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Sunday, January 24, 2010

From the mailbag: Tour Down Under Report - Walt drives the moto for Graham the photographer

Another TDU update from Walt

Half-way through yesterdays stage, as I was struggling to hold the Yamaha upright in a frightening cross wind that must have blown most of McLaren Vale's top soil into my eyes and mouth, I reflected on some of the commentary I heard earlier in the day as we were preparing for the start of stage 4 in Norwood. I was thinking that it may be true that TDU has come a long way since its first edition in 1998 however its success is largely hinged to the timing, structure and format of the event.  For starters, it takes place in the beginning of the cycling season during our summer, when most of the northern hemisphere is under snow, torrential downpours or freezing conditions, so the alternative in the case of most teams would amount to a cold and wet training camp somewhere.  The other big bonus is that the teams are based in one hotel, the Adelaide Hilton, and each of the stages start and finish within a short distance from 'home'. Indeed, on some stages the racers actually ride to the start in convoy and when they do have to drive in team cars its never longer than an hour or so.  It really presents as a glorified training camp with free business class flights, and those 'better' teams, who a few years ago were put off by the extreme Adelaide heat in the peak of summer, are today obliged to attend as part of the Pro Tour conditions. 

Because of this unique format, which was devised in the loins of Olympic champion and TDU father/race director, Mike Turtur, the race involves minimal logistical organization when compared to its demanding sisters like Tour of California or even the Tour of Missouri.  Most of the course is on roads that tend to snake their way through the countryside with very few junctions and cross roads and these are generally well managed by a huge police contigency of 30 police motorcycles and 6 police cars precluding the need for moto marshalls and foot marshalls.  In fact, there are only 11 motos involved and these include;
1.   moto commissaire
1.   Moto neutral spares
4.   Photo motos
4.   TV motos
1.   White board moto

There are no 'food nazis' to contend with because there is no food to distribute as, in the words of Mike Turtur himself, "you normally need to feed yourself anyway" so you need to fend for yourself. You're lucky if you can grab a couple of waters or a few Powerades out of the tour village fridge before you head out and the two polos and hat are normally well and truly trashed by about stage three. So when I hear UCI officials, politicians and racers (including Lance) carrying on about how well it's organized and how its 'truly a world-class event', I keep thinking to myself that perhaps with the exception of the racers themselves, the others should take a trip to the USA to see what 'organization' really means.  Alternatively, you should take a trip down under and see for yourself what 'disorganization' really means!!LOL

But I have to say that the last 20 ks of yesterday's stage in those amazing cross winds were enough to make it all worth-while to me. Graham and I had accosted the RadioShack team car to take some pics of Vaitkus collecting bidons for the rest of the team when we heard Bruynell giving him instructions that the entire team was to attack at the 15 k mark.  So we hovered near the front of the peleton and waited patiently until, as expected, RadioShack gathered and pulled the chain to the point that Vaitkus and Lance rode away from the rest, breaking that invisible link.  I think it was quite accidental, that they actually forced the pace so much that the two just left everyone behind and for the next 10 ks it was an amazing spectacle that pumped the adrenalin throughout my body and sent shivers up my spine. You can imagine the reaction by every photo bike, the chopper, the commissaires and the crowd when they saw the man himself doing business at the coalface of the bike race in the best way he knows. But in the end, the Columbia train took up formation to bridge the gap and drove their sprinter home hard and fast to take out the stage once more.  I'm convinced Greipel is unstoppable in a bunch sprint and the only way to beat him is  where the road goes uphill.

Today's 5th stage took place on a huge circuit around the vineyards of the McLaren Vale and along the beaches of Aldinga but the big test was always going to be the climb up Old Willunga hill which they would need to negotiate twice before crossing the finish line.I kind of had an embarrassing start, initially getting wet in the rain on the way down from Second Valley where I spent the night, then rocking up at the finish location in Willunga instead of the new start location of Snapper Point along the beach at Aldinga. Needless to say, Graham and the other moto dudes had a few laughs on me when I finally got there 15 minutes before the race started (what a Wally)!!! To my defence, I wasnt the only one who didnt realise the change after 12 years of the same routine.

The entire stage was broadcast live so it was particularly important not to do anything silly, and despite the tenacious start on my behalf, we managed to keep out of trouble and took some fantastic shots of the action including falls and every significant attack.  It wasnt until the last time up Old Willunga hill that the race truly exploded however, with the rainbow jersey of Cadell Evans launching a rocketing solo escape on the windy climb.  He was soon joined by three more, the spaniards Valverde and Sanchez and a 19 year old Liquigas rider with a huge future ahead of him, Peter Sagan.  The break stayed away until the very end, negotiating the descent at over 100 kph.  It was exciting, scary stuff to photograph as Greipel's Columbines battled to drag him within race lead parameters.  They were successful in the end as he managed to keep the leader's jersey into tomorrow's final stage with an 11 second lead over Sanchez (TDU winner from 2005).  Luke Roberts of Milram managed to jump the gap for second over Valverde and Evans.  The race isnt over yet but I can hear the fat lady starting to warm up her voice now as it will be hard to take those 11 seconds from Greipel in tomorrow's flat circuit stage around the streets of downtown Adelaide.

Best for now,


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