The Chaos Tour

The bike race that had it all (but almost never happened)

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Words and production: Matt de Neef  | Photos: Mark Gunter, Con Chronis and Cor Vos
 

Prologue

It was a race that had it all. Media motorbikes causing crashes. A stage shortened due to unsafe conditions. A star rider penalised for a crash he never caused. That same rider almost leaving the race in protest. Riders sent off course, nearly affecting the overall outcome of the race …

Chaos seemed to lurk around every corner at the 2005 Jayco Herald Sun Tour. And yet from that chaos emerged one of the greatest cyclists Australia has ever seen, in a performance that would help kickstart his highly decorated career.

And all of that in a race that very nearly didn’t happen. A race that, like so many before it and so many since, nearly disappeared from the calendar entirely, ending a story more than 50 years in the making.

SAVING THE SUN TOUR

“It was dead. So it was step in or see it fail.”

Michael Hands doesn’t mince his words when talking about the 2005 Sun Tour. We’re sitting in a French-style cafe at the end of a South Melbourne laneway, chatting about a race he ran 15 years ago. By his own account he’s having to work hard to remember some details, but other memories remain crystal clear.

In late 2004 Hands was working as strategic manager for the Victorian Major Events Company. He’d just helped deliver the Track World Championships to Melbourne in May 2004 and had his hands full with Victoria’s bid for the 2010 Road World Championships. He’d made a name for himself at Victorian Major Events as a cycling expert, so when Julian Clarke, the managing director of the Herald and Weekly Times, came in asking for help with the Sun Tour, it was Hands he came and saw.

“‘I’ve got this stage race’,” Hands recalls Clarke telling him at the time, “‘But it’s in strife.’”

Race director Michael Hands during the 2005 Sun Tour.

Like most people in Australian cycling, Hands was familiar with the Sun Tour. And he could see the value in keeping it around. Not only was it a race with a rich history, and an important promotional vehicle for regional Victoria — it had significant political value as well.

“We’d decided that if we were going to be credible in bidding for the Road World Championships, we couldn’t let the Sun Tour die,” Hands says, “because that would be a jarring note when you’re saying you want the Road World Championships for Victoria. So we decided it was at least worth spending a bit of time and looking at.

“We picked it apart and wrote a new business plan for it after much thinking and consultation. We came up with a fairly savage set of recommendations and said that it’s worth supporting if this is what it looks like.”

By April 2005, with just six months until the race*, Hands had secured a significant sum of money, both from the Victorian government and from private sponsors. He went back to Julian Clarke and presented a plan.

With the race’s previous director, John Craven, departing after 16 years at the helm, Hands was enlisted to direct the 2005 edition.

“So in about April, May, from memory, I found myself foolish enough to say yes,” Hands recalls, “and responsible for pulling the event together that year from a standing start, with no team at all, really.”

It was a tall order. Not just because of the short turnaround, but because of the wholesale redesign that the race needed.

* The Sun Tour was held in October from its inception in 1952 until it moved to a February timeslot in 2014.

A NECESSARY REINVENTION

These days we know the Sun Tour as a five-stage race that falls at the end of the Australian summer of racing. In the lead up to the 2005 edition, however, it was a different beast entirely.

The 2004 Sun Tour was no fewer than 11 days long and comprised a total of 13 stages, thanks to two double-stage days. While the race’s length appealed to the traditionalists it was a major factor in its almost-demise. An 11-day stage race at the end of a long, hard season wasn’t exactly what most riders were after.

“Yeah, it was brutal beforehand when [former race director] John Craven had the race,” Simon Gerrans tells CyclingTips on the phone from London. “It was just a massive relief when you only had to do one stage per day rather than, you know, criteriums around primary schools in country Victoria.”

The 2004 Sun Tour featured 13 stages over 11 days.

In the lead-up to the 2005 Sun Tour the UCI was in the process of moving towards shorter stage races and the way Hands remembers it, the Sun Tour was at risk of losing its UCI classification if it didn’t follow suit. So in 2005, Hands slashed the Sun Tour from 13 stages down to seven.

The UCI had a problem with the teams that raced the Sun Tour as well.

“It was all make-up teams with temporary sponsors, which also didn’t comply with the UCI rules,” Hands recalls. “So it wasn’t going to have any ranking at all, let alone a better one if we didn’t change it. So in those meetings with Pat [McQuaid, then president of the UCI’s road commission] and with Hein Verbruggen [then UCI president] — who sadly we’ve since lost — we came up with a three-year strategy to makeover the race to get it on the right footing.

“One of those [goals] was that it would be real teams, UCI-registered teams, and that we’d use that as a catalyst for developing the Australian-registered teams as well, because there was precisely zero at the time as well.

“And so basically we got a year of generosity from the UCI while we got it on its feet and then moved towards what we wanted, which was all UCI-registered teams and national teams.”

Hands was adamant that the race also needed to be more professional. For many international riders the Sun Tour had long been known as the “Fun Tour” — a race where, despite its imposing length, overseas riders could come along, roll around, and have a bit of an Australian holiday to close out their season.

“I guess for a lot of the guys that would travel out from overseas it was a bit of a wind-down race for them,” Gerrans recalls. “A lot of them would travel out, they’d do the race, they’d basically sell off all their kit at the end of the race to finance a short holiday in Australia. So that was sort of part of the process of winding down for them.”

Hands wanted to change that culture.

“They’d never enforced the hors delay — the time cut — before,” Hands remembers. “So after the first road stage [in 2005], there was a few riders out and … I was having my daily meeting with the chief commissaire and he said ‘There’s some guys out of it’ and I said, ‘I know — enforce the time cut please.’ And he said ‘Are you sure?’ And I said ‘Enforce the time cut.’ And we chucked about 12 riders out of the race* and it changed overnight because they learned to respect the race and to respect me.

“It was what the race needed and it changed the culture overnight and it established me as a serious change agent for the race as well.”

* The official results from the race offer a slightly different account. Five riders were outside the time cut, four of which were removed from the race.

Hands’ new business plan ushered in significant changes as well. The race went from having dozens of tiny sponsors in 2004 to a handful of larger ones in 2005. Not least among those large sponsors was Jayco, owned by the everywhere-man of Australian cycling, Gerry Ryan.

“[Gerry] said ‘I support what you’re trying to do with the event and I’m here to back you,’” Hands recalls fondly. “And he was very generous with his time. And we had our monthly catch up and dissected the whole thing and he was awesome.”

And with that the race known as the Malaysia Airlines Herald Sun Tour of Provincial Victoria in 2004, became the Jayco Herald Sun Tour. Jayco has been the title sponsor ever since.

Michael Woods after taking the leader’s yellow jersey at the 2019 Sun Tour.

Looking back now, it’s remarkable the 2005 Sun Tour even went ahead. Were it not for Hands and his hastily assembled team, it wouldn’t have. Somehow, in six short months, they’d managed to revive a dying race, rebuild it from the ground up, and get everything in order in time for the October 9 kick-off.

AN EMERGING FORCE

As excitement for the 54th Sun Tour started to build, several riders entered the conversation as possible favourites. There was the American Danny Pate, a former U23 time trial world champion. There was the Swede Jonas Ljungblad, who had won the 2004 edition off the back of a solo stage win and a strong ride up the brutal Mt. Baw Baw. There was Tour de France green-jersey-winner Baden Cooke, winner of the 2002 edition, who would surely benefit from the rare omission of a big mountain-top finish.

And then there was Simon Gerrans, the former motocross racer-turned cyclist who’d won a stage into his hometown of Mansfield the year prior and who, as a 24-year-old, had just joined the pro ranks with Ag2r-Proveyance.

By the time the Sun Tour rolled around, Gerrans had already compiled a stellar neo-pro season. He’d won two races, he’d raced the Tour de France — virtually unheard of as a first-year pro — and not only that, he’d finished third on a stage in that debut Tour performance. Ag2r had been beyond happy with the Victorian and decided to extend his contract for another two years.

Gerrans (far left) coming third on the final stage of the 2005 International Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfahrt in Germany.

But Gerrans’ impressive season had come at a cost. He’d completed almost 100 race days for the year — the most of any season during his career — and by October he was starting to feel it.

“I feel like I’m running out of gas unfortunately,” Gerrans told reporters before the Sun Tour began. “I am just getting a bit tired. This was my first year with the big guys and I am starting to feel a little weary.”

Weary or not, Gerrans was still desperate to win the Sun Tour, and his team supported him in that endeavour.

“I managed to convince the general manager there at Ag2r, Vincent Lavenu, to allow me to bring a few guys out [from Europe] and recruit a few local riders as stagiaires so we could field a … I think it was an eight-man team back then,” Gerrans recalls.

The now-39-year-old says he struggles to remember the details of the 2005 Sun Tour but, somewhat remarkably, he remembers the exact team he had with him: Europeans Andy Flickinger (“a great mentor of mine”), Erki Putsep, Nico Portal (“who is obviously now a director at Sky”), and Christophe Oriol. He remembers the young Australians he recruited for the race too: Josh Wilson, Wes Sulzberger and Mitch Docker.

It was a strong team built around a great rider. A great rider who came to the fore almost straight away. But not before the race began in dramatic circumstances.

STAGE 1

Williamstown TTT (4.5 km)

Strong winds greeted the riders on stage 1 of the 2005 Sun Tour. Reports from the day suggest as many as 15,000 fans lined the Williamstown foreshore in Melbourne’s south west to watch the race’s 54th edition get underway.

A 9.6 km teams time trial had been on the cards but in a sign of things to come, the stage didn’t quite unfold as planned. “Unsafe conditions and technical reasons caused the teams time trial to be shortened from 9.6 km to just 4.5 km,” wrote Michael Stevens in the Herald Sun newspaper the following day. And then once the stage began, chaos ensued almost immediately.

Cooke on the front for FDJ during the stage 1 TTT.

Baden Cooke and his FDJ team were first out of the starting house. According to Cooke the course hadn’t been closed off properly and his team had to contend with two other teams still warming up. And then, halfway through the stage, a media motorbike caused further difficulty.

“I don’t know what the idiot was doing stopped in the middle of the road, but when he saw us he tried to accelerate away but we were coming too quick,” a fiery Cooke said at the time. “Mark Renshaw and I were on the front [and] suddenly Mark yelled ‘look out’. We dived either side of him but the motorbike moved the same way as Tom [Nankervis] and he crashed into the back of it.”

“Poor Tommy Nankervis, riding in his first Herald Sun Tour, was eating bitumen before he could get his heartrate up.”

Cooke and his team complained to the commissaires but to no avail. Remarkably, it wouldn’t be the last time Cooke had cause to complain to the commissaires during the 2005 Sun Tour.

Baden Cooke’s diary entry in the Herald Sun the next morning.

Fastest around the TTT course was the Savings and Loans team, with little-known rider Peter Mueller taking yellow after being first across the line. Gerrans and his Ag2r team were second, just three seconds behind. Better still, Gerrans was starting to find his feet.

“I feel much more refreshed after nearly a week off the bike,” he said. “But tomorrow will be a truer test.”

STAGE 2

Bendigo to Bendigo (150.9 km)

On the race’s first road stage, a breakaway group of four became two when former Baby Giro winner Dainius Kairelis got clear with up-and-coming Victorian climber Matthew Lloyd with around 20 km to go. As the pair returned to the gold-rush town of Bendigo to sprint for the win, the Lithuanian Kairelis got the jump on Lloyd and was first around the final corner, dashing to his first win as a professional.

Just 20 metres behind Lloyd, Cooke took out the bunch sprint for third. But for the second day in a row, Cooke’s ride had been hampered.

“In the sprint I jumped out of the last corner and there was a media motorbike again,” Cooke said at the time. “I was doing 60 km and he was doing 40. Luckily he stayed left and I went right but it was close. I don’t know if it was the same bike as yesterday but I have a sneaking suspicion it was.”

The drama continued into the evening. Former junior ITT world champion Josh Collingwood (Savings and Loans) had been handed the yellow jersey after the stage, but he wouldn’t wear it the next day. It took until three hours after the stage finish for commissaires to decide that Collingwood’s teammate Sean Sullivan had beaten him across the line, therefore earning yellow into stage 3.

The chaos was only just beginning.

Josh Collingwood was given the yellow jersey after stage 2 but wouldn’t wear it the next day.

STAGE 3

Bendigo to Shepparton (153 km)

If the first two days had been frustrating for Baden Cooke then stage 3 was something else entirely.

Strong crosswinds ripped across central Victoria, tearing the race to pieces and ensuring the stage would be decided from a select group of the race’s strongest. When those leaders reached the three finishing circuits around Shepparton’s Lake Victoria, things got messy.

“Confusion reigned when a breakaway bunch of 16 was given the bell with two laps remaining instead of one,” wrote the Herald Sun’s Michael Stevens that night. “Officials, realising the mistake, hurriedly notified chief commissaire Jose Adolfo Cruz by radio and he told the riders, avoiding a disaster.

Sean Sullivan in the yellow jersey on stage 3.

“Cooke said afterwards he was not confused, but the other riders refused to believe him when he told them there were two laps left, thinking he was foxing.”

With everything back under control, it appeared the race was set to be decided in a sprint. But Gerrans had other ideas. Inside the final kilometre, he attacked from the lead group and got enough of a gap to hold on for victory.

“I was sort of surrounded [by] several sprinters — there was Baden Cooke, I’m sure Dave McKenzie [was there] — there were a number of quick guys,” Gerrans recalls today. “And I just took an opportunistic move and everyone looked at each other. I managed to hold them off to the line. That was a nice way to win and get things going.”

Behind Gerrans, Cooke was riding towards further turmoil. The sprinter was next across the line, winning the sprint for second, but behind him, Josh Collingwood and Russel Van Hout crashed about 100 metres from the line. Collingwood complained to the race jury, saying Henk Vogels had been responsible.

Race commissaires reviewed the footage and, sensationally, decided to relegate Cooke to last on the stage and dock him 30 seconds, effectively scuppering any GC chances he might have had. To say that Cooke was unimpressed would be a gross understatement.

“I’ve already had enough of these idiots with the way they’re running the race, not closing the race off properly on the opening day and then almost running into a motorbike again on Monday,” he said, incredulous. “How can these officials make a ruling on a TV shot taken from nearly 200 m in front?

“I’ve had a look at the vision, and it’s clear I’ve gone past them [Collingwood and Van Hout] and am about four lengths clear when Josh goes down. It looks worse because of the camera angle and because there’s a bottleneck in the road. Josh said it was nothing to do with me and he had only protested because he thought Henk Vogels had hooked him.”

Collingwood corroborated Cooke’s story: “Cookie was two riders across from me and I don’t think he was at fault,” he said. “Henk Vogels was the one who came across.” Multiple-time Sun Tour stage winner Dave McKenzie was even more direct: “[Cooke] didn’t cause it at all,” he said. “It’s a joke. Cookie was on my left and I was on Josh’s wheel, but I had time to jump off Josh’s wheel and get onto Cookie’s wheel. There was nothing wrong with his sprint at all.”

Above left: Cooke tries to convince commissaires that he hadn’t done anything wrong in the sprint. Above right: The aftermath of Collingwood and Van Hout’s crash.

Cooke appealed the decision overnight but, again, it was of little use. The 26-year-old was so irate with the decision that he threatened to quit the race in protest. Ultimately he decided to continue, out of respect for his teammates, sponsors and the race.

“The guys have come out from France to look after us,” a still-frustrated Cooke said the next morning. “I’ve got a good support crew. Jayco have got behind the thing and I guess it would be letting all those guys down. I figured a better way to prove my point was to come out and try and win today …”

STAGE 4

Mitchelton Winery to Marysville (172.6 km)

A breakaway of six led proceedings for much of stage 4 with Cooke’s FDJ team controlling the race from the peloton. The break was caught with 5 km to go as the race neared the leafy town of Marysville, setting things up for a bunch sprint.

On his 27th birthday, Cooke was first around the final corner, starting his sprint earlier than intended, particularly when he realised that the final few hundred metres were uphill. He was overgeared and running out of legs, but managed to hold on to take the stage. Sullivan finished on bunch time to earn another day in yellow.

Speaking to the press after the stage, Cooke was far happier than he had been on previous days. But his anger hadn’t fully subsided.

“The boys really turned themselves inside out today,” Cooke said. “It was a really tough finish and they all excelled and really dug deep. It was a great team effort. It doesn’t make up for the terrible decision of yesterday and I certainly dedicate this win, not only to my teammates, but to the commissaires. This is for them.”

And Cooke wasn’t done yet.

STAGE 5

Healesville to Healesville (140.9 km)

It was such a windy day in the the Yarra Valley town of Healesville that the finish line gantry was damaged and organisers were forced to erect a simpler structure in its place. Those strong winds ensured that the race split just 25 km from the gun, making the tour’s queen stage even harder than it might otherwise have been.

It wouldn’t just prove to be the most difficult stage of the race, but also the most chaotic.

With about 50 km to go, on the first of two climbs into the Toolangi State Forest, two riders got clear. The first, the seemingly omnipresent Cooke, off in search of a second stage win. The other, French-Canadian Dominique Perras, riding for Dave McKenzie’s Bicycle Superstore team, and looking for a good GC result.

Perras, a former Canadian champion who had been married just three days before the Sun Tour began, had form at the race: he’d won a stage at each of the previous two editions. With compatible aims, he and Cooke worked well together out front.

Until they didn’t.

“He’s a much better descender than myself and I was going a bit better than him on the climb,” Perras said after the stage. “I wanted to stay with him because it was our partnership but on the [last] climb I’d been pulling for about 7 km or 8 km and at one point he was on my wheel, telling me to slow down. I thought I might as well go for the time, so I kept going …”

Perras rode off, cresting the top of the final climb alone, but Cooke caught him on the sinuous descent back into Healesville. When it came to the sprint, Cooke dispatched Perras easily, taking his second win in as many days.

“When I get fatigued and don’t pedal properly, something happens with my sciatic nerve and my legs go numb. Just in the last couple kilometres up the last climb I had full shut-down in my legs, so I tried to bluff fo a while and told him to ease up, but he didn’t. Luckily over the top on the descent, my legs came good again, so I got back on to him.”
– Baden Cooke

But Perras was far from disappointed. He and Cooke had finished 36 seconds clear of an elite chase group — enough to put Perras into the yellow jersey with just one decisive stage remaining.

Perhaps unbeknownst to Perras and Cooke at the time, though, they had some help in getting the gap they did.

Roughly an hour earlier, with about 40 km to go in the stage, an elite chase group had followed Cooke and Perras into Healesville. Gerrans was there, so too McKenzie and Collingwood.

As Cooke and Perras started on the final climb, the chase group was heading through town when a traffic marshall sent them the wrong way.

“The marshal was standing in front of the traffic island and waving us to one side,” Gerrans tells me over the phone, chuckling. “But to his side was also a backstreet. There were no cars in front of us or anything so we’ve come up to this marshall and he’s waving us one direction, indicating to avoid the traffic island, and he just led the bunch straight down the backstreet.”

McKenzie laughs as he recalls the incident as well. His teammate and friend Perras was up the road, so the mishap worked in his favour.

“The funny thing with that is I knew we’d gone the wrong way,” McKenzie tells me over the phone. “I was pretty confident that Dom and Cookie had gone the right way and we were confident Dom would drop Baden on the climb the next time around. So it was working to our favour and sure enough, we got a couple k down the road or a kilometre and they’re like ‘Oh Jesus, hang on a minute, turn around!’

“I’m trying to delay the [turnaround] because this is to our benefit. And anyway, then it turned around and then Gerro attacked the bloody hell out of us on the climb out of Healesville …”

McKenzie beats Mark Renshaw to take third on the stage.

A clipping from the following day’s Herald Sun, explaining the chaos.

McKenzie (left) and Perras (right) debrief after a dramatic stage.

Race director Michael Hands remembers the incident all too well.

“The marshall claims that [the riders] misread his signal,” Hands says. “He said he was directing them on and I won’t name the marshall, out of respect, but there was a discussion afterwards and the footage was inconclusive seeing the TV.

“My view is that everyone is rushing to blame everyone, but ultimately when you’re the race director, you’re responsible for everything even though there’s 300 people involved in it. There was nothing we could do in terms of the race and you never know whether it affected the outcome.”

Race reports from the day provide conflicting opinions about how much time the chasers lost as a result of the mishap. Cyclingnews suggests it was 40 seconds; the Herald Sun reported one minute. At the time, Gerrans thought it was even longer.

“They [the officials] said they were going to give us a minute back for losing that time, but that’s apparently not happening,” he told the press after the stage. “They should have put us on the same time because obviously it wasn’t our fault. They won by 36 seconds and we lost over a minute — we would have reeled them in for sure and maybe headed for a stage win.”

In the end, commissaires kept the finishing times as they were on the line. Chief commissaire Jose Adolfo Cruz said at the time that, in line with UCI rules, it was up to riders to know the correct course.

“Whenever a rider or group of riders loses his way due to a spectator misdirecting them, or maybe an official or police escort or a marshall, the UCI has time and again ruled that the responsibility of determining the right course depends on the riders and the team managers,” he said. “I really felt bad that they lost time, but there’s nothing much we can do.”

Perras moved into yellow after stage 5.

Had the chase group finished with the same time as Cooke and Perras, Josh Collingwood would have moved into yellow, with Gerrans in second, just one second behind. As it was, Perras ended the day 31 seconds ahead of Collingwood with Gerrans third at 32 seconds.

That night the Herald Sun’s Michael Stevens wrote that Perras had a “vice-like grip” on the tour with just two stages to go, but Perras was taking no chances. Straight after the stage finished in Healesville he headed off to the Dandenongs to recce the climb that would ultimately decide the Tour.

STAGE 6

Mt Dandenong ITT (11 km)

“Mt Dandenong is a steep climb, but for Mansfield’s Simon Gerrans it has suddenly taken on Everest proportions.”
– Michael Horan, Herald Sun

The road from Monbulk to Olinda is known colloquially as The Wall, a nod to the sometimes-punishing gradient with which it winds up through the eucalypts and ferns of the Dandenongs Ranges. It’s one of the most popular climbs in the region — any given weekend a great many riders can be seen slogging up its steep grades.

On Friday October 14, 2005 though, it played host to a remarkable conclusion to that year’s Sun Tour.

The fact the stage happened at all is remarkable in itself — the Dandenong Ranges is a tourism hotspot, a region crawling with visitor traffic on every day of the week. Closing the Mt. Dandenong Tourist Road for a bike race is virtually unheard of, before or since.

“Clearly, I’m a very persuasive person,” Hands says of getting the stage up and running. “I decided I wanted to do something and I went and got agreement to do it.”

Perras flogging himself up The Wall in an attempt to defend yellow.

The profile of the stage 6 ITT up The Wall.

Gerrans on his way to second on the stage and into the overall lead.

From the town of Monbulk to the Sky High observatory at the top of the mountain, the riders covered 11 gruelling kilometres that day. It’s a difficult route, full of steep ramps that are separated by flat sections, making it hard to find a rhythm.

Gerrans rode out of his skin. He set off a minute after McKenzie and passed his fellow Victorian within sight of the finish line.

“I can’t describe how much that hurt,” Gerrans said after the stage. “I was spewing up for about the last 3 km, just turning myself inside out to get up to the top.”

The effort was not in vain. Gerrans’ time of 21:39 was enough for second place on the stage, putting him just four seconds behind Irish stage winner David McCann. More importantly, Gerrans had conquered the climb 46 seconds faster than Perras, ensuring he’d take the yellow jersey by 14 seconds with one stage to go. Gerrans had effectively sewn up the race.

“That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” the boyish 25-year-old said that evening. “That was definitely for my teammates just as much as me. They have done an awesome job all week. The young guys and the French mates who have come out, this is all for them. This is huge, just huge — it’s something very special. I just can’t believe it.”

STAGE 7

Lygon Street criterium (1 hour)

Melbourne’s iconic Lygon Street had hosted a stage of the Sun Tour before, but never the final stage. In perfect weather conditions, tens of thousands lined the barriers in the city’s Italian restaurant district to see the weeklong race come to a close.

About 20 minutes into the criterium Hilton Clarke, Matt Goss and Chris Jongewaard got away from the field, opening up a gap of 35 seconds. Against the odds, the trio stayed away, with Clarke taking the win in a three-up sprint. Behind them, Cooke again led the peloton home.

Gerrans was sixth across the line, his arms outstretched in celebration. He’d just won the first stage race of his career.

Above left: Clarke beats Goss to win the final stage. Above right: Gerrans celebrates overall victory.

It’s not hard to imagine Hands and his team breathing a collective sigh of relief as that final stage came to a close. It had been a challenging introduction to running the Sun Tour with more than a few hiccups along the way, but they’d gotten through it. Perhaps best of all, they’d come out the other side with a much needed Australian winner.

ONWARDS TO GREATNESS

Gerrans after winning the 2014 Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

Gerrans was only the third Australian to win the Sun Tour in 20 years (Neil Stephens won the race in 1986 and Baden Cooke won in 2002). That result would be a boon for the race — it would help the Sun Tour generate local interest, and therefore value for sponsors, and would give local media a more engaging story to tell. The story of a homegrown Victoria lad, winning the race he’d grown up watching, as a stepping stone to bigger and better things over in Europe.

“It was the one race that we sort of knew about growing up in country Victoria,” Gerrans says over the phone, fondness for the race clear in his voice. “You knew of the Tour de France and you knew the Sun Tour because that was the one that every now and then would come through your hometown. I do remember doing things like skipping a physics class and walking down the main street of Mansfield to watch the race go through town.

“So for me to go on to win that in my first year professional, it was a real milestone victory for me and one that was obviously very, very special at the time.”

Gerrans had had a tremendous neo-pro season and the Sun Tour made for the perfect exclamation point. The 25-year-old had shown himself to be a wily rider who could attack late, who had a strong finish, who was good uphill and who, perhaps most important of all, was relentless in his pursuit of victory. He certainly impressed his rivals that week in 2005.

“There are very very few riders in their first season who make a team in the Tour de France and then to get a podium finish in a stage is unbelievable,” Dominique Perras said at the time. “I’m a competitor, not a fan, and I recognise he’s got a lot of talent.”

Speaking today, Dave McKenzie is even more complimentary.

“I just remember he went from being a guy that just couldn’t quite win a Bay Crit — nail one of those sort of bigger domestic races — and within 12 months he just went bang, bang, bang …” McKenzie says, clearly still in awe. “You could see him knocking on the door and he just needed to develop a little bit more. And then when he did, bloody hell, he just took off.

“I mean, that [the 2005 Sun Tour] was Gerro taking off in his career, you know? He was a step above us then and he was still two steps from the Gerro that we got to know as one of the best in the world.”

Gerrans winning the 2012 Milan-San Remo, arguably the biggest win of his career.

That Sun Tour was significant for Gerrans personally, too — it was where he first started dating his now-wife Rahna, herself a former junior world champion on the track.

“John Beasley [Ag2r sports director for the race] actually asked her to come along and help out with the team,” Gerrans recalls. “So she was travelling on the race with us that year. We’d known each other for a long time, Rahna and I, but we sort of started seeing each other off the back of that.”

SUN TOUR LEGACY

Arthurs Seat featured at the 2019 Sun Tour.

Looking back now, Hands admits the Sun Tour had its issues in the first year of his tenure.

“Given it was a very tight timeframe and it was our very first go and we were reconstructing everything, it was always going to be a really tough gig — and it was,” Hands recalls today. “But at the same time a whole lot of people said to me it was still better than it had ever been before. I hope that’s not ego — I don’t think it is. I was more focussed on having the potential to be a whole lot better.”

And the race did get better under Hands’ control. He ran the race from 2005 to 2011, ushering in some impressive developments in that time. For one, the race became a key event for local Continental teams, the race’s TV coverage allowing those teams greater selling power to sponsors.

The Lygon Street finish became a fixture under Hands’ watch as well with the race concluding there several times between 2005 and 2011. Hands would later introduce the fan-favourite Arthurs Seat as a stage-ending climb as well, a finish that was used as recently as the 2019 edition.

And then there was the women’s race. Hands presided over two editions of a women’s Sun Tour* — in 2009 and 2011. Those races, while small, paved the way for the Women’s Sun Tour that has been running since 2018.

* “So in 2009, we added a women’s tour way before anyone else did. I basically paid for it out of my own pocket because no one saw sponsor value in it. And then we had it again in 2011 — there was no tour in 2010 because of the Road World Championships — a small event on at the same time that we were fairly heavily involved in.

“So yeah, we had a women’s tour as well. So I was delighted to see that coming back later on and delighted to see other events like the Tour Down Under then add it and obviously it’s in the Cadel Road Race, which is great to see as well on the Road Worlds course.”

– Michael Hands

EPILOGUE

Lucy Kennedy won the 2019 Women's Sun Tour.

On a racing calendar packed to bursting point with stage races the world over, the Jayco Herald Sun Tour might seem like a rather small and largely inconsequential event. In some ways it is, but to write it off as such misses the beauty of the thing entirely. It’s a race with a grand history — the oldest stage race in Australia — and an event that resonates strongly with a great many riders and fans, past and present.

The 2005 Sun Tour was but a single edition of a race now more than a half-century old, but it was far more than that. It was the race that helped kickstart the career of one of Australia’s finest. It was the year the Sun Tour was rescued from its deathbed and catapulted into a newer, more professional era. Since then the race has attracted some of the finest riders in the sport — Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Esteban Chaves and just this year, Simon Yates.

The 2005 Sun Tour wasn’t without its chaos and its challenges — from wrongful relegations to unsafe conditions to riders being sent off course, and much more besides. But in some ways, those mishaps only added to the character of the event. Indeed, even to this day, the Sun Tour is a race of quirks.

It might lack the polish or WorldTour prestige of the Tour Down Under or Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, but no other Australian race has the history and the charm of the Sun Tour.

From chaos come great stories. And from a race as chaotic as the 2005 Sun Tour, those stories were great indeed.

Correction

An earlier version of this article featured a quote suggesting that the Sun Tour’s previous race director, John Craven, was fired from the role in the lead-up to the 2005 edition. CyclingTips now understands that this is not the case, and that Craven left the role of his own volition. CyclingTips would like to apologise for the error and for any distress caused.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Michael Hands, Simon Gerrans and Dave McKenzie for being so generous with their time. Thanks to Iain Treloar for his valuable insight throughout. Thanks to the Herald Sun for their daily coverage of the race, likewise to Cyclingnews for their terrific “Autobus” of archived content from this race and many, many others.

And finally, a massive thank you to Leeanne Gatien for so generously allowing us to use Mark Gunter’s photos to help tell this story. It was a privilege to be able to trawl through Mark’s archives and this project wouldn’t have been possible without access to the excellent images you see above.