Ascending with the Santos Womenâ€™s Tour Down Under
Words: Andy Rogers
Images: Andy Rogers
Letizia Paternoster the champion Italian cyclist flies over the finish line, hands triumphantly raised in the air. I immediately started sprinting down the baking asphalt of Birdwoodâ€™s main street after her. Before I knew it, Paternosterâ€™s team mates had all formed a huddle in the middle of the road, exuding with elation. Seconds afterwards they were swarmed by the media scrum. After taking a few shots, I stepped back to take it all in. It really hit me at that moment that this race means a lot to people.
The Santos Womenâ€™s Tour Down Under is something I as a photographer and cyclist dreamed of and put off documenting until the chance arose in 2019. Luckily for me, my good friend and fellow photographer Melita Van Steele very keenly put their hand up to help me out – without which this whole undertaking wouldnâ€™t have been successful.
As far as Union Cycliste Internationale (cyclingâ€™s world governing body) ranked races go, the SWTDU is pretty fresh on the scene. In its eight year history, the first three editions were a one day affair, before moving to a stage race format. And only for the last five editions has it been a UCI ranked event.
â€œThe growth in the past 5 years in womenâ€™s cycling has been tremendous and the raceâ€™s direct impact has been felt on local and National level. We see young riders at the event who can see with their own eyes what is possible as a female professional riderâ€¦â€ – Kimberley Conte, SWTDU Race Director
But these growths are just the beginning for this exciting race. This year marked the first year of equal prize money for both the women’s and men’s races – the South Australian Government announced it would fill the money gap, increasing the total prize pool for the womenâ€™s race from $15,000 to over $100,000. Race director Kimberly Conte has aspirations of elevating the race toÂ World Tour status – a jump to the highest level of international womenâ€™s racing would bring with it more responsibility on organisers to televise the race (currently there is no live coverage of the SWTDU) as well as be an appealing target for more highly ranked international teams to make the trip to the Southern Hemisphere and continue to diversify the field.
At the start of each stage the keen fans and I were able to walk amongst the teams as they all prepared for the battles ahead. For a race attended by some of the highest level of athletes in the world, this is quite an experience to have â€“ to see the team mechanics making sure the ridersâ€™ bidons are full of hydration mix, seeing the teams discussing race tactics and catching athletes in a moment of complete focus, staring off as they ready themselves for ~100kms of fighting.
As the riders ready themselves at the line, I squeezed my way out ofÂ the sea of colours before I became trapped by the swarming peloton. BANG! A gunshot fired and the riders sprinted away from the line. Similarly as hastily, Melita and I sprinted back to where we parked the car, jumped inside and quickly scrambled with the race map in one hand and Google maps on a phone in the other as we tried to figure out how to get around the race and beat the riders to our first photo stop.
For a race attended by some of the highest level of athletes in the world, this is quite an experience to have.
Standing at the top of the day’s first Queen of the Mountain point at about 40kms into the 119km stage, I gaze over the rolling countryside around us, all I can hear is the sound of nearby farms as I wait for the race to come by. Finally, 30 or so minutes later, we hear faint sounds of sirens and horns of the caravane and just as the same point in the road disappears in the distance, flashing lights of the Race Directorâ€™s lead car appear. Dozens of official media jump off the back of motorcycles and out of their minibuses to set up along the roadside. Just in time to catch the peloton tearing up the hill. While the media van and motorcycles have been busy sticking to the race to maximise capturing as much action as possible, weâ€™ve spent our time soaking in the beauty of the surrounding countryside and planning our shots. Before we know it, the orchestra of sound fades off down the road, the media circus has vanished along with spectators alike â€“ time for us to stop clowning around and race the race again.
After a late night of sorting, editing, and of course posting a few photos on social media, I just manage to fit making dinner in. The following morning finding myself back at the start line, ready to do it all again. Today would have much the same in store, except that it was 40Â°C, compared to yesterdayâ€™s comfortable 27Â°C and I would be sharing a car with Jojo Harper – a World Tour level photographer who has graced most of the cycling Worldâ€™s great monuments and moments – whose skill and experience I was hoping I could feed off for the day. We made a few stops early in the day where I witnessed Jojo end up in photo spots I couldnâ€™t even fathom attempting. Toward lunch, we decided to head to the feed zone, which holds a very particular and beautiful moment of cycling for me – witnessing the dance-like choreography of a rider plucking a bidon out of their Soigneurâ€™s hand as they fly past at 40km/h. After the feed zone, there was only one stop left for us, which was the hilltop finish amidst the sweltering sun.
As the sound of the helicopter became ever more drowning, it meant that the riders were only minutes away readying to power up the climb. Crouched on the blistering asphalt at the edge of the finish line media scrum, I saw the crowd erupt as Australian Amanda Spratt rose over the crest of the hill to cross the finish line with daylight between her and her rivals. Riders began gradually rolling over the hill, all gasping for air and heading directly for their team bus. What I experienced next I can only describe as mayhem. Riders were everywhere. Some collapsed, supported by their team members, calling for water, others being doused to cool down. Yet still amongst all the madness, I managed to find a New Zealand rider with a huge smile on her face.
On day three I walk around the pre-race convoy, fresh faces from a few days ago had started to show fatigue – a feeling I could, to some degree at least, relate to. Back with Melita, I had started to become quite familiar and comfortable with our new rhythm of jumping in and out of the car and navigating our way around the race, so today somehow felt a lot calmer â€“ Iâ€™m not sure the riders felt the same sense of calm, however. After a few stops we decided to head to the next finishing spot. Nestled in Stirling – one of the more popular towns in the Adelaide Hills – this finish was a favourite of spectators and made for a very different environment to the other days. As riders began flowing in over the line, the task of carving my way through a dense crowd of spectators and team members proved to be quite a bit more challenging here than anywhere else this week. I quickly retreated to the teams area for some space, as did most of the riders.
We arrive at the final day, I make my way to the hotel where the Specialized Womenâ€™s Racing Team was staying and join their team car with the police convoy to the race. I shared this short trip with the SWR Media Manager, Nicole Moerig and Team Race Director, Mark Brady. As Nicole was busy uploading content to the SWR social media channels, while simultaneously live-streaming to Instagram, and Mark weaved his way through the convoy of support vehicles, it was obvious to me that I was sharing a car with two very experienced individuals. For the racers, and thankfully myself, with only one stage to go â€“ a shorter circuit race right on the fringe of the CBD â€“ the
hard work was almost well behind us. Having photographed this crit race for a few years before, the environment was much more familiar to me and I felt at home floating my way through the excited crowd. As the peloton buzzed around us time and time again, hitting speeds of 50km/h, 25 laps later and the stage was finished. I could feel a collective sigh of relief floods the pit area as the riders rolled in after the cool down lap. 4 days. 380kms of racing and too many thousands of photos to bother counting â€“ the SWTDU was done.
â€œ2020 brings several changes to Womenâ€™s Cycling which are exciting and welcomed. The formation of the Womenâ€™s World Tour Teams and Continental teams bring the race structure to a similar one of the menâ€™s pro peloton. These changes help ensure that women have a sustainable sport and can focus on racing. The Santos Womenâ€™s Tour Down Under will feature World Tour, Continental, National and Domestic teams this year.â€ – Kimberley Conte, SWTDU Race Director
In terms of cycling races, the WTDU is still relatively small. But despite its size, it packs an enthusiasm and allure that makes it extraordinarily special. There are only a select few road races that allow you to get as close to your heroes as this one. The SWTDU has gone from strength to strength and its momentum doesnâ€™t look to be slowing anytime soon. As it grows, perhaps we’ll see it draw in some of the world’s biggest teams and strongest competitors, and be available on a television or computer screen for those all across the globe.