There was a time, not so long ago, that Australia was a stalwart on the world circuit for the top women’s race series and the nation’s riders were regularly taking the top step of the podium.
Then in 2008, after more than a decade on the World Cup circuit, the last Australian round was run, and the women’s international racing in the land down under all but disappeared.
It came at a time when Australian women’s cycling was still grappling with the lasting impact of a terrible accident in Germany in 2005 which devastated the Australian national team. A car had hit the Australian team while they were out training before Thuringen, leaving five of the nation’s most promising cyclists terribly injured and Amy Gillette dead.
With the pipeline of new talent tragically disrupted and then the halting of top-level international racing in Australia, the odds turned further against Australian women’s cycling. This showed in the results.
However, the tide now is once again on the rise.
Australia is heading into its third summer of UCI classified women’s racing at the Santos Women’s Tour and the women’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. The rapid progression of both races toward the top level means they are now just one step below Women’s WorldTour.
Plus, with the return of the Women’s Herald Sun Tour, there are now three events squeezed into January in Australia with valuable UCI points on offer, and the world’s best teams are making the trek to vie for them.
“[This elevation] means the teams have the ability to put their stamp of authority early on in the scope of things,” said Kimberley Conte, Santos Women’s Tour race director. “They can accrue more points and have more exposure, which potentially means greater sponsorship for a team.”
As a result the nature of the field at the Santos Women’s Tour and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race is evolving. Once a contest of National Road Series teams, they are now races dominated by international squads, with half of the world’s top 10 teams in attendance.
“It’s a great opportunity to see some strong tactics, some exciting stages…and what we get to see as fans, bottom line, is really great racing,” said Conte.
Putting the world stage within reach
Having the racing in Australia isn’t just good for the local fans, it gives already established riders the rare opportunity to enjoy that home ground advantage.
An advantage one of Australia’s most successful female road cyclists, Anna Millward (née Wilson), enjoyed when she won the Australian round of the World Cup in the three years from 1999 to 2001. She also managed to go on to win the overall series in two of those years .
“There’s a lot of different things that confront you as an athlete when you have to go away to compete – food, accommodation, roads, travel,” Millward told Ella CyclingTips.
“All of those things add up when you are away and everything’s a little bit different and you can’t get the food you used to and you just feel a bit out of your comfort zone with language and everything. So it’s great to be able to start the season on Australian ground and enjoy that little bit of hometown advantage and get a few points up your sleeve before you head off.”
Plus, it’s a valuable opportunity for those who are aspiring to reach that top level.
“It’s still incredibly difficult coming from Australia to make the big trip over to Europe or America to start racing when all you’ve come from is national level racing. You’re not only confronted with the big trip and expense but you’re confronted with a massive step up in level as well,” said Millward.
“If you can get a good taste of what you’re in for once you really hit the big time, it’s just so much better to help the young riders come through and prepare. Then they know what level they need to reach to be competitive on the world’s stage.”
Raising the stakes
The summer of racing is at the very beginning of a new year when many riders are rediscovering their racing legs and settling into new teams. But it’s no processional start. There’s way too much incentive for riders to sprint out of the starting blocks and lay everything on the line for early season glory, a chance to be seen and UCI points.
Of course there is always a strong incentive for Australian riders to put their best foot forward and begin the year in peak form given Australia’s National Championships falls right at the start of January. Plus this year at the Fed Uni 2018 Road Nationals Championships there is an added inducement to fight hard for the win.
“Leading into Commonwealth Games, it will be big,” said defending champion Katrin Garfoot in a Cycling Australia release. “It will be very hard this year to defend the road title because of this, riders want to qualify for the Games.”
The winners of the Road Nats and the winner – if Australian – of the women’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race are automatically nominated for the Commonwealth Games team in Queensland this year.
But perhaps the biggest drawcard of the Summer’s races – for Australian and international riders alike – is the increasing number of UCI points at stake.
Both the Women’s Santos Tour Down Under and Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race have shifted up a UCI classification in 2018 to sit just one slot below Women’s WorldTour level at a .1 ranking. With that increase brings a more than tripling of the points on offer, which contribute to the all important UCI world rankings.
Teams set to amp up the competition in the early season points hunt
However, with five of the world’s top 10 ranked teams competing, as well as particularly strong new Australian national team, the competition for those points will be strong. There has been longstanding competition between Australian based Orica-Scott and Wiggle High5 during the Australian summer while last year Ale-Cippolini and Cylance were among the top teams that joined the fray. They well and truly made their presence felt, with stage wins and overall podium positions.
Australia’s only UCI women’s team Orica-Scott (now rebranded as Mitchelton-Scott) still managed to dominate the racing, but there will be even more competition for it to contend with this year. Top five team, WaowDeals Pro Cycling (formerly WM3) and the Australian national team are among a new group of teams on the roster.
In fact the UniSA-Australia national team will be among the key ones to watch, providing another fierce rival with a home ground advantage to Mitchelton-Scott. It will be led by the 2017 World Champion dual medallist and winner of the 2016 Tour Down Under, Garfoot. Plus UniSA-Australia has an incredibly strong contingent to ride alongside Garfoot.
The national team is made up of Australian riders who are without a team or whose teams aren’t coming to Australia. They include Shara Gillow (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope), World Championship silver-medallist Rachel Neylan (Movistar Women’s), hometown rider Tiffany Cromwell (CANYON//SRAM Racing Team) and last year’s fourth placed rider at the Santos Women’s Tour Lauren Kitchen (FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope).
A seventh rider will also be named after the Australian Road Championships and the riders in the national team for the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and Herald Sun Tour will be announced in mid-January.
A packed January of women’s racing in Australia
2018 FedUni Road National Championships, Ballarat, Victoria- Wednesday January 3 to Sunday January 7
Santos Women’s Tour Down Under, South Australia (UCI 2.1) – Thursday January 11 to Sunday January 14
Women’s Elite Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, Victoria (UCI 1.1) – Thursday January 25 (Toward Zero Melbourne Crit), Saturday January 27 (Deakin University Elite Women’s Race).
Women’s Herald Sun Tour (UCI 2.2) – Tuesday January 30 and Wednesday January 31.
Ella CyclingTips will be on the ground covering Australia’s summer of racing so keep an eye on the Ella page, CyclingTips Daily News Digest, Ella CyclingTips Instagram and Facebook for the latest news.