When the Tour Down Under began life in 1999, it was the only game in town for riders looking to shorten the winter by racing beneath the sun at a time when the majority of their rivals were still training in frigid temperatures in Europe.
The landscape has changed emphatically since then, of course, amid cycling’s ongoing globalisation and its ever-expanding calendar. Rather than a novelty, the early start is now bordering on de rigueur as far as some are concerned, and the Tour Down Under is by no means the lone show in the southern hemisphere in January.
Now in its ninth edition, the Tour de San Luis has enjoyed an upsurge in its popularity in recent years and its status is now such that when the 2015 season gets underway this week, attention will be divided more or less equally between Argentina and Australia.
Nairo Quintana, Mark Cavendish and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski are among the riders who have opted to kick off their campaigns at the Tour de San Luis, and they explained their reasoning at the pre-race press conference at the Vista hotel on Saturday morning.
For Cavendish, racing full bore for WorldTour points in January is counter-productive when the centrepiece of his season is still some six months away and he said that the category 2.1 Tour de San Luis and its rather more tranquil environment was better suited to his needs at this time of the year.
“First and foremost Argentina and San Luis is a beautiful place with beautiful people and we’re always really welcome here,” Cavendish said. “On a professional note, it’s a lot more relaxed and [organiser] Giovanni [Lombardi] does an incredible job of keeping the pressure away from the big riders. The Tour Down Under is a WorldTour race and you have to be in big form in January, and it would be difficult to keep that going until July. So here it’s a little bit more relaxed.”
Cavendish’s thoughts were echoed by his Etixx-QuickStep teammate Kwiatkowski, who said: “There’s hard racing at the Tour Down Under but it’s more relaxed here and you can approach the season much easier.”
For Quintana, there was perhaps less of a decision to make. The Tour Down Under was always going to be an unlikely destination for the climber, while the Argentinian race boasts three summit finishes, including the El Amago, where he forged his overall victory last year.
Racing the Tour de San Luis also allows Quintana to make a rare competitive appearance in South America. Indeed, his overall victory twelve months ago marked the first time that he had raced in his home continent since turning professional with Movistar in 2012.
“It’s a nicer temperature here. In Europe, it’s much colder right now so it’s a better race to start out with for me, especially as I have other objectives later in the year,” Quintana said. “But it’s good to race in January, and it gives us the opportunity to prepare better for what is to come.”
Quintana’s fellow countryman Carlos Betancur, still a little fuller of figure than his Ag2r-La Mondiale team might appreciate, acknowledged that he was unlikely to be a major factor in the race for overall honours here after his interrupted 2014 season.
“I had some difficult months last year away from competition but now I feel very well, physically and mentally,” Betancur said. “I’m not sure if I’ll be in top condition here but hopefully it will help me to be at my best later in the year.”
For Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), meanwhile, lining up at the Tour de San Luis is something of a do-over after his Tour Down Under debut ended before it even began last year. A crash on his first training ride on arrival in Australia twelve months ago sent him home on the next plane nursing a broken collarbone, and Europcar’s demotion from the WorldTour meant that he could not return to make amends.
“My team is in the second division now, so I couldn’t go there,” Voeckler said. “But I’ve wanted to come here for a long time. I prefer racing to training and I wanted to do a race in the sun but with less jet lag than going all the way to Australia.”
Voeckler raised a laugh, too, when he pulled his colleagues up on their repetition of the word “tranquillo” as part of their motivation for choosing the Tour de San Luis. “Everybody is saying it’s tranquillo now, but give it four days and it’ll just be a big scrap here.”
The only interruption to that general tranquillity came when a reporter sought an update on the current mores of the peloton two years on from the fall-out to the USADA Reasoned Decision and Lance Armstrong’s confession to doping.
Asked if he could be 100 percent sure that the men he raced against were clean, Cavendish said: “Can you tell me 100 percent that one of these journalists isn’t f**king your wife?” before expanding on his response.
“Where there’s money to be gained, there’ll be the odd dickhead who cheats but cycling is miles ahead of other sports when it comes to testing,” he said. “I hope everyone’s correct but with human nature, you can never be certain. But the positive that I can take is that if someone is cheating, he will be caught.”