The Froome Factor: What impact did the Tour de France champion have on the Sun Tour?

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The Jayco Herald Sun Tour ended yesterday afternoon the way that many people expected it would — with Chris Froome (Sky) holding the winner’s trophy.

The result was a good one for the Sun Tour — the headline act had delivered, thrusting the race into the spotlight around the world.

So just how valuable was Froome’s appearance at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour? Did he have a measurable impact on coverage of the race? And what will his appearance mean for future instalments of the race?

The crowds

Race director John Trevorrow has every right to be thrilled by Chris Froome’s attendance at and performance in the Sun Tour. It was Trevorrow himself that orchestrated the appearance, lobbying Sky to send a contingent to Victoria and ensuring that Froome was part of that contingent.

That hard work has paid dividends.

“These are the biggest crowds I’ve seen in a long long time,” Trevorrow told CyclingTips on the morning of the final stage. “That’s the Chris Froome factor.

“The prologue was sensational. Healesville was the biggest provincial crowd I’ve seen mid-week and then it was even bigger the next day in Moe. And then even bigger yesterday in Inverloch.

“Already, we’ve got an hour to go [before the final stage] and this place is buzzing.”

Crowds on the race-ending climb would end up being the biggest they’ve ever been, with vast numbers of cycling fans coming down from Melbourne to see Chris Froome in action on what is a popular local training climb.

But the size of the roadside crowds is only one part of the puzzle.

The media impact

When news broke that Chris Froome would be starting his season at the Sun Tour, the race was put into the media spotlight in a way it hadn’t in its previous 62 editions. The media call in Melbourne on the eve of the race attracted an estimated five times as many media personnel as in the previous year, and the number of accredited media following the race more than doubled from 2015 to 2016.

Mainstream media coverage increased significantly in 2016, with TV networks showing a greater interest in the race than in previous years. The race was broadcast live on TV for the first time in several years (in Australia and beyond) and, for the first time ever, the race was also streamed live online.

A look at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour YouTube channel also shows evidence of ‘the Froome factor’. At the time of writing, the highlights video from stage 1 of the 2015 Sun Tour has had roughly 850 views. The video for the equivalent stage in this year’s race, in which Peter Kennaugh and Chris Froome went one-two, has had nearly 30,000.

Social media traffic, too, increased dramatically as a result of Froome’s appearance. A survey of the #SunTour hashtag on Twitter for a comparable four-day period in 2015 and 2016 (four days leading up to and including stage 1) showed a more than three-fold increase in mentions. The #SunTour hashtag trended in Australia and the UK, as too did the names “Chris Froome”, “Peter Kennaugh” and “Caleb Ewan”.

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This increase in social media traffic isn’t just due to Froome’s presence at the race; it’s also due to Froome’s active promotion of and interaction with the race on social media. And that’s no small thing given he wasn’t paid an appearance fee.

By including the #SunTour hashtag in his tweets and recirculating content from the official Sun Tour account, Froome has only amplified interest in the race.

“Sky and Froome, they’ve got massive audiences so you can see it take off like wildfire the minute he retweets something,” said David Culbert, the Sun Tour’s media director. “He’s so active on social media — a couple times a day he’s pumping out content, he’s commenting and retweeting our stuff, interacting with the fans.

“And Team Sky as well — they’re good at what they do.”

The race ahead

While Froome’s presence at and engagement with the Sun Tour has brought more attention to the race in 2016 than ever before, it’s his impact on the race’s future that’s perhaps most encouraging.

The Sun Tour is Australia’s oldest stage race, having seen 63 editions in 65 years, but the past few years have been anything but smooth sailing for race organisers. The race has been moved around in the calendar, it wasn’t held in 2010 and 2012, and it’s struggled in the shadow of the Santos Tour Down Under and, now, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.

“This race has always been hanging on by its fingernails,” said David Culbert. “It got pushed aside when the World Championships were on [in 2010], which was for good reason, it moved to February and had virtually a three-day race in early January once …”

While it’s taken a few years for fans (and riders) to get used to the idea of February Sun Tour — many preferred it as a season-ending race in October — the race is now starting to feel like a valuable chapter in the Australian summer of racing.

The hope from those involved in the race is that the appearance of Sky and Chris Froome at this year’s Sun Tour will encourage other teams to take part in future editions.

“I would think there are other WorldTour teams thinking ‘You know what: we should probably have a look at this race next year’,” Culbert said.

Race director John Trevorrow is similarly optimistic, suggesting that the number of WorldTour teams at next year’s race will be higher than this year’s three.

“We would like to have five ProTour teams next year,” Trevorrow said. “I believe the ones talking to us that want to come — we’re already there.”

For Chris Froome, attending the Sun Tour has been a case of a time well spent.

“We’ve been doing quite a bit of training after the stages here also, just to get the miles in,” Froome said in his post-race press conference. “So it’s definitely been worthwhile in terms of the form and moving us forward and preparing us for the European season to come.

“I think it’s a great race to come out to and I’m surprised more WorldTour teams aren’t doing the same. I imagine they probably will in future.”

With the impact Froome’s had by attending this year’s Sun Tour, the question many people have is this: will the two-time Tour de France winner be back?

“You have to be back as the defending champion”, Culbert told Froome in the final press conference of the race.

“I guess I have to come back then”, Froome replied, laughing.

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