Having just got back from a fabulous ride through the Adelaide Hills on a spanking new carbon fibre Cannondale Synapse bike, I'm now relaxing in a sprawling 12th floor executive suite of the Crowne Plaza and sipping a full-bodied Barossa shiraz. Life is good.
There aren't many places where cycling and luxury are so synonymous as in Adelaide, the city recently named by the New York Times as one of the 52 places to visit in 2015 (for the record, Sydney and Melbourne didn't even score a mention).
I like staying in nice hotels, I love great wine, I love good food, and I like riding my bike.Stuart O’Grady
And the best time of year to do it is right now, when more than 36,000 Lycra-lovers turn up in South Australia from interstate and overseas to be part of the Tour Down Under (aka TDU).
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Almost 800,000 spectators are expected to line the roads this week, with many hoping our own Cadel Evans will retire with the winner's ochre jersey on his back.
The inaugural event was won by Stuart O'Grady back in 1999. The freckled sprinter went on to win his hometown event a second time. Now retired from the sport, O'Grady is now focusing his renowned determination on creating a high-end TDU experience for those who can afford it.
Bikes and memories
We caught up with the 41-year-old at his home in the exclusive Adelaide suburb of Unley where he lives with his wife (an ex-model he met on the TDU podium), three children, and an enviable quiver of bikes. Every one has a story to tell.
"I won a stage in the Tour De France on this crappy bike," he says pointing to a dodgy machine that was sponsored by a cheap French sporting-goods store. He moves to another. "And this is the one I won the Paris to Roubaix on … and I picked up my Olympic gold on this one …"
After spending the best part of 20 years associating cycling with sheer and utter pain - "I haven't wanted to get on a bike for 18 months" - O'Grady is keen to embrace the less gruelling aspects of the sport.
Spectating in style
His latest venture will see participants accompany him on a stylish sojourn into the heart of our own great race. "I came up with an itinerary based around all the things that I like to do myself," he says. "I like staying in nice hotels, I love great wine, I love good food, and I like riding my bike."
O'Grady plans to keep the group to a maximum of 10 people, making for a more manageable and intimate experience. "That way we can sit comfortably in a restaurant and chat, or get a private room in a winery and it's a lot more personal."
He's quick to stress that his tour won't be a training camp where participants smash each other through the hills for five hours a day. But there will be plenty of opportunities to get in the saddle. "We'll go see the start of the stage, park up in the hills on a nice quiet road, have a picnic, watch the race go past and maybe ride back to our hotel. Or we might take a roll around the beaches."
What O'Grady can offer that is different to other luxury TDU tours is the inside knowledge and connections to get a real feel for the race. "We'll meet the riders and mechanics, perhaps go for a lap in a team car and maybe even sit in on a team meeting," he says.
At $7000 to $9000 (prices aren't yet finalised) it isn't cheap, but O'Grady is expecting to attract some high net-worth individuals. A few of the members of ACE (Australian Cycling Executives) have already expressed interest for when the tours commence next year. Visit Stuart O'Grady Cycling to find out more.
We gave the itinerary a trial run, starting with O'Grady's accommodation of choice in Adelaide city itself – The Crowne Plaza. The hotel is well set up to cater for cyclists, right down to providing a large bike storage area off the main lobby, with free water and sunscreen. Our room provides expansive views to the dun-coloured Adelaide Hills; a focus of much of the TDU, especially for the climbers.
The TDU never ventures further than 90 minutes from the city, so you could base yourself there for the entire event and soak up the Adelaide atmosphere.
Instead, we spent a night at the historic Mt Lofty House in the hills, and close to several of the race stages, before heading off for a stunning lunch at The Lane Vineyard, one of South Australia's premier regional dining spots and already earmarked as a highlight for the O'Grady itinerary. The Block 14 2012 Shiraz (winner of the prestigious Stodart trophy) is a standout, as is the cuisine of executive chef James Brinklow.
Our final accommodation and dining is at Chapel Hill in McLaren Vale. Chapel Hill is a favourite of not only O'Grady, but an annual destination for the world's richest cycling outfit; Team Sky. Chapel Hill also makes a great base from which to head off and watch the TDU's Willunga Hill Stage, one of the most iconic climbs in Australian cycling.
We give the Cannondale a quick blast, before heading back for an award-winning 2008 The Vicar Shiraz and a night in the vines at the luxurious Chapel Hill Retreat.
We can't think of a better way to experience Australia's great bike race.