The big goals don’t come around for European racers until the bitter winds and rainy skies of races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders in early spring. For those in the Southern Hemisphere, however, it’s an entirely different story. Australian summer is blazing in December and January and, with that, comes a full season of bike racing. The National Championships are first, then the Tour Down Under afterwards – Australia’s only WorldTour stage race.
For Aussie teams and riders, the Tour Down Under is a rare chance to perform well on their home roads where they are used to the hot temperatures and have the chance to preview stages well in advance. For a change, it’s not them fighting jet lag and adjusting to new terrain, but they have the upper hand on their competitors who come to the event from further afield. The positives of racing close to home doesn’t come without its pitfalls, however.
As home favourites Liv Alula Jayco have found out so far in the women’s Tour Down Under, the weight of expectation can be a heavy burden to carry. After dominating the Australian National Championships a few weeks ago, where Ruby Roseman-Gannon took the title in both the criterium and road race, the team came to the Tour Down Under with all eyes on them. Jayco were expected to win the race and anything else would be a disappointment, something that the team have felt all too painfully in the opening two stages of the race.
The first stage saw Georgie Howe narrowly miss out on victory after she was pipped to the line by AG Insurance-Soudal’s Ally Wollaston, with the Liv Alula Jayco team seemingly using up their lead out too early, meaning Howe struggled to maintain her speed to the finish line. In stage two, the Australian squad lined up with a refreshed mindset and new purpose, aiming to put the disappointment of the day before behind them. What came to be, however, was a sixth place for Alexandra Manly, the team’s protected rider for the day. Post-race, Jayco were understandably disappointed, so what went wrong?
Ruby Roseman-Gannon in the opening stage of the Tour Down Under (Image: BRENTON EDWARDS/AFP via Getty Images)
“Today was a bit easier than what we expected, I think the wind played a bit of a factor in that with headwinds up most of the key climbs. It was a bit of a hectic start but after that it really eased off,” Ruby Roseman-Gannon explained after the race.
The team’s sports director, Megan Chard, agreed with the Australian national champion that a lack of aggression and action from other teams meant that today’s stage failed to play out as they had expected.
“The racing at the moment is a bit strange, the other teams aren’t riding to tactics that suit them. We’re coming to the finish with fresh riders all the time and we’re not expecting the race to be so easy. For example, we thought that today would be an aggressive race and Trek would take it on, but we came to the line with fresh riders and a full peloton,” she said.
While the tactics of other teams played a part in how Liv Alula Jayco eventually performed in today’s stage, Roseman-Gannon admits that having such high expectations ahead of the race has impacted the mood within the team. The Tour Down Under serves as one of the most important races of the year for Australian riders, while European-based riders often enter the race slightly undercooked to be ready for key targets later in the season. So much preparation means that a subpar performance is especially hard to take.
“This race is really special to us, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform and of course we would like more. We’re just doing our best, we’re putting everything we have into it and we can learn from those mistakes. We set our standards pretty high and we want to live up to that,” Roseman-Gannon added after the race.
“It’s hard to stay calm when you really, really want something, but you have to be willing to lose it to win it. So we try to channel that and make good decisions, but it’s always challenging to deal with that kind of pressure.”
All hope is not lost yet for Australian riders to delight a home crowd in the women’s Tour Down Under, though, with a crucial stage on Willunga Hill awaiting tomorrow. The three kilometre climb is iconic in the race’s history and 2024 is the first chance that the women’s peloton will have the opportunity to tackle it. Riders like Roseman-Gannon have competed in domestic races up the climb in the past, something that should help in tomorrow’s stage. The most important thing, according to Chard, is that her riders look at the positives of the Tour Down Under so far, rather than focusing too heavily on what has been going wrong.
“We came into the race and we wanted a podium on all the stages and we also have GC hopes with Ella [Wyllie] and Ruby. We took the intermediate sprints today and they’re both still in a good place, so we’re still on a positive trajectory,” she said. “Maybe it doesn’t look great because we’re not winning races but we're good.”
Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix