Rapha Condor’s Tom Southam gives us his view of racing Down Under
Two things spring to mind when I think of racing in Australia, neither of which fit in to the vision some people may have of it. One is being freezing cold, not just a little cold, but completely, bone chillingly, core-temperature-endangeringly freezing. The other is being in the middle of absolutely nowhere in a five or six man group, the race having been decimated by the wind, riding up a dead straight road, with nothing to look forward to other than a small crop of trees some 5km in the distance.
The Bay Crits were my first experience of Australian racing, back in the staggering heat of 2002/3 summer. We had a ball, Kristian House & I, then riding for the national team, getting stuck in to Australian summertime racing and both loving it. So much so the country has barely had time to hold its breath without us turning up here as soon as our European season has ended. Ok, so maybe we were here principally for the women, but the summer racing was always on the agenda.
For some reason, however, I had the foolish idea of staying and racing for a whole year in Australia. What could possibly go wrong? The races are all on the beach, always hot and sunny, the fans will always turn out to keep me motivated. How wrong I was.
Australia is huge. Flying from Melbourne you have flown five or so hours before you’ve even actually travelled over the rest of the country. Some parts of Australia are quite near the equator and thus are just hot, all the time. Yet down here in the seasonal south, things are as unsettled as the UK. Yet for some odd reason English folks, including myself, seem to think that it is an endless summer here. It’s not.
Crucially, the parts of Australia where all the racing takes place have winters that are just as cold and summers that are hotter by far. The Australian road racing calendar runs along the same time as ours. You start racing in Jan/Feb and then go through until October. It’s a bit like the domestic U.K. scene kicking off in late August and running through until March. Completely and utterly backwards is how I would explain it. Cycling is a summer sport, it needs a healthy dose of heat for people to actually go outside and stand about watching a bunch of blokes in Lycra whizz by. You are not going to go and stand by a hedgerow in freezing wind and rain if you are a floating-voter-type of cycling fan. No way.
Instead of starting off wearing all your kit – knee warmers, thermals et al and then gradually shedding your attire until you are stripped down to real racing fatigues (shorts and short sleeves, how it should be) whilst the fans start to pack out the roads – the complete opposite happens. You start with the peak, and progressively things get worse. You have to put more and more layers on to race, the spectators start to dwindle and interest fades away. And this is happening just as the season is getting properly underway.
I cannot think of a more arduous racing experience than the Tour of Gippsland, July 2007, in a team of two (the rest of Drapac were in Europe), in a place that took seven hours to drive to from home, and had no phone signal for three full days. In biting freezing winds and occasional snowdrifts, we raced from one desolate town to another, via tree-lined nowhere. It still remains the one and only race I have actually deliberately crashed in to get out of.
Oh and before I forget, a lot of the stage races here have split stages. Every single day. Anyone who has raced knows the full horror of doing a split stage. They are long and arduous days, complicated for the staff, difficult to eat properly in, and just not nice. Try six of those in a row, for a week. Racing here for a year was no endless summer, more akin to racing in Belgium.
No, there is only one way for a sane European to attempt racing down under, and that is flirting with the sunny crits in the heat of the Australian summer. They are everything an English boy would expect Australia to be, much more like it. I say take the good parts and leave things like the Creswick handicap (held outside a drive through off-license in a literal two horse town, in June – Australia’s ‘December’), to the locals.
Orwell said ‘At 50, you have the face you deserve’. I think it’s a similar thing if you race a full Australian cycling season. You will have the face of a 50 year old after that too.
Tom Southam will be training and racing in Australia this Winter.