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Interview: Michael Turtur AO: Bringing teams up to speed

By Zilla Efrat

Years of being a cyclist gave Olympic gold medallist Michael Turtur the insights he needed to start the most popular bike race in the southern hemisphere, the Tour Down Under.

‘It may seem obvious, but when you’re trying to establish something, you need to ensure that all your facts and figures are correct and you have everything you need to deliver,’ he says.

‘You also need everyone pulling in the same direction and feeling they are part of what’s happening.

‘I take that from years of being a cyclist in a team environment. It’s a demanding sport both physically and mentally. When things get difficult, if you haven’t got that comrade from your group and everyone supporting each other, the whole show just crumbles.’

Turtur found the same when establishing the Tour Down Under in 1999.

‘It was critically important that everyone was working in the right direction, knew exactly what they were required to do and were committed to doing it,’ he says.

Turtur learnt much of this from his coach, Charlie Walsh, who came along when he was about 18 years old and changed everything for his group of riders and cycling in Australia.

‘He was very intelligent and started to prepare us based on physiological lab results, such as oxygen consumption, blood lactate and so on, something that had never been done before,’ he says.

‘[Walsh] made sure that all team members understood certain levels of physiology and why we were doing things and exposing ourselves to high levels of discomfort.

‘There’s nothing worse than doing something demanding, whether in a workplace or on a sporting field and not knowing why you’re doing it.’

Before Walsh began working at the South Australian Institute of Sport (SAIS), there was no plan. The group used to go to the track and train, but no one knew why they were training.

‘It was just made up as we went along,’ says Turtur.

‘With [Walsh], we used to have a little booklet that we were given at the start of the tour. ‘It itemised and documented everything we were going to do for the next three months every day. Knowledge is really important.

‘Getting involved with Walsh changed my life as a cyclist and I guess that without his involvement in my career, my success at the Olympics would never have happened. He was ahead of his time.’

Walsh was based at the SAIS from 1980 to 2001 and oversaw the jump in Australia’s track cycling ranking from between 20 and 30 in the world to number one.

Turtur and his team, known as Charlie’s Angels, picked up the Olympic gold medal in the 4000m Team Pursuit at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

At the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games, Turtur also won two gold medals in the men’s 4000m teams and individual pursuits races and a bronze medal in the 10-mile scratch race. Then, he won a gold medal in the men’s 4000m team pursuit at the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games.

Following his cycling career, Turtur coached other cyclists at the SAIS for five years. He then became the manager and promoter of the indoor Adelaide Super-Drome, which was built as part of Adelaide’s unsuccessful bid for the 1998 Commonwealth Games.

During this time, Australia started losing top riders who were turning professional and seeking careers in Europe. Then in 1996, Adelaide lost the Formula One Grand Prix to Victoria.

‘It couldn’t be replaced with one event because it was such a big event,’ says Turtur.

So, John Olsen, the then Liberal premier of South Australia, decided to create a stable of events that would hopefully deliver the same economic and tourism impacts as the Grand Prix.

This led to the creation of the Adelaide 500, an annual motor racing event for supercars, the improvement of many of the arts festivals and events, and the establishment of the Tour Down Under.

Turtur says after two or three years, these events were delivering the same impact to South Australia’s economy as the Grand Prix had, but at a much lower cost.

‘The Tour Down Under was a massive success from day one. I was fortunate enough to be able to create the race and to be its director for 22 years. During that period, it just went from strength to strength and became massively popular.’

Turtur says his biggest challenge was to collectively get all the stakeholders working well together, including government councils, emergency services, sponsors and the staff.

‘A lot of the staff came from different fields of expertise and had no experience with cycling,’ he says.

‘My role was trying to bring them up to speed and educate them in different areas, such as operations, marketing and promotion, and to give them an understanding of how the sport of cycling works because it works in unique ways.

‘We were fortunate that we had a great group of people working together who had a common goal and were committed to delivering the event every year.’

Turtur’s challenge was to create something unique to Australia. ‘We knew that the success of the race was going to rely on the participation of professional teams from Europe, the same teams that participate in the Tour de France. It had never been done in Australia before.’

This was achieved and the race started attracting the elite of world cycling, including Peter Sagan, Cadel Evans, Marcel Kittel, Amanda Spratt and Andre Greipel.

Another reason for its success was a change in the time of the year it was held.

‘Races in Australia had always been staged at the end of the year, a time when people were looking to holiday,’ says Turtur.

‘We wanted the race to be at the beginning of the season. The riders could leave the cold European winter and come here to the sunshine of South Australia.’

Also important, says Turtur, is that race went to where the people are, going through lots of different towns and the places where people live and work. It attracts a wide demographic appealing to toddlers, teenagers, their parents and grandparents.

Turtur says the establishment of the Tour Down Under has transformed the cycling world in Australia.

‘We went from being a backwater in terms of staging an event to staging one of the most respected races in the world. Riders love coming here and they have great comments to make about the race.

‘Before, Australia was just doing the same thing year in and year out. We transformed the sport of cycling a bit like Charlie Walsh did as a coach, coming along and putting in place things that make massive improvements.’

Turtur retired from the Tour Down Under in 2020. ‘I wasn’t getting any younger and after 22 years, I wanted to go out on my own terms. I didn’t want to get tapped on the shoulder. Mentally I felt I had had enough and had achieved what I wanted to do.’

He spent some time on the boards of the Australian Sports Commission and Union Cycliste Internationale but has resigned from these too.

These days Turtur, who trained as a carpenter and joiner, can be found working with his hands in Moonta, situated on Yorke Peninsula.

‘It’s an old mining town. I purchased a little cottage that I’d been admiring for about 15 years. It was built in 1866 and I’ve been renovating it,’ he says.

Turtur occasionally goes for a bike ride for exercise ‘when the weather is nice’, travels occasionally and enjoys fishing and watching football. But he no longer has any involvement with the sport of cycling in any capacity.

‘My desire to get involved in the sport is not there. I think I’ve done my time there,’ he says.

Michael Turtur will be speaking at the Governance and Risk Management Forum in Adelaide on 10 May 2024.

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