It wasn’t the Tour Down Under but the Festival of Cycling was still a triumph
For seven glorious minutes last Saturday afternoon, on the winding road up Old Willunga Hill, it felt like a kind of order had been restored to the universe.
At a time of such uncertainty and upheaval, and after months without any road racing, there was something comforting about the sight of Richie Porte dancing his way free of a peloton, and climbing to victory atop Australia’s most famous climb.
The 2021 Australian summer of racing has been torn asunder by COVID-19 – a reflection of road cycling’s plight more generally over the past 12 months (and perhaps for the next 12?). The Tour Down Under (TDU), the jewel in the crown of the Australian summer, was among the races cancelled. But not entirely.
With race organisers determined to hold a bike race in January, the TDU morphed into the Santos Festival of Cycling. International riders wouldn’t be able to take part – thanks to the current challenges with overseas travel – and the race would be a long way from WorldTour level, but it would go ahead as a scaled-down domestic version of South Australia’s great race – a National Road Series (NRS) event with a smattering of top Aussie WorldTour professionals thrown in for good measure. Among those pros: Richie Porte, leading the Garmin-Australian national team.
Porte certainly wasn’t at his best during the four days of racing – his time up Willunga was around 30 seconds slower than his Strava KOM, for what it’s worth – and his competition wasn’t nearly as strong as usual. But it was no less thrilling to watch the third-place finisher from last year’s Tour de France win on Willunga for a seventh time.
He’s done it again 👑 is the King of #WillungaHill for a 7️⃣th time, taking the @ShimanoROAD #KOM points along the way and @DFIT_SA Be Safe Be Seen Stage 3 honours to boot!!! Luke Plapp applauds him over the line. What a future he has!!@DFIT_SA | #TDUFestival pic.twitter.com/6cmuz7PpcB— Santos Tour Down Under 🚴🚴♀️ (@tourdownunder) January 23, 2021
Porte was far from the only star performer at the Festival of Cycling. In fact he was far from the only star from the national team that performed well on Willunga.
As Porte won the stage, his arms extended in celebration, he was followed closely across the line by 20-year-old teammate Luke Plapp. Plapp too had his hands off the bars, clapping his team leader’s performance.
Porte had attacked early in the climb – much earlier than normal – and it wasn’t long before he was on his own. He looked to be riding to the finish alone, but then, seemingly from nowhere, Plapp bridged across, setting up an emphatic 1-2 for the national team and confirming Plapp as a star of the future.
Plapp could have taken the stage win. Instead the apprentice let the master have one more moment in the sun. It wasn’t too great a sacrifice – Plapp had his opportunity a day earlier and snatched it with both hands.
On the final climb of stage 2, some 10 km from the finish, Plapp rode to the front of a thinning bunch … then just kept on going. Pushing an enormous gear, the Australian U23 time trial champion rode everyone off his wheel then continued on to the line to win the stage solo.
For those familiar with Plapp’s trajectory in the sport, his success in Adelaide wasn’t terribly surprising. He’s a two-time junior world champion on the track (in the madison and points race) and in 2018 he took silver in the junior Worlds time trial, second only to Belgian wunderkind Remco Evenepoel.
After Plapp’s showing in Adelaide though, his talent will be clear to a great many more. He’s signed with Australian team Inform TM Insight Make in 2021, where he’ll seemingly ride in between his track commitments, but if he wasn’t already on the radar of WorldTour teams, he certainly will be now.
The same is surely true of Plapp’s Garmin-Australia (and Brunswick Cycling Club) teammate Sarah Gigante.
To observant onlookers, the 20-year-old’s incredible potential has been evident since she swept the U19 Australian Nationals in 2018 then returned in 2019 as a first-year U23 … and won the elite road title solo, beating a bunch of WorldTour riders. A time-trial national title in early 2020 was further confirmation of her immense talent (so too her performance at the NRS super-week in late 2020) but her performance at the Festival of Cycling was even more impressive.
Where Plapp waited until the final climb on stage 2 to make his move, Gigante set sail with around 50 km left to race. She won the stage by nearly two minutes. The next day she attacked at the bottom of Willunga Hill and won that stage solo by a minute as well, setting up an overall victory by more than three minutes. It was a true demolition job against a field that featured the BikeExchange WorldTour squad.
Such has been Gigante’s dominance on Australian soil that, to those watching her progress, little comes as a surprise now. And she’s still only 20. Surprising would be Gigante racing in 2022 without a WorldTour contract. She’s with Tibco-SVB again this year, but it’s surely a matter of time before the world’s best teams come knocking (if they haven’t already).
While Gigante, Plapp and Porte gave us the Festival of Cycling’s most entertaining moments, there was more to love about the ‘TDU Lite’. Aussie time trial champion Luke Durbridge was imperious on stage 1, winning the day (and the race overall) with a classically Durbridge-in-Australia-esque 80 km solo voyage.
For other future stars, and for their domestic teams starved of opportunities to show themselves and their sponsors, the Festival of Cycling proved a welcome platform.
Alana Forster was wonderfully aggressive as an individual rider. Nicole Frain (Sydney Uni Staminade) showed her class with a strong ride on Willunga and fourth overall. Cyrus Monk (CycleHouse) was very aggressive on his way to winning the points classification. Many other teams and riders also made the most of a high-quality live broadcast, the likes of which just doesn’t happen at NRS level.
The race also took the women’s peloton to the top of Willunga Hill for the first time in TDU history – a welcome development. When the race returns to its regularly scheduled programming in 2022, as a UCI-classified event, hopefully Willunga comes along with it. This 3 km climb has become the defining feature of the men’s race and the women’s race should be no different.
Credit should go to the South Australian government and race directors Stuart O’Grady and Kimberley Conte for managing to salvage something from the ashes of the 2021 TDU, and for creating something memorable in the process. Because, on paper, the Santos Festival of Cycling had the potential to be a rather uninspiring affair. A consolation prize for a South Australian government robbed of its annual sporting extravaganza, and a rather dull spectacle for cycling fans used to WorldTour racing in the Australian summer.
What we got wasn’t quite the Tour Down Under, but it was an engaging show nonetheless. We got to see some young talents continue their climb towards stardom, we got one of the sport’s biggest names doing his inimitable thing on ‘his’ climb, and we got some hard-fought bike racing at a time when bike racing has been hard to come by. I’d call that a success.
The Australian summer of racing continues at the Road National Championships in Buninyong and Ballarat, from February 3-7. Stay posted to CyclingTips for coverage.