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GEELONG, Australia (CT) – There are some days that sport doesn’t feel all that important. Days when the sporting contest, as engaging as it might be, feels secondary to far more pressing matters. The opening day of the Bay Crits was one of those days.
It was the first day of Australia’s summer racing season, a season that stretches from early January until the Jayco Herald Sun Tour in early February. But as the riders clipped in on Friday and began their first serious hit-out of the season, the thick smoke that blanketed Geelong was an all-too-clear reminder that another season has been underway for months: Australia’s bushfire season.
The large ferris wheel that dominates Geelong’s waterfront was barely visible through the thick sludge of bushfire smoke. The nearby marina, too, was mostly obscured, and the normally bright blue of Corio Bay was lost in a sea of grey.
All told, more than 130 fires are still burning around Australia. A state of disaster has been declared for large swathes of east and north-east Victoria, and many thousands have fled their homes around the state. More than a thousand were dramatically evacuated from Mallacoota by naval vessels on Friday after the road to the East Gippsland coastal town was burnt out.
Since October thousands of homes around the country have been destroyed, more than 20 human lives have been lost, dozens of people are unaccounted for, and nearly half a billion animals are feared dead (yes, half a billion). An area larger than the entirety of Belgium has been burned to the ground, and fires are likely to continue burning for weeks if not months to come. The word “unprecedented” has been used with alarming frequency in recent days.
The smoke had little effect on the opening stage of the Bay Crits. Several support races were shortened but the worst of the smoke soon cleared and the elite women’s and men’s races ran at full length. The riders were as focused on the task at hand as they would otherwise be.
The elite men’s race came down to a bunch sprint, with four-time track world champion Sam Welsford overcoming an earlier crash to take the win. Cam Ivory was second and national crit champ Brenton Jones finished third.
In the elite women’s race two-time world championship medallist Amanda Spratt forged the winning breakaway, taking up-and-comer Ruby Roseman-Gannon with her after 25 minutes of the 45-minute race.
Spratt got the jump on Roseman-Gannon ahead of the final corner, opening up a gap and dashing to victory. Roseman-Gannon held on for second while Chloe Hosking won the bunch kick for third.
Spratt’s preparation for the summer races has been affected by the bushfires, albeit indirectly.
“I live up in the Blue Mountains [in New South Wales], so we’ve had a lot of smoke for the last month,” Spratt said after her win on Friday. “So I made the decision to come down here [to Geelong] early. But I mean, honestly, I can’t complain given how much devastation there is everywhere. I really don’t wanna make a huge thing of it given how many people are suffering, how many homes are burning down and everything like that.
“It brings you back down to earth I think, just thinking we’re here racing a bike and, you know, there are people out there fighting the fires. So I’m also thinking of them when I’m racing.”
While sport can feel less important in times of crisis, it can also be a force for good. Around Australia, professional athletes have been pledging their direct support for firefighting and recovery efforts. It began with controversial tennis star Nick Kyrgios who pledged $200 for every ace he hits this summer. A raft of fellow tennis players have followed suit.
NBL basketballer LaMello Ball has said he’ll donate one month of his salary. Big Bash cricket stars Chris Lynn and Glenn Maxwell will donate $250 for each six they hit this season. AFL and AFLW footballers Trent Cotchin and Tayla Harris are donating items to be auctioned off and there are plans afoot for a fundraiser cricket match between rival AFL sides, Adelaide and Port Adelaide. The AFL itself, too, is working on a “coordinated response” to support the communities affected.
A-League soccer club Melbourne City donated $2 from every ticket sold to Friday night’s match against Western United. And the horse racing world is getting on board, including jockey Tommy Berry who pledged $250 for every win he rides to this summer.
Other athletes will surely follow. Hopefully cyclists are among them — as yet, the sport collectively has done little to show its support. Michael Matthews is among the few to have spoken publicly about the issue, posting to Instagram on Friday to express his sadness at the devastation and call on his followers to support fundraising efforts.
Perhaps cycling will offer further support as the summer rolls on — after all, fires are likely to burn for the length of the Australian summer and several races could well be affected.
Organisers of the Santos Tour Down Under are having to reassess their courses following significant fire damage near Cudlee Creek in the Adelaide Hills. The race is set to pass through the region later this month.
The Jayco Herald Sun Tour could also be affected — the alpine resorts of Falls Creek and Mt. Buller, each of which is set to host a summit finish in early February, are currently closed and at serious risk.
After all the devastation that has already occurred, worse could still be on the way. Communities around Victoria and New South Wales are today bracing for temperatures of over 40ºC, with fire conditions in many areas set to worsen.
In Geelong though, temperatures are far more mild and another day of bike racing is about to begin. Spratt and Welsford will wear the leaders’ yellow jerseys into stage 2 of the Bay Crits at Eastern Beach where a smoky haze will again provide a troubling backdrop.
The riders will give their all, and well they should. There’s likely to be some more great racing on display. It’s just hard not to be a little distracted by more important matters at the moment.