How to design a bike race course

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Designing the course for a bike race might seem easy. Just pull out Strava Route Builder, have a play around, find some good climbs, and wham: you’ve got yourself a bike race. Right? Well, no. In fact, it’s not nearly that simple.

Designing a race route is about far more than just the decisive climbs or crosswind-prone sections it will feature. Indeed there’s a lot more to consider when designing a route than just the sporting contest. Stakeholder requests, appropriate race distances, safety, logistics — all this and more needs to be front of mind.

To learn more about the challenges of route design, we caught up with Jayco Herald Sun Tour race director Scott McGrory and event manager Jimmy Lalor, both of GTR Events.


Setting the scene

First held in 1952, the men’s Jayco Herald Sun Tour is Australia’s oldest stage race. It’s a relatively small race in the grand scheme of things — a third-tier, UCI 2.1 event — but it’s much loved by local and international riders alike.

And just because the Sun Tour is a relatively humble race doesn’t mean it’s a cinch to organise. As you’ll read below, a lot of factors need to be considered when designing a route that will help the race achieve its numerous goals. This is true of every race, but the specific factors and goals will differ from race to race.

This article outlines the steps to designing a bike route in something of a linear fashion but in reality, many of the different steps happen concurrently, with considerable collaboration between stakeholders.

Choosing a region

The Sun Tour’s home state of Victoria isn’t small — roughly 7.5 times the size of Belgium. So how do you narrow down where to hold the race each year? Well, you start by listening to the race’s major backer: the state tourism body.

“We’re doing this for Visit Victoria,” race director Scott McGrory told CyclingTips. “The Tour de France is a big advertisement for France. At the very basics, that’s what it’s about — it’s making sure we go to the best regions, showcase the terrain from a cycling perspective, and then bring it into the communities as much as possible.”

In recent times the Sun Tour has rotated through three different regions from year to year: north east Victoria (2017), western Victoria (2018), and south east Victoria (2019). The 2020 edition returns to the north east to continue this cycle.

This rotating structure means race organisers know well in advance where the next edition will be held.

The 2018 Sun Tour visited the Great Ocean Road in Victoria’s south west.

Start and finish towns

With the region selected, it’s time to zoom in. The race organisers set about finding local councils and towns within the target region that will support the race, not just financially, but with community support.

“We look to areas that we know we’ll be able to get some funding from and councils that like to work with us and support cycling events,” event manager Jimmy Lalor told CyclingTips. “So we will reach out to them and start conversations with them.”

At the same time, the organisers go back and forth with Visit Victoria and local tourism bodies to see which towns they’d like the various stages to start and finish at. And then, when specific towns have been selected, it’s important to show the best of those towns; to make them as appealing to would-be visitors as possible.

“We don’t want to start in a paddock at the back of the factory,” McGrory said. “We want to start in good locations. The Port of Sale [the start of stage 3 in 2019] was beautiful … [we got] a lot of comments about how nice it was to start there.

“We’d love to finish in spectacular places as much as possible, same with the start locations. Cape Schanck was a beautiful place to start [on stage 4 in 2019]. It was challenging to get everybody in and out on the one road but once everyone was there it was just a beautiful location to start from.”

Stage 4 of the 2019 Sun Tour, with the Cape Schanck Lighthouse in the background.

Start and finish locations don’t just need to be beautiful for photos and TV/livestream coverage — they also need to have enough room for team vehicles and official vehicles to park, and to setup the infrastructure necessary to run a bike race.

The finishing area needs enough room around the roadway for timing equipment and a tent for officials, there needs to be a stage for presentations, space for anti-doping and for those involved in broadcasting or livestreaming the race.

Nailing down a stage’s finish location is particularly challenging when you consider the final kilometres. For race organisers, there’s a delicate balance to be struck: they want the finish to be as close to the centre of town as possible — to draw the biggest possible crowd — but they also want to minimise the race’s impact on the local road network.

As McGrory and Lalor note, the Sun Tour doesn’t have the budget of a race like the Tour de France, which can shut down whole towns as it pleases. The finish of stage 3 in Warragul this year was a good example of the challenges of organising a small race.

“An option that we looked at originally was a great finish but it’s a main bus route — there’s a bus depot there and there’s two high schools and a special school along the road,” Lalor said of the Warragul finish. “9am I think we start that closure to start the build for a 2 o’clock [stage] finish but we’re packing up till 6 o’clock at night so we can’t shut down that main bus route through town to pick up those school kids.”

The deeper you go into a moderately-sized town like Warragul (population roughly 40,000), the more you need to spend on a police presence and on traffic management measures.

“You need police at traffic lights,” McGrory said. “So if you’re going to go through three sets of traffic lights then there’s three sets of police that we need on each of those coming into town. So you’re trying to avoid that as much as you can.”

Stage 3 of the 2019 Sun Tour. Note how the race avoids the main road (the A1/M1) as it heads from Sale (far right) to Warragul (far left).

Of course, safety is a key concern when considering the approach to a stage finish too. This year’s finish in Warragul again provided an interesting example.

The last roundabout [was] about 800m to go and it was a tricky roundabout that if you took the fastest line — which is cut the corner [around to the right] — because the road dropped away, you would then realise as you were about to hit the apex that the exit of the corner is blocked by a traffic island. So the potential for a crash in the peloton if there was a bunch sprint was pretty high.”

McGrory and Lalor considered going the long way around that roundabout, but doing so meant turning sharply on a steep, off-camber slope.

“There would have been a crash there as well,” McGrory said. “So I suggested let’s just turn left and then go up and do a U-turn and then go straight through the roundabout to the finish, which is what we ended up doing.”

The finish in Warragul. Note the odd approach to the finish.

Getting the distance right

Once the organisers have an idea of where a stage will start and finish, it’s about linking those towns together, while ensuring the stages aren’t too long or too short. There are a couple factors that determine the optimal length.

First there’s the UCI guidelines for 2.1-classified stage races. A stage must be no longer than 240 km and the average daily distance must be no more than 180 km. But there are other important factors to consider too. If the stage features a particularly challenging climb, or a lot of climbing, organisers might seek to make the stage a little shorter.

For European pros, longer stages are often preferable — allowing them to get in those early-season base miles — but organisers need to do more than just keep the Euro pros happy.

“For the Europeans they like longer stages because it’s great training for when they go back to Europe but for spectacular racing it doesn’t really suit so you’re better off shortening a little bit,” McGrory said. “Nowadays anywhere between 100 to 170, 175 or so — that’s long enough. 150 to 175 k’s is long enough for early season racing, in terms of training and preparing for the Classics and things, and depending on the nature of the course.”

There’s also the fact that the Sun Tour is raced by a wide spread of riders: from local Continental riders, to some of the very best in the world.

“We don’t have the luxury of the, say, Tour Down Under where they have the entire field with WorldTour teams,” McGrory said. “So if we make the race really hard so that the WorldTour teams can really dominate, then that’s going to severely compromise the back end of the peloton.

“They are just going to get hammered. And while we don’t want to overprotect the domestic riders we don’t want to see them go out the back with 200 k’s to go either. Traffic management, rolling [road] closure, convoy length — all that stuff becomes an issue as well.”

As a UCI 2.1 event, the Sun Tour gives third-tier Continental riders a chance to mix it up with top-tier WorldTour riders.

Finding the right route between towns

A stage’s distance is only part of the equation. The way the race gets from start to finish is obviously important as well.

Running the race straight down a highway isn’t feasible.

“If we put it on the main road the whole way it’s going to be where most of that traffic is [and] it’s going to [have] a big impact,” Lalor said. “So we try and get off those main roads where we can here and there. Obviously we’ve got to use a few [main roads] to get some key points in but then getting off those main roads is important to give a break to the traffic.”

Smaller roads are a far better option. But perhaps surprisingly, a stage comprised entirely of narrow backroads would be problematic too.

The Sun Tour runs a rolling road closure, in which the race ‘envelope’ — every single rider and race vehicle — is bookended by police. The police vehicle at the front closes the road to any traffic ahead, while the police car at the back indicates the end of the rolling closure. Moto scouts head up to every intersection on the route, ensuring that no vehicles enter the race envelope. Once the race has passed by, each moto pilot leapfrogs the race and heads to the next intersection.

Narrow roads helped decide stage 3 of the 2019 Sun Tour.

If there are too many narrow roads, getting past the peloton can be too tricky for the moto scouts.

“If we were to have 40 kilometres of narrow road then logistically we couldn’t keep the race safe,” McGrory said, “because the police and everyone that’s been at those intersections would not be able to get back past the race again to be ahead.”

The same applies for team vehicles trying to get past the peloton to service riders in the breakaway.

Finding cool features

Of course a good race route needs exciting features. Decisive climbs, crosswind-prone sections, maybe even a gravel sector — these can all help generate exciting racing and spark interest in the race.

Sometimes race organisers have a clear idea of the features they want to include — a visit to north east Victoria, for example, wouldn’t be complete without one or more of the region’s legendary climbs.

“You think of Bright, Beechworth, Mt Beauty, and all the climbs – Hotham, Falls, Buffalo — they’re just so well used by different riders of different levels … so we’re pretty well on top of what’s there,” McGrory said. “So as soon as we realise that’s the region we’re going to you’ve already got a picture in your mind of ‘OK, we could probably do this, we could do that’ — climbs you might be able to use.”

Mt. Hotham is one of many significant climbs in north east Victoria.

Other times, the organisers go searching for something interesting or a little different. Often it’s a combination of local knowledge, Google Maps, Street View, and reconnaissance trips that helps to uncover new features.

Such was the case with a gravel climb in the closing kilometres of stage 2 of the 2019 Sun Tour.

“I knew there were hills out there,” Lalor said of the area around Churchill. “I didn’t exactly know what was involved in the roads … so that was a case of Google Mapping and looking ‘OK, there’s something out there.’ Google Maps is great and a lot of time you can drop in on the road and see what it’s like. At the same time a lot of those [Street View] images are quite old so you can look at it and think ‘Oh that looks great’ but it’s changed in the last 10 years. That climb out there, those hills out there: Street View hasn’t been up there.

“So I saw this climb and I saw it come back down [into Churchill, where stage 2 finished] and I thought ‘I’d love to know what that’s about, if that’s going to work or not.’ And then that was when I jumped in the car and went down there.”

Safety is a key consideration when designing any stage, but particularly when gravel is involved. A last-minute detour onto sandy gravel in the 2018 edition left organisers nervous about the prospect of heading off-piste again in 2019.

“I could tell it from Jimmy as well when we went down to do our group course recce that he was a bit nervous about what it was going to be like,” McGrory said of the gravel climb near Churchill. “It doesn’t get used at all by local traffic, hardly, so the surface was perfect — it was [in] really good condition. And as soon as I saw it and realised the condition of the road was fine, then it made me excited.

“I thought ‘Oh, this is a really good addition actually — this is just a little cherry on the top of what’s going to be a great stage.’”

Mike Woods leading Richie Porte up the gravel climb on stage 2 of the 2019 Sun Tour.

Sometimes race organisers just get lucky when it comes to finding interesting new features. That was certainly the case on the Warragul stage of the 2019 Sun Tour.

“When we did the course recce … we went through Maffra and it was pretty much a straight road for the next 30 k’s or so but there was bridgework being done so the road was closed,” McGrory said. “So we had to go and take a detour off the proposed course and we found just this narrow, single-lane road that was in really good condition and the further I was driving along it the further I was thinking to myself ‘No no, this is now going to be the course. This is much better.’”

The sporting contest

It’s also important to balance the sporting needs of the route. You can’t make every stage a climbing stage and unless you want people to ignore your race entirely, you can’t make every stage a sprint stage. The 2020 Sun Tour route is a good demonstration of this — while the race will feature two big mountain-top finishes in Victoria’s north east, flatter stages are required too.

“With the two hilltop finishes … I really had to think about making sure the other three stages weren’t ridiculously hard and to give it a nice balance,” McGrory said. “[The tour is] top-and-tailed by two sprint stages and even though the final stage around the Botanic Gardens [in Melbourne] is a sprint stage, it still has that Anderson Street hill — the sprinters still have to fight up that on the last lap to make sure they’re in good position.”

Juggling the men’s and women’s races

Since 2018 Sun Tour organisers have had another important challenge to consider: how to hold both the men’s race and the women’s race at the same time. While the women’s race is still only small — two stages for each of its first three years — it poses various logistical challenges when designing a course for both it and the men’s race.

“We’re using the same commissaires, same staff, same police, same moto marshals [for both races],” McGrory said. “So if the men’s stage finishes at whatever town and the women’s stage was to start somewhere else, then all of those people then have to get to the other start location to then come back to where that finishes.

“Stage 2 is a good example from 2019 — Wonthaggi to Churchill for the men and then the women started in Churchill, did a 90km loop and finished back in Churchill. We couldn’t run those races at the same time. It’s impossible for us with the lack of resources. So they have to go after each other.

“We’re not going to have a 200 kilometre men’s stage and a 140 kilometre women’s stage on the same day using the same staff and crew for both races. That’s unfair and unsafe to put the workers and staff through that. So they’ll be shorter stages when we have the two races together.”

Lucy Kennedy on her way to victory on stage 2 of the 2019 Women’s Sun Tour. The women’s stage started and finished in Churchill and was held after the men’s stage.

The 2020 Sun Tour will use a similar setup: stages 1 and 2 of the men’s race are point-to-point races (Nagambie to Shepparton and Beechworth to Falls Creek) while the corresponding stages of the women’s race, held immediately afterwards, start and finish in the same place (Shepparton and Falls Creek).

Logistics and transfers

When designing a race route, transfers also need to be considered. For the benefit of riders and everyone else on the race, it’s important to reduce the length of time spent getting to and from each stage.

“The riders and the teams really appreciate multiple nights in the same hotel and they’ve just come off the back of Tour Down Under and Cadel’s [Race] where they’ve had that luxury, which is very seldom,” McGrory said. “They get it in the Middle Eastern tours but they don’t get it in Europe. So we’re mindful of trying to move them around too much.

“But to be able to do that means we’ve got to have a course that can really work well without having to drive two and a half hours each day to get to a stage just so we can stay in the same hotel each night. And that’s always going to be a compromise every year.

“So we might have a slightly compromised sporting stage so that all the logistics around it are not as heavily compromised, so the staff [and] the teams aren’t driving four hours after a stage to get to the hotel.”

There’s quite some distance between stages at the 2020 Sun Tour.

The race’s visit to the High Country in 2020 creates some particular challenges around logistics and transfers. In order to get the women’s race to Falls Creek for stage 2 — an exciting first-ever mountain-top finish for the women’s Sun Tour — a lengthy three-hour transfer is required from Shepparton to the top of Falls Creek. Similarly, with the men’s race needing to finish in Melbourne, a 3.5-hour drive down from Mt Buller after the penultimate stage is unavoidable.

“We’re comfortable with where it sits,” McGrory said of the 2020 race’s transfers. “Obviously, it’s a far lesser challenge if they’re parked in one hotel for the entire week, as they are in Adelaide [for the Tour Down Under], but we do want to showcase all the different regions of Victoria. That is the nature of the Herald Sun Tour, which means we do have to get out there and think about how we link the stages so to minimise that time in the vans or in the cars after stages and before.”

One big juggling act

It’s fair to say that a lot of factors need to be considered when designing the route for a bike race. It’s a case of balancing the needs of the various stakeholders, while also creating a route that will create an engaging sporting spectacle. And this is all long before the travelling circus comes together and sets off into the countryside to actually bring the race to life.

So next time you tune in to watch a bike race like the Sun Tour, or any race for that matter, spare a thought for the individuals working behind the scenes to tick all the boxes, get everything signed off, and ultimately create a race for your enjoyment. It’s much harder than it looks.

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