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Tour Down Under failed to convince even five WorldTour teams to race

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)

The decision to cancel the 2021 Tour Down Under came down to the fact that fewer than 10 WorldTour teams were willing to travel to Australia and take part in the season-opening event. 

Cyclingnews has learned that the race organisers sought the participation of a minimum of 10 WorldTour teams and that the remaining slots were to be potentially filled by domestic squads but that, after the UCI decided to make participation in the race voluntary rather than mandatory – which is typically the process for WorldTour events – only a handful of teams were willing to travel, quarantine and then race.

Both the women’s Tour Down Under and the Cadel Evans races were also cancelled on the back of the main Tour Down Under news.

Several sources have confirmed that fewer than five teams agreed to attend the men's Tour Down Under, with Mitchelton-Scott, Deceuninck-QuickStep, and Israel Start-Up Nation among those willing to take part. AG2R La Mondiale and Bahrain McLaren have both confirmed to Cyclingnews that they declined invitations. 

It’s understood that up to eight WorldTour teams declined, while the remaining squads sat on the fence knowing that if 10 teams didn’t come forward then the race would not go ahead.

What was offered by the organisers

In a public statement issued on Sunday, the race organisers made clear that the COVID-19 pandemic was the main reason for the race's unfortunate cancellation but they had put in place a number of stringent measures to appease teams' concerns. A bubble would have been created from the moment a chartered flight with riders and staff traveled from Singapore on January 2, roughly two weeks before the race took place. However, before that flight took place, the race organizers had also paid for flights for all riders and staff to arrive in Singapore via flights leaving London, Milan, Paris, Amsterdam and several other European hubs.

Those onboard the chartered flight from Singapore would to Adelaide would have then been taken to the Adelaide Hilton hotel where each team would have been provided with their own floor during a two-week quarantine period. The race organisers worked closely with the South Australian (SA) authorities (Health Department and Police) to develop a workable quarantining scenario. According to documents seen by Cyclingnews, all hotels used for quarantining would be approved by SA Health. 

The organisers had also applied to the UCI for dispensation to reduce rosters from seven to six riders as "a measure that has been requested to relieve quarantining costs and pressures from race organisers, it is hoped that this will be viewed favourably by participating teams to give them greater flexibility with their rider rosters."

In terms of testing, it was likely that all riders and staff would have been tested within 48 hours of arrival in Adelaide and, according to documents shared with teams and stakeholders, "on day 12 of quarantine which determines if a team can be released from quarantine after 14 days".

During that fortnight, riders would have still been able to train on open roads with police escorts guiding them around the city and surrounding countryside. The race organsisers were also intent on splitting the teams into two smaller bubbles in order to limit interaction and the spread of any possible infection during the quarantine period. Meals at the Hilton would have also been served to riders on their individual hotel floors in order to increase social distancing and limit the interaction. A return flight to Singapore was also set to be chartered.

"We didn’t have enough teams to put together from the men’s WorldTour peloton because of COVID-19 and quarantine and the fact that it wasn’t a mandatory race. We were just being realistic and we’re okay with it," a spokesperson for the race told Cyclingnews after they also confirmed that 10 teams were required for the race to go ahead. 

Smokescreen

AG2R La Mondiale, one of the teams that outright declined to race, told Cyclingnews that the decision came down to the quarantine aspect, with riders and staff facing up to a month away from their families if they were required to self-isolate for a period of time when returning to Europe. However, at present most European countries do not require self-isolation for travelers returning from Australia, with the country having one of the lowest infection rates in the world at present.

The Australian squad Mitchelton-Scott wanted to race, for obvious reasons, with director Matt White disappointed that more teams were not willing to start their seasons in Australia.

"I get that some teams were a bit fatigued from quarantine but for me, the big turnaround came from the UCI and the decision not to make participation mandatory. If they had done that, as with other WorldTour events, then the race would have been on but as soon as teams were given the option it quickly became clear that there wasn’t the appetite," White said. 

"We want to go, as we have an Australian sponsor, but all teams need racing and there’s no quarantine when travelling from Australia. Along with New Zealand, they are two of the safest places in the world to be right now."

For UAE Team Emirates – one of the teams that sat on the fence – the decision not to race was a combination of factors, not least the quarantine fatigue that has grown over the last few months during a season that has yet to be completed, but also the logistics and expenses involved in taking part.

"I don’t think we wanted to go because of the late-season end and the complication of quarantine for two weeks," said director Allan Peiper.

"We didn’t give them a yes or a no. We just explained our viewpoint. From our perspective, we were only thinking about the quarantine aspect, so having our meals served to our rooms, only being able to go out for a ride with a police escort and the big ask of such a long time away. As much as we love bike racing, everyone is still nervous about long-distance travel away from home."

While the quarantine aspect was certainly a driving force behind many teams' decisions not to race, Cyclingnews understands that some squads used that aspect as a smokescreen the moment that the UCI made the race voluntary, and that the race was seen as an expense that offered less value to teams than it did to both the UCI and the race organisers.

"From the WorldTour teams there might have been three or four who, having been given a choice, might have decided not to go but if you have 30 riders and you want them all to race at the start of the season, Australia is an ideal place because of the weather, the race, and the experience you can give younger riders," said Peiper.

In a statement released to Cyclingnews by the UCI, the sport’s governing body defended its position in making the Tour Down Under voluntary.

"Given the requirements imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic situation for teams travelling to Australia, it was decided by the Professional Cycling Council to exceptionally allow for voluntary participation of UCI WorldTeams to the 2021 edition of the Tour Down Under. Mandatory participation according to the regulations will apply for 2022 edition and thereafter."