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O’Grady: Santos Festival of Cycling provides opportunities for young Australian talent

WILLUNGA HILL AUSTRALIA JANUARY 26 Willunga Hill 374m Fans Public Peloton Australia Flag during the 22nd Santos Tour Down Under 2020 Stage 6 a 1515km stage from McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill 374m TDU tourdownunder UCIWT on January 26 2020 in Willunga Hill Australia Photo by Daniel KaliszGetty Images
(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

While the Tour Down Under has been cancelled for 2021, the organisers behind the men’s and women’s WorldTour events of the season have created a replacement event with the Santos Festival of Cycling taking place from January 21 to 24.

The four-day events might lack a major WorldTour presence, but former rider and new director of the men’s race Stuart O’Grady believes that the national event can become a stepping stone for young domestic riders looking to showcase their talents on a bigger stage.

There are set to be 13 men’s WorldTour riders in the race with Richie Porte competing as part of an Australian national team, while GreenEdge are fielding six of their riders in a race that still contains the iconic finish on Willunga Hill.

“When one door shuts another one opens. For a lot of the domestic teams and the young riders, this is a huge occasion,” O’Grady told Cyclingnews.

“They’ll have a stage to perform on and it’s going to be the best national road series event that a lot of these riders will have had to perform on. It will have the look and feel of the Tour Down Under with the same team and infrastructure behind it. What an opportunity for a young kid.  One week you’re racing around a small track in regional Australia and then the next week you’re racing up Willunga alongside Richie Porte."

O’Grady was already an established European rider at Roger Legeay’s Gan team when he won the inaugural Tour Down Under in 1999. He would go on to win the event again in 2001 but he is well aware that a significant result in Australia’s biggest race can still provide a young domestic rider with the chance to broaden their horizons and potentially attract the attention from established WorldTour teams in Europe.

“As a young kid, I got to train with the Australian Institute of Sport every weekend, and look where that got me. Hopefully, this will be a stepping stone for young Australia riders and at the same time inspire a whole new load of kids to come out and take on the WorldTour one day,” he added.

While the loss of the Tour Down Under for 2021 is a blow to Australian racing, which also seen the cancellation of both the men’s and women’s Cadel Evans races, and the Herald Sun Tour, the approval of the Santos Festival of Cycling ensures some continuity for cycling in the Southern hemisphere.

“Having this race is super important. After having the year that everyone has gone through, it’s incredibly important to get an event up and going, not just for cycling fans but for sports fans, communities, the economy and for everybody. It’s important to keep the heart beating for the race. It’s been going for almost twenty years now, there’s tradition involved and we want to kick off the year in a much happier mood.

"The whole year has thrown up challenges. We were hoping that the dream would continue and that somehow the WorldTour race would happen but reality and what was going on in Europe made it impossible for us to go ahead with a WorldTour race. The challenges are still happening and we’ve had another outbreak in New South Wales just a couple of days ago. Some states have hard border closers already and every day we’re having more hoops to jump through.

"I don’t think that it’s going to stop, and think that we’re just going to have to adapt. I don’t think that the main thing right now is whether the race has all the main aims. It’s about getting an event going and allowing the fans to come out and watch."

O’Grady only took up the position as the organiser of the men’s race after the 2020 edition when former race director Mike Turtur stood down. O’Grady had plans to ‘shake up’ the race route and the former Paris-Roubaix and Tour de France stage winner is keen to do that in 2022, even if his plans are on ice for a year.

“We’re going to come back even better. I wanted to show off my new 2021 course design which has now been put on ice for a year. I think that what’s happened has made everyone realize how much we miss the race, and how everyone would come down and focus on Adelaide with all the European guys riding around our beaches and hill. We’re very proud of that and it was an honour to host everyone.”

One possible change could see the race move away from the summit finish at Willunga Hill and instead see the race decided by other climbs in the Adelaide hills and surrounding countryside.

“There are a few changes that I’ve got in store. Back in the day, we used to finish down at the bottom of Willunga. I think that what we’ll find in the next WorldTour edition is that there are a lot of hills in South Australia that we’ve not raced yet. I guess I’m going to try and explore a few of these and give the race a bit of a shake up.”