Finding hope in the hopeless at the bushfire Tour

The Tour Down Under was a great race, but it was just sport. The real struggles are happening off the bike, in the farms and forests and fields around this dry country, as people battle to save or rebuild their lives.

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The Tour Down Under peloton left the Adelaide Hills township of Woodside last Wednesday, riding in convoy through the cheering crowds, and turned toward the early KOM. Somewhere along the way there, the riders may have noticed that something was different about the landscape they were riding through; at a certain point, the palette changed, from greens to blacks and browns.

As the race crested the climb, through a ravaged landscape of burnt eucalypts and ashen soil, the route pitched right and along a road toward Lobethal, a township that had spent the last days of 2019 battling walls of flame threatening to consume it.

If the peloton’s riders had looked to their left then, they’d have seen a family standing out the front of a gutted home, taped off as unfit for habitation – not that there was much ambiguity to it. A mother was pushing a pram gently back and forth; her kids and their dad were waving flags and cheering as the race passed. Next to a picnic blanket and esky to the family’s side, a banner strung between two stakes in the ground read ‘Thanks to our CFS [Country Fire Service] volunteers’.

This is the shellshocked stage that the entire Australian summer of cycling will be raced on. As first cab off the rank, this year’s Tour Down Under will be remembered as the Bushfire Tour.

Swathes of the Adelaide Hills were burnt out in bushfires just weeks before the race.

The spectre of the ongoing fire season – one of the most devastating in modern history – hung low and heavy over the race, like the smoke that choked the Adelaide Hills when they burned a month ago. It’d be neat to stay that the fires stifled the atmosphere of the Tour Down Under, but that’s not true, really, because the race’s arrival was also something of a breath of fresh air helping push the darkness away.

On television, advertisements played enticing the influx of tourists to spend in the fire-affected regions. At the event village, firefighters fundraised, not with calendars of beefy pinups, but with empty gumboots held out imploringly. The riders knew all about the devastation, speaking about the smell of smoke and the suddenly monochrome landscape they whooshed through in technicolour. Even UCI president, David Lappartient, was moved to comment, speaking about how the sports rulers at the UCI’s headquarters in Switzerland had watched the fires with grave concern, noting that “it was terrible to see what we saw”.

He’s right. It’s horrific, and passing through the affected regions – the places where homes and lives were threatened, where businesses have been brought to their knees – only reinforces the horror. But in the way that the race and its spectators and sponsors embraced the cause, a beam of hope pierced the gloom.

“The riders – they wanted to help,” said Lappartient, and he’s right about that as well, because they did, and they did. At the opening criterium, all the teams in both the men’s and women’s race agreed to donate the entire prize pool. Event sponsors like Santos and brands like Specialized pitched in hundreds of thousands of dollars; some of the sport’s biggest stars signed jerseys for charity auctions. And on Friday night, two of the most conspicuously hirsute riders in the sport shaved their moustaches and manes for charity, raising over $8,000 for the Salvation Army’s bushfire relief.

The day after, Lachlan Morton spoke to CyclingTips with a gleaming head, and downplayed the duo’s efforts, saying “there’s a lot of people who have lost a lot more than their hair and a lot of people who have given a lot more.” And he’s right, too, because this summer people have given their lives and lost everything.

One of the morning rituals for spectators of the Tour Down Under is to venture into the Adelaide Hills, riding up its leafy flanks each morning before returning to watch the race. This year, thousands of cyclists would have passed by vineyards, and seen orderly rows of green turned black, blotched or consumed by flame. Entire vintages up in smoke; entire vineyards lost, among them Vinteloper where a keen cyclist that owned a vineyard lost his home and life’s work, just a few weeks before a bike race came to town.

“It’s destroyed our vineyard, and that vineyard’s been years and years of work, and hundreds of thousands of dollars. With a fire like this, you go back and start from scratch. But we’ve had quite a few cyclists popping their heads in, saying hello, seeing how we’re doing,” Vinteloper founder David Bowley told CyclingTips. “I love riding through the vineyards. It’s something I loved doing, and will still love doing – that’s not going to change.”

Throughout the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island, Gippsland and the High Country, the NSW south coast and south-eastern Queensland – even now, when flames are licking at the edge of Canberra – this summer will be remembered as one where a lot of things burnt down, including, perhaps, any last vestige of hope that this climate change thing might just be catastrophisation. And when you confront that, you have to confront the thought that follows – what if the worst is yet to come?

Against that kind of bleak backdrop, it’s easy to write off a bike race as a silly little diversion. It was, but last week at the Tour Down Under, I don’t feel that anyone was downplaying the bushfire crisis or using the race as an excuse to wallpaper over it. It existed in that shellshocked space respectfully, lightly.

Cycling’s a sport that lends itself to overblown narratives, but the Tour Down Under wasn’t a week of superhuman suffering and triumph against adversity. It was a great race, but it was just sport. The real struggles are happening off the bike, in the farms and forests and fields around this dry country, as people battle to save or rebuild their lives.

The silver lining was that in the midst of this, a bike race that was for once just a bike race rolled up its sleeves and asked, ‘how can we help?’

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