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Tales from the (Tasmanian) Peloton, December 29, 2002
"Hey Stan, waddya reckon we get Robbie, Stuey and the lads in for a big crit in the middle of town ..."
The Launceston Classic: How two local riders brought their dream to life
By Gerard Knapp in Launceston
Earlier this year, two local Launceston riders were out on a ride and the talk turned invariably to pro racing and 'wouldn't it be good to get a whole bunch of pros here for a crit around the town, and recreate the atmosphere of a European race right in the middle of town?'
Of course, such talk is cheap and quite often plentiful. But the city of Launceston, like all of Tasmania, has a proud cycling heritage. The whole state is cycling friendly: cyclists out commuting or on training rides are treated with respect and courtesy by other road users. The local townsfolk have great pride in their attractive small city. But perhaps above all, there is the great tradition of the Tasmanian Christmas track cycling carnivals, which stretch back to the late 19th century. (It is quite staggering to see the "Previous winners" listing in the small programs of some of these carnivals where the names go back to 1896.)
The carnivals take place inside velodromes or outdoor oval tracks; they are not the easily accessible road events which become part of the city's fabric. So what this idea really needed was someone with enough 'go-power' (ie, ability to write big cheques) to get the ball rolling.
Those two cyclists out riding that day were leading Launceston neurologist Dr Stan Siejka and local cycling identity Tom Sawyer, brother of legendary Australian rider Phil Sawyer. Apparently, the good doctor put up the first AUS$20K without too much convincing and the wheels were set in motion. The town's largest establishment, Doherty's Launceston International Hotel, joined on as naming rights sponsor and the race gained momentum, to the point where there were 33 sponsors listed in the race program.
Not only did local companies support the event, so did the townsfolk, as police estimate that over 10,000 people lined the 2.4km course in the balmy afternoon sun, and they cheered on each and every rider, regardless of position in the field.
Then there was the field assembled for the inaugural race: they had pulled in the top Australian riders. There was Robbie McEwen, Stuart O'Grady, Bradley McGee, Cadel Evans, Matthew Hayman, Baden Cooke, Henk Vogels and many others. In fact, they had attracted almost all the top Australian riders. A special moment for the locals was introduction of the Tasmanian contingent - Mathew Gilmore and the legendary Danny Clark lined up alongside Mark Jamieson, the reigning world junior pursuit champion. The assembly of three generations of great Tasmanian cyclists brought the biggest cheers of all.
Once the starting gun fired the racing was hard and fast and eventually a group made up of top professionals and a local rider or two made the break (see full race report). The noise on the main straight outside Doherty's Hotel on the final laps gave the riders goosebumps. Seasoned European-based pros such as Brad McGee said the feeling was not unlike a European kermesse, except it was better, in that there was much more to do afterwards. Like catch up with mates and drink a few beers. Sign autographs for fans, talk to locals about the race - something like this doesn't happen every day in a small Australian city and they made the most of it.
The locals were genuinely supportive and enthusiastic. They live in a city which is ringed by steep hills and have probably struggled up those climbs as youngsters, even if they may have given up their bikes for cars. They can appreciate the effort and athleticism of the riders as they hit the climb at over 50km/h, in the big chainring, lap after lap.
At the top of the climb - yes, a 2.4km Launceston criterium cannot avoid having a 400 metre climb - a group of five and six year-old children would chant "Brad McGee ... Brad McGee" and "Luke Roberts ... Luke Roberts" when the cyclists rode past.
A Launceston local stepped around your Cyclingnews correspondent to remove a small pebble which was on the middle of the road. "I think they could have done a better job of sweeping the roads before the race," she said to her friends. "I just couldn't forgive myself if one of the riders hit that rock and fell off his bike."
The race programs were sold by a toddler, with her mum standing closely by. To say that the locals were proud and supportive of their city and this race would almost be an understatement.
Later that evening during the post-race dinner, attended by 300 riders, officials but mainly interested locals, the riders spoke warmly of the event. They enjoyed themselves yet suffered; it was no procession or pre-arranged outcome, said Baden Cooke. The looks on the riders' faces as they reached the summit of the short but sharp climb showed they were suffering.
This may not be the time of the year when the European pros are in peak form, but they weren't there to spin around, either. There is a genuine competitiveness among riders like Robbie McEwen, Stuart O'Grady and Cooke when a race is shaping up for a sprint. One day it's the Champs Elysées in Paris, several months later it's Cameron St, Launceston - it seemingly doesn't matter. One feels they would go as hard for a $10 prize instead of the $10,000 that was on offer on Friday. They laugh and share a beer afterwards, but in almost any race these riders are out to destroy each other.
The locals also dug deep and put in bids for a range of framed cycling jerseys, auctioned with flair by television journalist Mike Tomalaris. 'Tommo' also did a succession of Q & As with the visiting pro riders, who once again demonstrated Australians' special ability to take the piss - out of themselves, but never the spectators or the organisers, who were treated with the utmost respect.
Crammed on to the small stage were sometimes up to 10 riders, including current and former world and Olympic champions spanning at least three decades of cycling. From the wily veteran Danny Clark - who at 52 put in about six weeks training to prepare for the race and only "just missed" the main break which got away - through to emerging riders like Cooke and regular returning "Tasmanian" rider Matt Gilmore, they all said they wanted to come back next year.
Gilmore in particular received very warm applause. Although born in Belgium to Australian parents, he is still considered a Tasmanian by the locals, even though he has won world titles and Olympic medals for Belgium. The overall success of the event left somewhat cynical mainland Australian cycling followers genuinely impressed with what can be achieved when a couple of riders start talking while out on a training ride.