Why the Tour Down Under is an unlikely season highlight

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ADELAIDE, Australia (CT) – In front of an orange, red and blue backdrop in a second floor hotel meeting room, the first press conference of the 2020 WorldTour season kicks off. On the desk in front of the riders, glasses of chilled water bead with condensation. When Richie Porte and Mads Pedersen walk in, they bring Trek-Segafredo bidons and carefully place them on the table with the logos facing out to the cameras, just so.

It’s the first race of the men’s season but the details are important. The equipment is dialled, the lead-out trains are well drilled, the PR emails are flying from the sponsors wanting their ROI, and the riders expertly walk the line between saying something and saying nothing at all in the press conference.

In this particular sense, the Tour Down Under is a bit like most other bike races. But in many other ways, it’s quite different. For fans of the sport, that’s what makes this relatively insignificant race an unlikely highlight of the season.

Five hours earlier, in the crammed, cavernous concrete interior of the Rapha pop-up store tucked down a laneway in the Adelaide CBD, a ripple goes through the crowd. Over the gentle wash of bass and synth, backlit by pink and purple floodlights, the riders of EF Pro Cycling glide through the throng.

They’re clean cut, immaculately attired, effortlessly cool, and on a wall behind them a projector plays scenes from the season before. Up there: Lachlan Morton rides across a country. Down here: he takes his helmet off, shakes his curly mane out and poses graciously for an endless procession of selfies. Rockstars.

For Australian fans of cycling, this is a sport of solitary late night devotion through the depths of winter. The riders are at a remove. The sport is distant, ephemeral – a fever dream of sleep-deprivation and blue-lit living rooms.

At the Tour Down Under, that shifts. The sport – the vibrant, international, non-televised reality of it – comes to life, with riders that you can see and talk to and meet. Cycling’s practitioners aren’t colourful little pinballs bobbing around a TV screen, but there, right there, in the elevator with you, walking through the crowd, queueing for a coffee, riding, next to you.

A quirk of the Tour Down Under lies in the fact that it’s based in just one location – the city of Adelaide – with the teams staying at a single hotel in the centre of town. Across the road is the event village. Scattered about the city are brand pop-ups – Rapha, Specialized, SRAM, MAAP and many more – which each act as bases for live podcasts, bunch rides and parties throughout the event. This race isn’t just a sporting event but a massive social occasion, where thousands of enthusiasts converge and stay for an extended stretch, mingling and making memories.

This morning, on a VeloClub bunch ride from the Rapha store, 15 or so riders braved unseasonal drizzle and the wind for a spin down the beach. When we returned, hundreds more were patiently waiting at 9am on a grey weekday for an opportunity to ride with the squads from Canyon-SRAM and EF Pro Cycling.

In the coming days, there’ll be roller races, Zwift competitions, exhibitions and many, many kilometres on the bike, in a city that’s full of pro cyclists and those that worship them wandering the streets.

Riders will meet riders, fans will meet heroes, and a sport will be brought to life. Cycling won’t be cordoned off, or on a screen, or in the depth of the night.

For the week and a bit of the Tour Down Under, it’s here and it’s now, and it’s wonderful.

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