, “we all eat together or not at all”, “if its been a good day then we might have a glass of red wine” and then bed at 10:00pm. “We maybe in bed by 10:00 but often we are awake until midnight catching up on daily life outside of the bubble via the Internet”. Andy isn’t a massive contributor to Twitter but loves Instagram, more looking than posting in his case.
As with most riders, Andy is somewhat shy, he prefers to let his legs and his results do the talking. Once primed though, Andy gave me a real insight into his world, which by and large isn’t as far removed for our own worlds’ of work. Andy obviously loves his job and is very good at it. If you want to know how good he is YouTube the final stage of the Tour Down Under. Andy is right in there at the finale with Greiple and Renshaw, taking third place, despite been given a really rough ride by Lotto Belisol. “I’m a bit of an all-rounder, maybe more of a sprinter,” was his assessment of his attributes. “I’m not a climber, that’s for sure! I’ve got a fast finish and I think I can do different things in different types of races.” I’m guessing his end of year review meeting with his boss will have all the ticks in all the right boxes.