While the cycling world was well aware of the bushfire-affected areas of South Australia that would be used by this year's Tour Down Under – and many of the riders had already scouted out parts of the stages in training ahead of the race – many were nevertheless left with a lasting impression of the devastated areas.
Stages 2, 3 and 4 of the six-stage men's WorldTour race, and stages 2 and 3 of the women's race, took the riders through areas that had been devastated by the Cudlee Creek and Woodside fires in the weeks leading up to the events.
While some quarters might have had concerns about still staging the race during such a sensitive, and still potentially dangerous, time, the overwhelming consensus, backed up by the race organisers, was that taking the races through the affected areas – with their accompanying money-spending spectators – would only serve to support the communities affected and help in their recovery in a small way.
Australian road race champion Cameron Meyer (Mitchelton-Scott) had based himself in South Australia ahead of the national championships in Victoria, which took place a week ahead of the Tour Down Under.
"I've been here training, so I was here when the bushfires were on, and it hits home pretty hard when you see the aftermath of it because you can't really understand the true devastation until you actually see it – and see things like houses that are basically left in ruins," Meyer told Cyclingnews.
"I think the race has done a fantastic job in terms of promoting awareness of what's happened, and all the donations – thanks to the auctions and the signed jerseys, and things – are only going to help, so hopefully those communities up there in the hills can benefit a little bit from it," he added.
Ahead of the racing, headline sponsor Santos had already donated AU$600,000 to various bushfire relief causes, and also pledged to match the race's fundraising efforts, while other initiatives – among many – included Katusha Sports' charity auction of various signed cycling jerseys, and EF Education First pair Mitchell Docker and Lachlan Morton's head- and moustache-shave to raise money for those affected by the fires.
'The smell of burning really hit you'
Adelaide local and new Hagens Berman Axeon signing Jarrad Drizners – riding for UniSA-Australia during the Tour Down Under – said that he and many of the riders had been shocked by what they'd seen.
"It's horrible to see, and you feel for all the people who lost their homes, and their farms and their animals, and it's been pretty emotional out there," Drizners said. "I feel for everyone, although there have also been some good initiatives, with the race trying to raise awareness, so that's been really good to see, and hopefully we've helped raise some money for those people in the communities affected."
"It was the smell. Just the smell of burning – burned, I guess – really hit you," he said. "For me, that was more of a shock than anything else – that for so long afterwards you could still smell that the fires had been there.
"There was one area where the fires had just ripped through the land and taken everything from it. But it's been great to see the whole peloton come together to highlight what's happened here, and to try to help in the small way that we can."
It was the lack of colour in the normally dense areas of trees in the Adelaide Hills that made an impression on Irish road race champion Sam Bennett.
"It seemed strange in places, with the overcast weather," he said. "One second you're going through green, and different colours, and the next there's just no colour. People have told me that a lot of the trees will grow back, but it wasn't nice to see. It looked like something out of a film about the end of the world, or something.
"It's not just a little area, either. You're cycling through it for 20 to 30 minutes, and we're not going slowly. Plus it's only one part of the country that we've seen, so it's unbelievable to think about the amount of land that's been affected by the fires. It's been really sad to see."
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