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The Sun Tour: Australia’s oldest road cycling stage race

Jayco Herald Sun Tour 2015 riders in team kits.

The 2015 Jayco Herald Sun Tour kicks off tonight with the race Prologue around Melbourne’s Southbank area. Stage 1 follows on 5th February, with the race finishing atop Arthurs Seat at the end of Stage 4 on Sunday February 8th.

This is the 62nd edition of Australia’s oldest stage race. The Sun Tour was conceived in 1952 by the Sun newspaper and the League of Victorian Wheelmen (professional cycling body), and has been reported as the first professional stage race in Victoria since the Centenary Thousand Classic was held in 1934.

Race promotions from 1962 claim that the Sun Tour was “the first to employ modern techniques to road racing” such as: short wave radio from car to car; car to helicopter and plane; radioed commentary to towns; cordless radio microphones for crowd interviews; colour identification codes; daily race bulletins; picture grams of race highlights; race finishes in Melbourne and regional towns.

Since that time the Sun Tour has grown into one of the premier events on the Australian cycling calendar. It has run every year except for 2010 when Geelong hosted the UCI World Road Championships, and 2012 when the UCI World Track Championships came to Melbourne.

Winners

The list of past winners includes the cream of Australian road cycling, from the present day back to the 1950s. Well-known Australian Sun Tour winners of the modern era have included Stuart O’Grady, Simon Gerrans, Baden Cooke, Matt Wilson, and Simon Clarke.

And while winners from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s may not be as widely known beyond the cycling world, it is fair to say that riders of the likes of Peter Panton (1959, 60), Russell Mockridge (1957), Barry Waddell (1964-68), Graham McVilly (1971, 73-74), John Trevorrow (1975, 77, 79), and Terry Hammond (1978, 82), and brothers Shane and Gary Sutton (1983, 84) played a significant part in making the Sun Tour the revered race it is today.

The Australian Cyclist Magazine, Nov 1967 – Bob Panter’s bike broke in half a few yards from the finish of the Lilydale stage finish on the final day of the 9 day Sun Tour of Victoria. Author's Collection

There have of course also been the international riders who have noticed the Sun Tour of Victoria and travelled here to try and win it. And they have been successful in doing so. Since 1985, the Sun Tour winner’s jersey has also graced the shoulders of riders from Great Britain, Italy, Netherlands, Germany, USA, Sweden, Denmark, Austria and Kyrgyzstan a total of 19 times.

The official Tour website reports that after Bradley Wiggins won the Sun Tour in 2009, he said “If I was going to pick a tour to win other than the Tour de France, the Jayco Herald Sun Tour is the one”. Wiggins’ father, Gary, was a successful Australian professional cyclist during the 1970s and 80s.

This year, the Sun Tour hosts teams from the USA (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling), Italy (Androni Giocattoli) and two teams from Great Britain (the National team, and Condor JLT). And the 16 teams contesting the race include a number of elite international riders.

1952

The first Sun Tour in 1952 was reportedly the brainchild of Laurie Jones who at the time was President of the Australian Federal Cycling Council. It was a six-day race over 894 miles, and it started on 7 October 10:30am at Parliament House in Melbourne.

Reports of the day put the rider numbers at between 56 and 59 (with 18 finishers), and it was estimated that half a million people saw the Tour through Victoria (though official numbers are hard to verify). The inaugural Sun Tour winner was the famous Keith Rowley in 42hr 57min 55secs, with his brother Max second at 49 seconds, and Jack Hoobin (Australia’s first World Road Champion) third some distance away at 9min 6secs.

The total prize money that year was £1500. By only five years later in 1957 it had increased to £2475, but in 1966 the prize purse totalled £3000 – hardly a meterioric rise.

Sun Tour Evolution

For most of its life the Sun Tour was always held during October – the early January scheduling in 2013 and this year’s February timing are relatively new innovations.

The Tour organisers have shifted the race timing to the Australian summer in a bid to attract greater holiday crowds, and to coincide better with the international cycling calendar – marking the beginning rather than the end of the international professional season.

The Sun Tour now comes after the other two major road events – the National Road Championships in Ballarat around mid-January, and the Tour Down Under in Adelaide and surrounds at the end of January. Add to this the very successful Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, a one-day classic which looks set to continue.

Current Sun Tour Race Director John Trevorrow explains the significance of this move: “In the long term the change to the Australian summer will definitely work. I have always said it needed to be in summer, not last race of the year where everyone was tired and finishing up after a long season.”

Five time Sun Tour winner Barry Waddell agrees: “The Sun Tour is becoming more important because of the date change. Our European riders can use it as building block now for their season ahead, like the Tour Down Under is an important part of the season.”

Australian Cyclist, Nov 1964 – Barry Waddell, the 28-year-old Australian road champion, winning the final stage of the Nine-day Author's Collection.

Trevorrow, multiple national road champion and Olympian and Commonwealth games representative, knows the race inside out. “My earliest memories were of sitting at home in Morwell with the Sun Tour riders billeted at our place (Dad was a pro-cyclist). I used to listen to their Sun Tour stories, and I grew up dreaming about riding that race someday.”

And rode it he did. Trevorrow rode in eight Tour’s altogether and won it three times in 1975, 1977 and 1979. He brings that impressive background to the race today, and many regard his appointment as Race Director a positive move for the future.

John Trevorrow, winner of 1975 Sun Tour. Author's Collection.

The Sun Tour format has changed somewhat over the years. It was always much longer in distance and stage numbers. The Tour was typically a nine-day race, and had as many as 18 to 20 stages (i.e. two stages per day, one morning and one in the afternoon), and would total 1000-1205 miles in length.

By comparison, the modern day version of the Sun Tour is very different – fewer stages, fewer days, and less distance. This may be a case of the old show business adage, “Always leave them wanting more”. Trevorrow also cites recent pressures from the world governing body to cut back race distances to look after the riders more.

John Trevorrow is confident that the Sun Tour is a better race these days: “Its definitely a better event now. We used to have much smaller fields, say 8 teams with 3-4 riders. And no-one was around because of the stage courses, except for the stage finishes where the whole town would come out. It is also now a very serious event, and a very important race for the Australian riders. It means a lot to them.”

Again, Barry Waddell agrees: “Yes, it is completely different these days, for the better. Its not the endurance race that it was. I don’t mean its necessarily easier because the riders are fresher so they go harder, and there’s more riders now - better riders in today’s fields. When we were racing the Sun Tour with much smaller fields, there was simply nowhere to hide…you’d be out in the breeze all day. Back then it really was a marathon ride…we used to finish in the dark.”

1960 Sun Tour riders descending Mt Hotham, Australian Cyclist Oct, 1960 (Sun Picture). Author's Collection.

“They’re trying now keep it in front of the people which is what they should do. Road racing can be very exciting, but no-one sees it unless you have cameras etc. In our day with the stages all over Victoria some of the best riding was done away from the crowds…often you’d be sprinting for the line, or on a breakaway, and the only one’s there to see it would be a farmer and his cows by the roadside!”

And the rider numbers have varied over the years too. Compared to the 2015 field of nearly 100 across 16 teams, numbers were always much smaller in years gone by (some years the numbers were as few as 24). For one, there were simply fewer professionals back in the early days of the race – days when the divide between amateur and pro cyclists in Australia caused much controversy and debate.

The traditional timing of the Tour in October probably also discouraged some professional riders from entering at the end of the season, when many were getting ready for a break. Waddell explains: “In my time there were few actual professionals in the true sense of the word. There wasn’t enough money in it for most of us, so we had to work too. It was always work first and the bike was a secondary consideration really”.

Sun Tour Curiosities

Like many of the World’s oldest cycling races, the Sun Tour of Victoria has had its fair share of the amusing and the amazing. Beyond the stage results, the silverware and prize money, and the winners are a host of interesting things that have transpired over the years.

Consider these examples:

  • In the 1952 Tour, Roy Underwood (the youngest rider in the field at 19) had made a £50 bet with his father that he would finish the six days. Each day he would arrive at the finishing towns in the dark long after the other riders had come in. And on the last day, despite a search party being sent to find him in the dark again, he finished that race and won his bet.
  • The Sun Tour also used to be referred to as the ‘Fun Tour’ by some of the riders and officials, owing to the post race gatherings at whatever town hotel/pub was open that night at the end of any particular stage (_“In the old days everyone would go to the pub, and the riders who were serious about the race would only have 2-3 pots” _John Trevorrow).
  • In Stage 4 of the 1954 Tour (Ararat to Preston 179 miles) the riders were all picked up and transported in cars 64miles to ensure the stage would finish on time in Preston by 4:30pm.
  • In 1954 Angelo Catalano won a share in an Omeo district gold mine for winning Stage 6 (Beechworth to Omeo 103miles).
  • In 1957 the Tour was changed from a massed start to graded handicap divided into three groups at start. Teams were not to appear in the Sun Tour until 1961, when five teams of six started.
  • The Sun Tour sponsorship was mostly limited to that from the Herald Sun newspaper (‘The Sun News Pictorial’ as it was called then) in the early days, and they were against anyone else getting free advertising – to the extent that there was reportedly a move one year to get riders to remove decals/stickers from bike frames.
  • Media promotion of the Sun Tour has always been a serious issue, as the following quote from Tour Manager in 1966 shows: “The time controls are rather difficult to overcome; we know the bike riders don’t like stops but they all like money – so we stop. We are trying to sell the bike riders to the public and by short stops and interviews with the top boys, it must help – we wont stop under £15 and then only for say 2 or 3 minutes.” (Bill Long, 1966. Tour Manager Speaks. The Australian Cyclist, December, 14).
  • The quest for bigger crowds has also been a constant goal for Sun Tour organisers, with select stages in country towns around Victoria, suburban Melbourne, Shopping centres including Southland and Chadstone (imagine doing 30 laps around the car park!), various velodromes and boardt-racks, motor race tracks (Calder park, Sandown), and Beach Road. Time trials in the Melbourne CBD have also been used previously.
Harold Lamb’s team car for the 1974 Camperdown Sun Tour team. Author's Collection.

History in the making?

This year, with Simon Gerrans recovering from injury much of the focus is on his Orica Green Edge teammate Simon Clarke. Clarke won the Sun Tour last year and is attempting to go back to back this year.

If Clarke claims a second successive Sun Tour title he will be only the fifth person ever to do so, putting him in the company of Peter Panton (1959-60), Barry Waddell (1964-68), Graham McVilly (1971, 1973-74), and Simon Gerrans (2005-06).

It is a shame that 2015 Australian Road Champion Heinrich Haussler is not on the start list this year - only a few people have won the Australian National Road Championship title and the Sun Tour in the same year (i.e. Russell Mockridge in 1957, Barry Waddell in 1964 and 1968, Graham McVilly in 1971, Peter Besanko in 1976, John Trevorrow in 1979, and Clyde Sefton in 1981).

If Simon Clarke’s early season form continues over the next few days, history could well be made again this Sunday 8 February on the final stage at Arthurs Seat on the Mornington Peninsula. 20 year old teammate Caleb Ewan might not be far away from the podium either.

Such things are part of the appeal and beauty of cycling races like the Sun Tour – one of Australia’s heritage cycling events. Long may it continue.

Final word must go to Barry Waddell, the most successful Sun Tour rider ever and regarded by many as one of Australia’s best ever all-round cyclists due to his success on the track and road. “The Sun Tour was our pinnacle. It was the bike race everyone wanted to ride in and win. And I hope one day it will become a pinnacle again. From the look of things today, I’m pretty sure it will.”


This is an edited version of a piece that first appeared at Cycling Tips.