It’s no coincidence Adelaide is the home of Australia’s biggest cycling event, the Santos Tour Down Under. It features some of the most tantalising terrain our country has to offer. Cyclist headed into the hills the day before the event for a Big Ride to savour

It’s mid-morning on Sunday, just hours before the unofficial opening of the professional season: the People’s Choice Classic criterium, held in downtown Adelaide. We’re yet to make the short flight from Sydney, but already we’re feeling possibly even more nervous than the professionals – you can almost taste the anxiety in the air. After all, we’re about to embark on a weeklong training camp that just so happens to coincide with the biggest annual cycling event Australia has to offer: the Santos Tour Down Under.

The week is important for professionals and non-professionals alike, as what we do will set the foundation for the months and year ahead. We can’t afford to mess it up, so we’ve made our list and checked it twice – no one wants to be the one to arrive without shoes, helmet or pedals. That could spell disaster.

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As we await our flight, bikes safely (hopefully) passed into the hands of the airline, we map out the Big Ride portion of our Adelaide adventure. It will take place on Monday, which happens to be the rest day between the criterium and the official opening of the 2015 Santos Tour Down Under. Our route will take in the very best of Adelaide and its surrounds. It will start with the intimidating walls of Gorge Road up to Gumeracha, then across to Lobethal, the finish town of Stage 1 in 2013. From there its through Lenswood, past the twists, turns and climbs of the Basket Range, a descent and ascent of Norton Summit, along a little-known off-piste road to Montacute, down the infamous Corkscrew, and finally a tailwind finish back into town to clock off at 124km.

A flurry of movement draws our attention away from the route map – the boarding call has been made and it’s time to take flight. Alright – let’s do this.

Gorging ourselves

From classic climbs like Greenhill and Corkscrew to Gorge Road, Lobethal and the endless back roads, it’s difficult to discover all of this cycling heaven without adequate time. That said, it’s not hard to find your way around the hills area, as long as you have a good sense of direction. To be safe, it’s best to book yourself at least five full days of riding, especially if you’re a Sydneysider or Melburnian used to heading in one or two directions for roads that head skyward.

We expect you’re wondering why we haven’t featured famous spots like Belair National Park, Willunga, Greenhill, the back of Stirling and Cherry Gardens in our route, but that’s the beauty of Adelaide and the week that is the Tour Down Under – there’s always going to be a next time.

We awaken Monday morning somewhat bleary eyed. In true TDU fashion we turned in well past a sensible bedtime the night before, having watched Marcel Kittel repeat his sprint victory against a world-class field of fast-men in the crit.

The sun is up early at this time of the year – temperatures are set to reach the mid 30s – but we’re up in time to roll out while it’s still dark with the wind a little crisp. It’s about 25mins of easy pedalling from the city’s heart to our first map marker on Gorge Road, a famous route that snakes steadily upwards along the River Torrens and continues past the Adelaide Dam and Kangaroo Creek Reservoir.

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There’s a light northerly as we gingerly make our way across the city towards Campbelltown – the finish location for Stage 1 tomorrow – but as we enter the guts of the Gorge the wind is increasingly stern. Rarely afraid to come to the front when the road rises, one of our compatriots, SRAM’s David Evans, swiftly pulls off and tucks into the safety of Rob Rychter’s rear wheel. Rob and Dave forwent a number of additional hours of sleep this morning to keep us company, so we refrain from giving Dave too much stick.

Athelstone is where the Gorge departs the quiet suburban setting and enters the tree line and rock-face walls. Sitting at 100m above sea level and rising approximately 350m of elevation over 30km, Gorge Road is not strictly a climb but more of a false flat with a number of steep steps. Having said that, expect to have little chance of taking it easy for around an hour. The cute spot of Cudlee Creek Cafe is about 35km from the Hilton hotel – where the professionals reside for the week – and offers a sunrise, a coffee, and a snack produced with locally sourced and organic ingredients.

The ride up the Gorge is unlike anything we’ve come across outside of Adelaide. One moment we’re surrounded by lush greenery and a running stream; the next, the foliage disperses to make way for sheer rock faces and huge drop-offs. We’re up around Kangaroo Creek Reservoir when we start chatting about how good this place really is. ‘It’s the best week of the year,’ remarks Rob. So good, in fact, we decide to take an on-bike selfie and text it to some of the not-so-fortunate stuck back at home. Sorry, not sorry, guys.

The Hills are alive

The road pitches upward and offers a dizzy-heights view of the dam wall and drop below. The sun has only just crept over the tops of the hills and much of it remains in the dark. In an effort to keep on schedule, we press on, vowing to return here when the sun is in full flight.

Traffic at this hour is sparse and, as it’s more or less a detour and tourist route, the early traffic is minimal and local. It’s so quiet and relaxed that a number of roos seem entirely unperturbed by our presence. It’s only once we get really close that they scurry off into the highlands. Did we mention it’s also common to see koalas up here? Keep your eyes peeled at the gum trees whenever you stop and you might just get lucky.

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A little past Cudlee Creek and the road finally relents, though not for long. A common trend when riding in the Adelaide Hills is to accumulate 1,000m of vertical ascent in the first 50 or so kilometres. None of the hills are mountains, but it’ll feel like they are by the end of the day. Going off our profile there are about five proper ascents over the next 40km. Those are going to add up by day’s end.

We continue along to our next major pin-point at Lobethal and use the opportunity to fill up. We’ve barely covered 50km, but in our defence it has been more or less uphill the entire time. Passing the popular Lobethal Bakery, we decide to skip the treats for later on.

If you ever find yourself in these parts, after coming into town take Lobethal Road right and head towards Lenswood and Basket Range. This particular stretch of road to the top of Norton Summit delivers a fine spread of Adelaide’s offerings. Wineries, orchards, roadside fruit stalls, picturesque landscapes across valleys – it’s nothing short of amazing. In fact, it’s hard to believe this type of terrain can exist so close to one of Australia’s major cities. The riding is lumpy and exposed, however, so make sure you have sun protection. The rip-roaring descent into the Basket Range and out the other side may be more or less covered, but much of the riding in Adelaide will have you bathing in summer rays.

Ups and downs, ins and outs

So far our ride has gone more or less without a hitch. With work duties calling Dave has had to turn off early, but we run into Justin Morris, who spent the last two seasons riding for the Professional Continental team Novo Nordisk. Like us, he’s in Adelaide for the week for no other reason than to catch some sun, racing and reconnect with friends after the season spent abroad. ‘I’ll tag along for a bit with you guys, if that’s okay?’ he asks. Having not seen Justin much since his club racing days, it provides a great opportunity to reconnect with an old mate. Lucky for us, he’s ‘just getting back into it’ with what he would later admit turned into a double century day!

After safely negotiating the high-speed 5km downhill into Basket Range, Rob decides he’s had enough of the chit-chat and turns up the pace. We tell him it’s only Day 1, but fresh legs and a desire to get the heart rate up mean there’s little we can do to deter him. The climb out the other side isn’t as severe as the one we’ve already come down but offers that near-perfect 5-6% gradient. There are a few steeper sections, but for the better part we manage to get a nice tempo going.

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From the top we have a couple of options: left to Greenhill or right to Norton Summit. We take a right and breathe sighs of relief for the next 15km. It’s a near all-downhill blast to the bottom of either Old Norton or regular Norton. They run parallel to each other but the most ridden by far is Norton Summit – attempted nearly 100,000 times according to Strava.

This is our first climb for the day with a city view, and you can see all the way to the sea for most of the way up. At anytime of the day during the week you’re likely to see huge bunches cruising or racing as an hors-d’oeuvre for the day’s route. Off to our left and across into the Morialta Conservation Park is what appears to be an off-road track, but unfortunately it’s for walkers only.

Can I have some Moores?

Some 5km later we reach the top of Norton and again we are spoilt for choices with a four-way intersection. As a treat to Rob, always keen for an adventure, we take the tight left-turn down Colonial Drive, later turning into Moores Road. It’s a shortcut over to Montacute, another well-ridden, snaking road similar to Gorge but better suited to those not afraid of getting a bit dusty. On this occasion the surface is hard-packed and more than fine for our
loaner Focus Izalco Max 4.0 (just don’t tell the guys at the Expo).

Moores is our final climb for the day and is also the highest point of the ride. The loose dirt seems overly tough, so I do my best to repay Rob for his early efforts up Basket Range. We’re all coated in a fine layer of light brown by the time we reach Montacute.

For those yet to experience riding this area, Montacute would be hands down our favourite descent. It plummets towards the city and, while not the fastest downhill around, it’s the combination of length, a few testing corners and a long drag at the bottom that makes it a favourite for some end-of-day street racing. Today, however, we take Corkscrew, which connects back onto Gorge, for our final shots before heading back into town. Cycling fans will remember Cadel Evans’ daring attack and descent after Corkscrew during last year’s TDU. The short but lung-busting climb has some nasty switchbacks that’ll test even the most compact-friendly cranksets. We’ll be back here later in the week at some point to take it on, I’m sure.

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If you haven’t picked up on it already, the hills of Adelaide provide almost the perfect network or cycling routes. There are shortcuts, longcuts, loops, out and backs and any combination thereof. Today we have ticked off Gorge, Basket Range and Norton, but that’s really just a taste of what’s available along the range.

With our day coming to an end shortly after Gorge Road we decide lunch is absolutely in order. There’s no real plan, but Rundle is a great spot to venture at any time of the day with a selection of cafes, restaurants, pubs and shopping all in the one place. We’re lycra-clad, but so are half the people moving around the city at this time of the year.

Having these kinds roads, climbs and descents so easily accessible is no doubt a huge part of the appeal of coming to Adelaide during the third week of January each year. Sure, in France you can ride stages of Le Tour, but you’ll be chasing the bunch across the country. Here you can do it all from your hotel room. Ride out to the stage starts and finishes, chase the peloton back to the city and watch them come through the village en route to their post-race down time and then cruise around the Expo in search of your next steed. No wonder people say it’s the best week of the year.

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How we got there

Travel

There are multiple flights leaving Sydney for Adelaide daily and, surprisingly enough, the return flights are very reasonable. We flew Virgin Airlines for the sub two-hour flight and, in an effort to keep life simple, checked-in the bike bag and took only a carry-on size suitcase. Sydney airport allows you to check in your bike bag at a designated oversize luggage counter. No lines for us. We hired a vehicle from Europcar, picking and dropping off at the airport. Make sure you book early.

Accommodation

The Franklin Apartments – located a short stroll from the Hilton, Bike Expo and Village – offer unit-style rooms with full kitchen, washer and dryer laundry facilities and Arctic-levels of air conditioning to battle the Adelaide summer.

Food & Drink

We spent nearly every night on Gouger Street where you’ll find a huge selection of Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Italian and pub-style meals, among many others. There are plenty of places that will serve up a cold ale, but Adelaide is not a party town so don’t expect them to be open all night.

Cheers

South Australia Tourism Commission and Tour Down Under organisers for once again putting on a spectacular week-long event, SRAM Australia for accommodating us at the Franklin Apartments, Focus Bikes and Astir Bicycles for allowing us to sample a little of what each brand has to offer and of course the many others who help to make TDU the fantastic week it is.

Get all the details around next year’s race, including the numerous activities on offer for enthusiasts and spectators alike at the official Tour Down Under website.

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