Travel Story Tour Down Under’s two-wheeled pilgrims

Photo of Claire Tyrrell

Following the epic SA race has become an annual ritual for Perth cycling fanatics — and neither heat nor hills can dampen their passion.

The Tour Down Under is about as close as Australian road cycling gets to a European grand tour.

And as someone who spends countless hours on my bike around Perth, the annual pilgrimage to the city of churches has become a ritual for me and many of my lyrca-clad comrades.

About springtime, my social media accounts become awash with tour previews and people summoning their friends to witness the spectacle of the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest cycling race. 

About 130 riders from 19 teams cover more than 900km in nine days at the Tour Down Under, which has been running for two weeks in January since 1999.

The event opens with a criterium-style circuit around the streets of Adelaide before six road stages around SA’s rolling hills and coastline, taking in the vineyards, orchards, beaches and rolling hills South Australia is renowned for.

It runs during school holidays, which makes it difficult to find cheap flights, but the Perth to Adelaide route generally won’t break the budget — about $200 each way.

Luckily I have family in the cycling city so had my accommodation locked away. I stayed with relatives in Magill, perfectly positioned in the foothills for convenient cycling and just 10 minutes out of the CBD. 

My plan, along with thousands of other keen riders, was to take my bike and follow the tour on two wheels, stopping at picturesque vantage points along the way to catch the action.

My cycling club, the South Perth Rouleurs, arguably had the largest contingent of WA riders venturing across to Adelaide for the tour, so I had no shortage of company for my daily jaunts.

The most common questions I hear when I tell people I travel with my bike are “How do you transport it” and “What does it cost?”

If you plan to take your bike with you on holidays I would advise purchasing or borrowing a bicycle bag. There are many options out there but the one I got is a soft-case Evoc bag I picked up second-hand for $250 — they are normally $500 to $600.

Airlines do supply bicycle boxes but personally, and all my friends share this view, my beloved machine has far too much sentimental and actual value to put into a cardboard box.

All you need to pack it in the bag are a good set of Allen keys and some patience, and the great thing about these bags is there is always plenty of space around the bike to pack your clothes.

If you can keep the weight of the bag under the airline’s limit — usually 23kg on domestic flights — the airline will not charge you extra to take the bike, but it does count as oversized luggage.

I would also advise checking if your insurance policy covers any damage to the bike incurred by the airline — a lot of people take out separate insurance for this. Velosure is a good provider.

This year was my third Tour Down Under and my second consecutive one. I arrived in Adelaide on Saturday, January 13, a day before the race started.

Travelling through Adelaide to my accommodation the buzz around the annual event was palpable — an event village in the centre of town was built around a giant blow-up bicycle and there were riders everywhere.

I was in my element.

I unpacked my bike and went on Facebook to check how soon I could get out with my friends — we have a group dedicated to riders from our club who travelled across.

On Sunday morning I was up bright and early to meet a couple of my Perth friends and explore the Adelaide Hills.

A tough but scenic ride up Mt Lofty rendered me exhausted but it did not take long for me to reload and ride into the city that afternoon to watch the start of the tour.

Thousands of people packed into Adelaide to watch the tour kick off and the fast-paced race meant the atmosphere was electric.

I felt blessed — a good friend had a spare seat in the VIP section, so I got to watch the likes of world champion Peter Sagan fly past me on the 2.3km circuit from the comfort of a grandstand.

After the race finished I rode out of town and as I did I saw Mitchelton-Scott’s Mathew Hayman, a legend of Australian cycling, casually riding through the city. “Hi Matt,” I exclaimed as if he were a close friend, when in reality I’d only ever seen him dominating races on the television. He warmly smiled back at me and said hello — my night was made.

The following day was a rest day for the tour riders before the long stages began. 

I used this day as an opportunity to test out some new wheels.

The event village was packed with bicycle manufacturers wanting to sell their products and vendors are happy for people to take a test ride. I took a Scott Addict — an improved model on my own bike — down to Glenelg foreshore with my friend Mark, a leisurely cruise that left me desiring an upgrade.

That afternoon I met up with an adventure cyclist I know from Perth, Jack Thompson. He and his dad had ridden across the Nullarbor — yes, you read that right — to see the first part of the tour.

Jack and his dad looked remarkably fresh and recounted stories of stifling headwinds and energy expenditure that had to be seen to be believed. Jack burned a whopping 10,000 calories on one day in the journey. Safe to say they were hungry, so we shared a meal with them.

The following day was the first long stage of the tour, from Port Adelaide to Lyndoch. I met about six of my Perth friends in the city and together we rode to Williamstown, about 50km out of Adelaide, to the King of the Mountain point.

The atmosphere on the hilltop was incredible — hundreds of cyclists cheered on the riders as they flew past.

I ran into several people I knew from Perth’s cycling circles and met dozens of new people as we waited for the main event to whiz by — the social aspect of the tour was a major drawcard for me.

Our schedule for the subsequent four days unfolded in a similar way. Each morning we met in Adelaide for breakfast and coffee before venturing out to that day’s stage on our bikes.

Extreme heat took its toll on the riders as temperatures soared past 40C. We decided to rest on Thursday, when the stage was shortened by 23km due to extreme heat.

I cannot recall ever riding in such intense heat as I did on Friday, January 19; the fourth stage of the tour from Norwood to Uraidla. The temperature on my bike computer read 52C as my friends and I climbed Norton Summit in Adelaide’s foothills to witness the King of the Mountain — a feat only reserved for the insane few.

The annual Bupa Challenge Ride, which attracts hundreds of people keen to ride that day’s stage, was cancelled due to extreme heat and the stage was pushed back one hour earlier.

The heat did not dampen our excitement to witness our heroes slog it out on the road and we were all smiles as the riders suffered their way up the climb.

Friday’s stage was a highlight for a few reasons. Stage five featured Willunga Hill, the battleground for the tour’s general classification where Australia’s Richie Porte had dominated in recent years. The hill, about 80km out of Adelaide, meant it was a long day in the saddle if we were to ride the return journey, which of course we were. It was also my birthday.

I was happier than a pig in mud as I rode with about 20 of my close friends to secure our spot on the climb well ahead of the riders’ scheduled arrival. The hill was lined with spectators, most of them in lycra with their bikes behind them, for kilometres and it was a carnival atmosphere as we waited for the riders.

We scored several freebies as sponsors handed out caps, bags, bottles and signs — I even scored a water bottle from a Dimension Data rider who threw it out of the pack. My club mates surprised me by singing Happy Birthday to me on the hill, making an already spectacular day even more special.

We watched the riders go past twice on the Willunga circuit — the second time to the finish line at the top — and, demonstrating his class, Porte attacked before the finish to reclaim his crown as the King of Willunga.

A weary ride back to Adelaide was followed by a beer in one of the many pop-up venues in the CBD. The major cycling brands use the Tour Down Under to expose their products by setting up temporary venues around the city, most of which serve alcohol, food and coffee.

There was nothing better after a hot day’s riding than sitting with my mates sharing a beer — the Tour Down Under really does know the way to a cyclist’s heart.

There was one more stage to go, a relatively flat 90km ride of 20 laps around the streets of Adelaide. We watched the finish, where German giant Andre Griepel showed his prowess in the bunch sprint and took out the stage.

And just like that, it was over for another year. 

South African all-round nice guy Daryl Impey won the 2018 Tour Down Under followed by Aussie champion Porte.

The race barriers were taken down, the riders retreated to their hotels and we packed up our bikes, already plotting a repeat of the experience the following year.

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