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Tales from the peloton, January 21, 2008

All the way to the top

The clock is ticking down and after months of preparation Australia's Tour Down Under is ready for its debut as a round of the ProTour. On the eve of its 10th Anniversary event the race is ready to hit the world stage as Cyclingnews' Greg Johnson discovered.

The colourful spectacle of the European peloton
Photo ©: Mark Gunter
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As 133 riders take to the Tour Down Under's Stage 1 start line at South Australia's Mawson Lakes tomorrow morning each of the athletes will be claiming their own part of cycling history as they become a part of the day the ProTour goes global. While the term globalisation is one firmly implanted in the business plans of any would-be multi national corporation and many big-dollar sports around the world, it's taken a little longer for the top echelons of cycling to embrace its own popularity around the world and include a non-European race in the ProTour.

After initially bidding for a 2009 ProTour slot, Australia's Tour Down Under has been awarded not only the right, but more importantly the honour, of hosting the first non-European round. The announcement of its ProTour status in late 2007 was a massive boost for the already successful Tour Down Under.

"The organization is very proud of the fact that the first venture outside of Europe is here in Adelaide," said a delighted event director Mike Turtur. "I think it's an important step for cycling as a whole, I think it's the start of a new era and we're very excited by ProTour.

"We believe in the concept, we believe it's the way to go," he added. "I also have a strong commitment to globalisation. I think every aspect of what we're trying to achieve with the UCI and the race here will be bigger and better for everyone in the future."

"I tell you what; nobody in a ProTour team is a mug of a bike rider."

- Robbie McEwen dismissed suggestions that not having some of the biggest ProTour names makes the Tour Down Under a less exciting race.

While the sport of cycling has grown to massive popularity in the America, Asia and Oceania regions over recent decades, the magnitude of its rich tapestry of history in Europe has made it difficult for the sport's governing body, the UCI, to move the top-shelf ProTour series abroad. With political unrest in Europe with the Grand Tour organizers in recent years acting as a catalyst, the UCI has made the call to expand its reach and cash in on the popularity of the sport world-wide.

While major tours around the globe are now being aggressively built from the ground up with the aim of gaining ProTour status, Turtur says the Tour Down Under's success is born from professionalism and timing.

"The goal was initially to put on a good race, to use the teams and individuals as the catalyst to have something different in Australia," he said. "That was to have professional teams compete here as they would in Europe, but also to create a style of race that would be expected in Europe but not staged in Australia.

Race director Mike Turtur
Photo ©: Mark Gunter
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"So it's a combination of those things that I think was critical, and also the time of year," he continued. "Traditionally a lot of Australian races were at the end of the season and we believed that the beginning of the season was a good spot and would be of benefit to the race and it's certainly proved to be the case."

The boom of Australian cyclists on the world stage has also helped the event flourish, as the pacific nation's reputation continues to sore on the back of strong results in Europe. The health of the nation's athletic development has never been more evident than in 2007, where South Australian Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC) claimed the famed Spring Classic Paris-Roubaix, while the Northern Territory-born Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) dashed into the spot light with his epic battle - and his eventual second place - against Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel) at the Tour de France before the Melbourne-based rider stormed on to claim the overall ProTour jersey.

"I think the race has developed along with the riders," noted Turtur, himself an Olympic gold medallist during the '80s. "I mean Robbie [McEwen] started here and Allan [Davis], they were just starting to come, winning stages in the Tour, jerseys and so on. We rode the crest of a wave with them.

"Through their success in Europe it helped us here in Australia develop the race and in partnership, although it was never planned it's just good luck with the way things have happened in Australian cycling in the last 10 years, it's just come to a level that's just sensational," he added. "It's at a level that 10 years ago you just couldn't have predicted. We hold our place firmly in the world of cycling now."

With its foot firmly in the door, and a four year ProTour agreement up its sleeve, the Tour Down Under will now lead the way in the fate of the top cycling series' globalization. While the 2008 edition will be somewhat of a transitional year, due to the late announcement of its ProTour status, even organizers around the globe will undoubtedly be watching with a keen eye to see how its inclusion pans out and what it could mean for future expansion into the Asian and American markets.

Robbie McEwen was on hand
Photo ©: Mark Gunter
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"I think the ProTour status has brought with it a few things right across the board," explained Turtur. "Every aspect of the race, all the associated events, everything in and around the race are recording record numbers. I think it's been a terrific in that sense and I'm a big believer and supporter of the concept as I said earlier and I think it's the way to go for cycling."

Queensland's Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto) is another supporter of the event's new status and is looking forward to the new dynamic that will result. The former Tour de France green jersey has won more Tour Down Under stages than any other rider, with 12 stage wins over the event's nine-year history, and is enthusiastic about this year's race.

"I think it will certainly change the intensity of the race, way the race is ridden and the tactics because there's ProTour points on offer which teams and individual riders would like to have," said McEwen. "None of these teams want to come all the way to Australia and embarrass themselves by missing the break, not having anyone up in the overall, not being anywhere close in the stages, everyone's going to try hard.

"There's going to be a bit of pressure from sponsors, team mangers and also themselves, they want to perform, they've come all this way and it's their first ProTour race so it will bring something extra with it," he added.

The race, which is celebrating its 10th Anniversary in 2008, has come under scrutiny for not attracting the likes of big named European riders like Tom Boonen and Paolo Bettini but McEwen dismissed the criticism saying the lineup its attracted is more conducive to closer racing.

"I've heard a few times that 'Oh yeah okay, it's a ProTour race but a lot of the best blokes aren't here'," he said. "But what you've got to realize is that, okay, there's a few big names that aren't here, but they wouldn't race in January, if you force them to come here they're still not going to race.

"What you've got here is motivated guys who have trained to be good in January and you get a much more exciting race and a more worthy winner," he added. "I tell you what; nobody in a ProTour team is a mug of a bike rider."

Turtur and McEwen field questions
Photo ©: Mark Gunter
(Click for larger image)

Turtur supported McEwen's sentiment, saying that while he would have liked a few of the bigger European names that he's pleased with the lineup. The race's director said the late announcement of the event's inclusion, which came after the UCI's annual general meeting at the World Championships, meant fewer teams were able to send their top riders to the event as their programs for the season had already been finalised.

"This is a transition both for us and the UCI," said Turtur. "This is a decision for the future, we have a four year licence and in the next three years we will see what develops. I've never been disappointed with the quality of the riders nor the race that we have staged in the last nine years and I would say looking on paper this race will be no different.

"No matter where you have a race in the world, if you do an analysis of the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia or Tour of Spain, do a ranking analysis of the top 100 and you might be surprised because they're not all there," he added. "You can't be; it's impossible."

The ability for Australia to ever host a ProTour round had been deemed impossible at one point, yet this Sunday the first ProTour series leader will receive the series' white leaders' jersey in the heart of Adelaide, South Australia. With that impossibility now a reality, it's anyone's guess what names Turtur and the dedicated team at the Tour Down Under will manage to attract over the coming years.

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