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Down Under Digest #21: Sorry, how many MTBers?

Keep up to date on all things Aussie and Kiwi cycling with our weekly round-up.

Image: Peter Gugger

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 08.02.2024 Photography by
Jan Aalders
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G’day and welcome to this week’s edition of the Down Under Digest, your guide to all things Aussie and Kiwi cycling.

Do you remember a couple years ago when George Bennett won the Kiwi road title? Do you remember how he ended up wearing a national champ’s kit that, in Bennett’s own words, was “all right”, while the amazing kit he wanted to wear was blocked by Cycling New Zealand?

In doing some reading ahead of this week’s Kiwi Road Nationals I was reminded of that story, and about the strict guidelines national federations have around the designs they allow. For those that are curious, here are Cycling New Zealand’s rules, and here are AusCycling’s.

All of that is to say the Kiwi Road Nationals are starting today. More on that in a moment. Let’s get stuck into this week’s DUD.

👌 A wonderful Warrny weekend 👌

The biggest non-UCI race in Australia was held last weekend: the Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic. Now in its 108th edition, the men’s race is one of the longest and longest-running one-day races anywhere in the world, and a race with more prestige attached to it than any other race in Australia’s National Road Series.

In Saturday’s men’s event, career journeyman Mark O’Brien rode to a stellar solo win in his 13th attempt at the race. He’d been second, third, fourth, and fifth in the past and his win came as an individual rider against the top teams in the country. *chef’s kiss*

In the women’s race, 19-year-old Lucinda Stewart (ARA-Skip Capital) proved herself as a promising up-and-comer, attacking late from the day-long breakaway to take the biggest win of her career.

You can read more about both races in my recap of the weekend

😕 Where’d all the MTBers go? 😕

It wasn’t just the National Road Series that kicked off this past weekend: so too did Australia’s MTB National Series. The first two rounds of the five-round season were held on the Gold Coast and shockingly small fields turned up for both the elite men’s and women’s races.

Reigning national champ Sam Fox took out both rounds of the men’s series with Jack Ward second on both occasions. Just five riders competed over the weekend. The elite women’s field was even smaller with just two riders – Alanna Van De Hoef and Luca Turton – taking to the start. The pair won a round each.

Rounds 3 (XCC) and 4 (XCO) will be held in Canberra on March 1 and 3. Hopefully more elite riders turn up for those rounds. The MTB Nationals (which include XCC and XCO) will then be held at Lake Macquarie, New South Wales on March 12-17.

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🏆 Track Nations Cup 🏆

As the WorldTour road riders left the Hilton Hotel in Adelaide after the Tour Down Under, many of the world’s best track riders were just arriving for the first UCI Track Nations Cup of this (Olympic) year.

It turned out to be a pretty good few days of competition for Australia and New Zealand. Here’s a snapshot of the most important results for those of us Down Under:

There are two Track Nations Cup rounds remaining before the Paris Olympics – in Hong Kong in March, and in Milton, Canada, in April.

🌿 Race for the silver fern 🌿

New Zealand’s Elite Road National Championships get underway today near Timaru, on the South Island. The schedule looks something like this:

The road races will be the big-ticket events and they’ll be contested on laps of a 24.4 km circuit – five for the U23 & elite women (122.5 km) and nine for the U23 & elite men (196 km). The course is reasonably straightforward apart from one steep climb of a couple kilometres, about 4 km from the end of each lap.

Based on the provisional startlists, here are some of the riders to watch:

We’ll have a recap of the Kiwi Road Nationals in next week’s DUD.

📖 Georgie Howe’s diary 📖

In case you missed it earlier this week, Aussie road racer Georgie Howe (Liv AlUla Jayco) has started writing a diary for us here at Escape. In her first entry, the former rower took us behind the scenes with her team during the Australian summer of cycling.

Here’s an excerpt, in which she talks about her experience of a bunch ride in Adelaide just after Tour Down Under:

“How often do you see a safe bunch ride of over 40 people going 50 km/h+ on open roads on a Saturday morning? The SASI Swap Off is just that. You swap or you drop.

“It starts. Cooking 60 km/h in the first five minutes. Ella [Wyllie] rolls over full gas. Watch out for her in the fast and flat stages of tours. Ruby and I join the final gallop to the line, then it’s off to the hills for extras and efforts. To quote Ruby, ‘I love these days when you absolutely rinse yourself.’ And rinsed we were. Koalas seen, coffee had, and as salty as a Kettle potato chip. Good day out.”

You can read the full post at the link.

👀 A cheeky sneak-peek 👀

Speaking of Aussie racers at the Tour Down Under, I had the privilege of catching up in Adelaide with Bahrain Victorious pro racer (and Escape lifetime member, I might add), Jack Haig. I’ve got a full interview feature with Jack coming up later this week, in which he talks about everything from the frustration of battling the top guys in the sport, to his thoughts on how training and racing are evolving, to how he’s already thinking about what he might do once his racing career is over.

Here’s an excerpt from our chat, as a bit of a preview:

“Last year, I just did a lot of race, recover, race, recover, race, recover, and like, I never really trained. We did an altitude camp before Tour of the Alps, and I did Tour of the Alps, then you recover a little bit because we went to the Giro, then I went to the Dauphine, then I went to the Tour. That’s what, four months there where I basically didn’t train.

“[I’m] trying to figure out now ‘OK, so if you have a big period of training, how do you do that properly, to then arrive at the next race in the best possible condition?’ Because now I think the way of thinking has changed from using races to prepare. Now it’s more about trying to understand how best to do the training in the most efficient way. The minimum effective dose of training to get to the level that you need to be to compete.”

As Jack goes on to say, longer training camps at altitude seem to be the way the peloton is going …

Stay posted to Escape for the full story, coming soon.

📌 Return of the ‘Boulie Tacker’? 📌

Nearly a decade ago, cyclists in Melbourne started reporting the presence of upholstery tacks thrown on one of the city’s most popular cycling roads: Yarra Boulevard. The issue persisted on and off for years, and while police took the issue quite seriously, and CCTV cameras were installed, no one was ever caught and the issue eventually went away.

Well, there are multiple reports this week that tacks are back on the ‘Boulie’. Whether or not it’s the same person (or people) as before isn’t clear. And whether it’s likely to be an ongoing issue also isn’t clear. Either way, it’s not a great development and we feel for the riders affected.

Local police have been notified. We’ll keep an eye on this story as it develops (or doesn’t).

🍌 Big Things Down Under 🍌

We were in Tassie last week for Big Things Down Under, and this week we’re back over in South Australia. Two Escape members – Stephen Blackburn and Peter Gugger – actually visited the same Big Thing independently in the past few weeks, both while driving back from Adelaide to Melbourne after Tour Down Under.

The Big Olive, found in Tailem Bend, is actually two olives, both of which are located behind a rather garish barbed wire fence. Erected in 2005 and standing more than eight metres tall, the sculpture was meant to celebrate the olive oil processing plant it stands in front of. Instead it’s something of a reminder of a scandal that took place in that building a little over a decade ago.

In 2012, The Big Olive Company was fined $13,200 for labelling some of its products as ‘extra virgin olive oil’ when, in the estimation of the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, those products were not.

“The term ‘extra virgin’ is widely understood by consumers to mean a premium product. Consumers should be able to trust that what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle,” ACCC chairman Rod Sims said at the time.

“Misleading ‘extra virgin’ claims trick consumers into paying a premium for an inferior product. Traders who abuse the trust of Australian consumers in this way expose themselves to enforcement action.”

The Big Olive Company refused to comment on the fine at the time but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say they were probably more worried about the reputational damage than paying what amounted to a rather piddly fine.

Anyway, thanks to Peter and Stephen for sending in your photos!

Image: Stephen Blackburn

If you’ve got a Big Thing in your neighbourhood, or you’re heading past one, I’d love to see a photo of your bike and the Big Thing in the same photo! You can email it through to me at matt.deneef@escapecollective.com.

❤️ And finally … ❤️

Just a couple of treasures to round out this week’s edition of the DUD. First up, an interesting Instagram post from fellow cycling reporter Sophie Smith, who was on the ground at the AlUla Tour in Saudi Arabia last week. Sophie overheard Jayco AlUla boss Gerry Ryan speaking to eventual GC winner Simon Yates about the pressure he was under to win the race, what with AlUla being a title sponsor of the team. The fact the team didn’t have the best Tour Down Under (an important race for other title sponsor, Jayco) probably didn’t help things.

And we spoke about Sam Fox earlier, and how he won the opening rounds of the MTB National Series. Well, Sam’s also been in the lab doing some testing as his season gets underway and, yeah, these are some solid numbers.

🙏 Until next time … 🙏

Thanks for reading! This and every other Down Under Digest was made possible by our wonderful members here at Escape Collective. If you’ve already signed up, thank you. If you haven’t yet, but you’d like to, please do. Just click the link in the top right of the page to get started.

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