The email arrives the afternoon before from race organisers. Your allocation in the next day’s TDU media fleet, car and driver, together with a caution not to be late. The TDU stops for no man, and certainly no journalist.
Heeding the warning, I rocked up at the Tour Village in the heart of Adelaide and hung out in the arrival area, surrounded by riders, soigneurs and team management. I scrounged a bottle of water from the Giant-Shimano guys who were more than happy to oblige, whilst their entire team sat glued to their smart phones. I couldn’t see his face as it was virtually 5cm from his touchscreen, but from his immaculately presented hair I could tell one was Marcel Kittel. As I’d see again before the start in Unley, resplendent in his aviator-style sunglasses, not a strand of his blonde hair out of place, this guy is every part the superstar.
After a while just standing around, an earnest-looking official in the orange event organisers shirt strode past waving his hand in the air, “Five minutes! Five minutes everyone.” With that the rolling circus that is a WorldTour event started moving to the adjacent car park. I found my car without much trouble and, as warned, right on time the convoy moved out en masse for the start line in the well-to-do suburban area of Unley. It occurred to me it would be a good day to rob a bank in Adelaide as the entire police force seemed to be following the race, including more motorcycles than a Hells Angels convention.
On arrival in Unley, still about an hour to the official roll-out time, there were people everywhere on both sides of the barrier. Inside it was wall-to-wall journos, photographers, riders and team support staff. There were also two kangaroo joeys for the riders to cuddle at the sign on board; nothing like playing up to international stereotypes. Then again, they were pretty cute. I even managed a cuddle myself alongside one of the promo girls. (Just to be clear the cuddle was with the joey, not the girl.)
On the other side of the barrier, of course, stood a sea of adoring fans. Some in lycra. Some in civvies. Some so young they were still in nappies. No secret who they were most excited to see. The general buzz of noise became a tidal wave of cheers, the soundtrack which now follows Cadel Evans pretty much everywhere after yesterday’s superb stage win over Corkscrew Hill. The media were pretty excited to see him too, of course, for the moment he arrived to sign on, a scrum of cameras and microphones packed down around him. He took it all in his stride, and even seemed to be enjoying the moment; something he hasn’t always been renowned for during his career.
Not fancying cauliflower ears from the media front row, I just thrust my microphone through a small gap towards Evans, I think under Mike Tomalaris’ armpit, and listened in. Later I was lucky enough to catch up with Evans himself back at the BMC car for a quick chat. I know he sometimes gets a bad rap from the media, but I’ve never seen that side of him and suspect it has more to do with the way they treat him.
Of the more interesting things I was able to accomplish pre-race, I once and for all satisfied myself as to how to correctly pronounce Lachlan Morton’s first name. It wasn’t hard, really. I just walked up asked him. Why the Eurosport commentators and Phil Liggett couldn’t do the same at some stage is beyond me. It’s also beyond Morton as it turns out. He just shook his head when I asked why they get continue to call him ‘Lacklan’. For the record it’s pronounced the normal way. That is, “Lock-lan.” Got it, Phil? Good.
Beyond pronunciation lessons, hanging out in the team zone pre race is an fascinating exercise in itself. Different riders and teams have very different rituals and ways of doing things. Some riders like Jens Voigt and Richie Porte seemed totally relaxed, happily chatting away with fans and friends. Whilst other riders are far more intense, tucked away in their own little cocoon, typically away from prying cameras and microphones inside the team mini-bus. There’s plenty of tension; plenty at stake; plenty of nerves.
Perhaps not surprisingly given it numbers well over 50 vehicles, there are strict protocols in place for the race convoy, and we were under very clear instructions to be back at our designated cars, ready to leave the start at 11:15am; 15 minutes before the official race begins. Photos taken. Sound grabs recorded. Interviews done. The media feeding frenzy was over, for the next few hours at least. Time to breathe.
On the commute south to Victor Harbour, which took us straight past the finish line for tomorrow’s race-defining stage to Willunga, we listened in to race radio with updates provided in both English and French, creating a very continental vibe. Then, of all things, we stopped for a pie. Unfortunately, whilst our stomachs were full, so were the roads and we proceeded to get stuck in a huge traffic jam just 3km from the seaside finishing kite. Grandmas were walking past us and for a moment I considered walking myself. But hey, the riders were still 80km from the finish so we were in no hurry. To pass the time we just checked emails and listened to race radio as they called the team cars forward for feed drops one at a time. Riveting stuff.
The media convoy finally arrived at the buzzing seaside town Victor Harbour, far more scenic than yesterday’s inner city concrete jungle at Campbelltown. It even had a ferris wheel. BUPA Challenge riders were everywhere in their blue and yellow jerseys, many having just ridden the complete 148km Stage 4 TDU course for charity. There was a big crowd once again and, as I always try to do, I wandered around to soak up the atmosphere, chatting to the fans who were a mix of locals and tourists. After yesterday’s oven-like conditions in the Adelaide Hills, a lovely sea breeze greeted us as we took up digs at the makeshift media centre in the local tram shed, to type out stories and watch the race unfold on a live TV link. The best bit about this was there are no ads, unlike Channel 9’s coverage. Who’d of thought Liggett and Sherwen keep talking while you’re being flogged funeral insurance? But they really do.
You can tell the end of the stage is getting close when, after doing bugger all for two hours or so, the photographers spring into action, making a beeline for the finish line in their fluorescent vests. A little while afterwards the journalists stroll across to the media zone to commence feeding frenzy number two. The post-race shit fight. Unless they happen to be someone heavyweight who’s cocked up badly on the stage, the vanquished are largely ignored each day. The victors, however, are pursued like moths chasing a lamp. And these moths are determined to get their ‘lamp’, for he represents the day’s headline story.
The stage itself was won in a sprint, pretty easily as it turned out, by likeable German Champion Andre Greipel, his 15th stage win at the TDU over the years. Then for the second day running I had great fun watching the stage winner more than hold his own with the media, correcting their mistakes, cracking jokes (he even managed to sneak a reference to chess into his answers), enjoying the attention. Winners, after all, are grinners. Even when they’re German.
On the way back to the car for the return trip to Adelaide, there was cycling royalty everywhere. I stumbled across Sir Chris Hoy chatting to TDF Director Christian Prudhomme (who I’m convinced could be Jen Voigt’s older brother). I also happened upon Race Director Mike Turtur cramming a bike belonging to UCI President Brian Cookson into the back of a car, as the bearded Brit had earlier ridden his way to Victor Harbour as a participant in the BUPA Challenge. We joked amongst ourselves about this; imagine if there was a crash, and you were the poor bastard who brought down UCI’s main man with a touch of wheels at 30km/h?
Anyway, that was my Stage 4 at the TDU. It’s the Queen Stage tomorrow, taking the riders up iconic Willunga Hill. Twice. Should be fascinating racing as it’s all or nothing for several of the top fancies, with Sunday’s final stage a sprinter’s dream. This Tour Down Under is turning into a classic. And the winner will, most likely, be known by this time tomorrow.