The Herald Sun Tour has not only had a full facelift, but also some major reconstructive surgery over the last few years. Traditionally held in October (during the Melbourne spring), the race was moved to February in 2013, presumably so it could piggy back off of the Lunar New Year Celebrations that are popular in Melbourne at this time.
This year the race was also upgraded to UCI 2.1 status meaning that it attracted a higher calibre of international competition including three WorldTour teams and a number of Pro Continental and Continental teams from Asia and the United States – as well as the Synergy Baku Cycling Project from Azerbaijan, which is somewhere in between – if you head east from America.
But making the biggest headlines this year was the innovative new format for the prologue time trial, which was contested as a stage of the “Commuter Cup”.
In a bold move to attract publicity and build on the ever-growing popularity of cycling in Melbourne, the race organisers opted for a downtown city prologue that tested professional cyclists against the perils of everyday CBD cycle traffic as commuters headed home from (what we can only assume was) a busy day at the office.
The spectacular circuit followed the popular commuter bike path from Birrarung Marr alongside Federation Square, up and over the Yarra River, past the private school rowing clubs and back down along the Southbank promenade. With the first rider heading down the start ramp at 6.45pm, it was always going to be a congested route, but also one that allowed a huge number of peak-hour cycle commuters to get involved.
A prologue time-trial is always interesting from an equipment perspective. While no time-trial bikes are allowed for the short, 2.5km ITT at the Herald Sun Tour, riders were still able to use some other fancy equipment for this race against the clock.
Eric Sheppard of Singaporean Continental team OCBC was excited to test some new commuter-friendly equipment on the popular Melbourne route.
Just two hours before his Prologue start time, OCBC’s Eric Sheppard was still excitedly making some last minute tweaks in preparation for the first ever UCI-sanctioned Commuter Cup race. After some subtle changes to his saddle and handlebar position, he spent quite some time debating whether or not to remove the basket. In a short, technical race like this, a basket can add unnecessary weight to the bike but, on the flipside, it means you don’t have to try and squeeze your briefcase in to your backpack.
While Eric (and many other riders) decided to forgo the basket in this year’s prologue, it actually got the thumbs up from OCBC soigneur Maddie Wright.
There is some controversy surrounding where Maddie’s allegiances lie for the 2014 Sun Tour. Rumour has it that earlier this year she spent considerable time inside an altitude tent with rival team Avanti Pro Cycling’s Neil van der Ploeg – until reportedly being asked to leave for stealing what little oxygen remained.
Van der Ploeg had a blistering prologue race (sans-basket) on a course that suited his superb bike-handling and Backgammon skills. Apparently he only put down the Backgammon dice for long enough to race the prologue and made it back to the team tent in time to take his next turn.
Van der Ploeg was able to drag himself away from the Backgammon for just long enough to claim 8th place in the prologue.
Neil stopped the clock at 3:05.6 for an average speed of 48.5km/h and held the fastest time for all of about 5 minutes until Will Clarke (Neil’s breakaway companion from Stage 1 of the recent Tour Down Under) managed a storming ride to dislodge him from the top spot. Neil ended up in 8th position, just 4.7 seconds behind eventual winner (and New Zealander) Jack Bauer, proving that he’s a very crafty cycle commuter – or perhaps just got a good run with the traffic lights.
While the commuter involvement in this year’s prologue was certainly groundbreaking and an exciting way to start a UCI-sanctioned event, it was, at times, difficult to sort out the professional riders from the everyday commuters out on course…
...and at this point, the only people with a decent view of the actual race were a full load of peak-hour tram-goers.
With so many obstructions, pedestrians, trams and difficult equipment choices to be made, there was obviously a rather tense atmosphere around the team tents. But, for the many spectators lining the course, the mood was quite festive. The great weather and exciting racing made for an incredible spectacle and a few notable attendees were spied in the crowd, including local Melbourne cycling legend Danny Cohen.
This man has his finger on the pulse of the Melbourne cycling scene.
Stage 1 will see Garmin-Sharp’s Jack Bauer in the yellow jersey as riders tackle a 125km course from Geelong to Ballarat, a route recently the subject of a “Rail Revival Study” by the Victorian Government. Patronage on the passenger train line connecting Geelong and Ballarat (which first opened in 1862) gradually dwindled when the direct Ballarat-Melbourne line opened in 1889 and by 1978 passenger services had been withdrawn altogether. Unfortunately for railway enthusiasts, the findings of the study were that the high upfront cost of infrastructure outweighed any predicted benefits of reviving this historical rail route. Obviously, this will serve as something for riders to ponder during any down-time in the peloton on Stage 1.
A rider from the Great Britain National Team ponders the Rail Revival Study ahead of Stage 1.