Cycling. Australia. (From RIDE #55)

 

In RIDE #59 (on sale first week of March 2013) we feature an overview of the revised format for the Cycling Australia’s National Road Series (NRS) round of competition and acknowledge the changes that have been made recently. To put it into perspective, we will be publishing some relevant features from our archives online. The first of those is Shane Goss’ look at the state of road racing at the beginning of the 2012 season. This feature “Cycling Australia” was originally published RIDE #55 (released February 2012).

Cycling Australia (flashback from February 2012)

 

“Cycling Australia” by Shane Goss. Originally published in February 2012 in RIDE Cycling Review, #55.

The sporting tide is turning. Cycling is one of the big sports in Australia. We saw it live this summer. The [2012] national championship road race caught one example of how good racing is in this country and the SBS coverage was good for the sport. What else can we savour from this increased interest?

– By Shane Goss
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When Cadel Evans crossed the line on the Champs-Elysées last July, many in Australia hailed it as the greatest achievement in this country’s rich sporting history. Many boldly stated that his Tour win “will do more for cycling here than any other achievement”. That may be. His achievement confirmed just how far the Australian scene has come: from the days when you could count the number of Australians racing in an international race on one hand, to today when it’s  rare not to see an Aussie on the squad of many of the major professional teams.

But how will the win in France really affect the sport here? In the print media it’s a struggle to wipe any code of football from the back pages. Exposure is paramount to success but we have seen that editors are willing to spare some column inches for the sake of a historic achievement. But the momentum must continue and that should trickle down to the domestic scene.

Cadel’s win propelled cycling to the forefront of sporting conversations around office water coolers, but that interest now needs to be tapped into; followers of the top tier can now look to the grass roots to find out what we can expect from the future. Will a Tour win attract sponsors and the corporate dollars needed to maintain this momentum? Will the media now put domestic racing higher on the list of priorities instead of just focusing on three weeks in July or the Olympics?

People are asking questions about Australian cycling. We know our riders are among the world’s best, our ranking proves this. But what of our domestic scene, how is the sport faring on a national level? Nurturing and developing talent is an expensive undertaking, so is it yielding the right results?

As good as our performances are overseas – and with the quality of riders making their way from the rural roads of Down Under to the pavé of Europe – the local scene is not exactly prospering. The National Road Series (NRS, which incorporates the Scody Cup) is a pathway for future stars.

 

 

The series is a combination of multi-stage events and one-day races. The Scody Cup is comprised of the Tours of Gippsland, Geelong (which will be replaced with the Tour of the Grampians in 2012) the Murray River, and culminates with the Tour of Tasmania. Other races include the Tour of Toowoomba and one-day races in the iconic Melbourne to Warrnambool, the Grafton to Inverell, the Goulburn to City and the Launceston to New Norfolk.

These races are the seeds the sport plants to nurture its growth in this country. Without sponsorship for our domestic teams and their races the sport may well have reached a plateau here. “On the surface, the National Road Series has never looked brighter,” explains promoter John Craven. He is one of the stalwarts of the cycling scene who was a long-time owner of the Herald Sun Tour. These days that race is organised by another company but Craven has been responsible for the Tour of Tassie as well as the national championships in Buninyong. He’s as cautious as he is optimistic. “There is more media exposure and public interest, but it’s very fragile financially.”

Craven and his Geelong-based promotion company Caribou Publications have wrestled with sponsors and duelled with councils and municipalities over road races. He is the current promoter of the Scody Cup, a helter-skelter style of racing: all four tours often have two stages per day, as well as numerous criteriums. It is the “backbone of the domestic cycling calendar”, says Craven. “It holds the NRS together.”

The races in Gippsland and Tasmania are tough contests held amidst picturesque scenery and on hilly and winding roads, the latter regarded as having the potential to be the toughest race in the land. They have something for all kinds of riders with criteriums for sprinters and climbs to challenge the peloton. The Tour of the Murray River is completely flat and is raced at a rapid pace. It is Australia’s longest stage race, lasting eight days with an imposing tally of 15 stages!

It’s not the sort of racing that greets our riders when they hit the road to Europe but it’s a stepping stone that’s well regarded. “I think a hard Aussie race is as hard as any a rider could do,” says Team Sky rider Richie Porte. “I remember racing the Tatts Cup when I started and they were some of my hardest days on a bike. I am a big fan of the Aussie scene.”

“Anybody who has a bad word to say about the domestic scene in Australia should go and race it,” chided Porte.

GreenEdge recruit and fellow Tasmanian Wes Sulzberger won the Scody Cup in 2006. Since then he has ridden the Tour de France and competed all over Europe. He sees the national series as a huge opportunity for budding riders to learn their craft. “It’s extremely important for young riders who are coming through the ranks,” Sulzberger said. “ It’s not all about getting results the first time around, it’s more about having the opportunity to learn how to race, to learn tactics. With so many short stages, usually two per day, riders can get in, have a go, and try new things to see if they work,” he added. “That could be from attacking in the final kilometres or fighting for position for the sprint finish. It’s a great series of races to build stamina and get a real feel for cycling.”

The series was previously held as five one-day races around Victoria with one in Tasmania before switching to the current format in 2005. Riders entered on an individual basis and the top-10 at the end of the series gained automatic entry into the Herald Sun Tour that year. Craven explains the logic behind that inclusion. “I had been director of the Herald Sun Tour since 1989 and was becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of suitable races in Australian cycling from which to select local riders for the tour field.

“Most of the events back then were handicap races, which did not have any relevance… I expected to get about 50 entries in each event, mainly from Victoria, but the concept boomed. Fields of more than 100 turned up to contest all the races, and lots came from interstate and New Zealand.”

Some names to appear at the top of the results page were Baden Cooke, Brett Aitken, Simon Gerrans, Greg Henderson and David McKenzie. More and more talented riders were coming through the series. Then, when Drapac-Porsche first formed in 2003, a trend was set for other teams to follow.

In 2008, a teams format was introduced to the NRS and Scody Cup. Drapac was joined by Praties (now Genesys Wealth Advisers), Budget Forklifts, SouthAustralia.com, NSWIS-FRF, Savings and Loans and Ord Minnet-Triple Play. That year was a defining moment in the evolution of the series. It enabled riders to get a feel for the team style of racing similar to that of the elite squads in Europe.

Riders could get involved in a semi-professional culture and concentrate on the race rather than having to lug their bags around, organise transport, food and accommodation. They could be guided on race tactics, get a massage and have their bike washed and ready for the next day.

The emergence of the aforementioned teams – combined with the rising talent among the various institutes of sport – led to the format being changed from individual entries to teams. “The teams concept is popular in most quarters, although not with some municipal and town sponsors,” says Craven. “Field sizes for the Murray River and Tassie tours dropped as teams are restricted to eight riders – and one team [per sponsor]. The towns want beds filled for the nights but, generally speaking, the teams concept has been highly successful.”

To enter a team in the NRS costs plenty of money however, and financially it can be cheaper for an Australian team to ride overseas. The objectives for Drapac Professional Cycling have changed since it first entered the NRS. The team figures more prominently on an international level, racing in Europe and Asia. From a financial perspective it keeps more in the pocket by racing in China or Malaysia where transport to and from the races as well as accommodation and food are provided.

A race like the Tour of the Murray River can cost around $12,000. “We take eight riders and four staff,” team director Agostino Giramondo explains. “Go to Tassie and whack another $4,000 on top, because you have got the boat and the flights and all other associated costs.”

In an ideal world the team would have riders for the whole season in Australia. Like most things in the sporting world a lot relates to money. Without the right financial situation it’s not possible to manage a team or promote a race. “There is no comparison to what it was like 32 years ago,” reminds Craven. “Traffic management and police fees were unheard of when we started out. Now they are monstrous impositions, and getting worse. Police fees for the one-day Melbourne to Warrnambool Classic this year were $27,000.”

Despite our world ranking in the sport and all the related success of our international stars, securing the requisite level of support for races, teams and promoters at the domestic level remains hard work. “Sponsorship is the greatest hurdle to clear in staging upper-level cycling events,” said Craven. “The cost of staging the seven NRS races in 2011 was $1.3 million – including police fees and traffic management.”

Surely the sport’s governing body would provide financial assistance to maintain and develop its foundations. After all, these races are where our future champions are springing from. But that remains a sticking point with the promoter. “I would love to do more with our NRS events, but funding is the obstacle. It’s probably one of the reasons why there are so few full-time cycling promoters in Australia,” Craven said.

Cycling Australia handed out $25,000 in 2011 towards the SBS coverage of the National Road Series. Other governing bodies in Australian sport are a little more generous. Okay, we get back to the ‘sports ladder of interest’ where perhaps cycling doesn’t feature as prominently as other sports, and thus any financial backing from the governing body towards the grass-roots level of the sport may be minimal, if any.

“Most of the money goes towards television but what we’re able to do is negotiate collectively with other sponsors who are coming in,” says Cycling Australia’s CEO, Graham Fredericks. “What we are trying to do is find the resources to invest in it further and promote it. Our vision for it is to become what you would call a ‘national league’ for cycling.

“The demand on the services to match growth is just one step ahead of the resources to be able to invest in it.” Fredericks is hoping the sport can entice more media interest and, in turn, extract more funding. Already Cycling Australia has had discussions with the UCI on increasing the Oceania calendar. “It’s important that we bolster that,” said Fredericks.

 

 

“At the moment it’s only the Tour of Wellington (in New Zealand) and the Jayco-Herald Sun Tour. That’s it. We think Australia and New Zealand could handle another three or four events at the next level where Continental teams such as Drapac, Genesys and Jayco-AIS can have another couple of calendar events in the region,” explained Fredericks. “Whether it’s the NRS or new events, we believe it’s important to build the Oceania calendar a bit more to showcase the sport. We have started negotiations to look in the winter months in the north of the country and integrate with some Asian races.”

Fredericks doesn’t underestimate what the series has done and what it is doing for cycling here. “The series is proving to be a tremendous development ground,” he said. “Once upon a time the state governments were insinuating, ‘Oh, this is just domestic… unless it’s an international race we don’t want to invest in it’. I’m actually seeing that attitude change now which is testament to the fact that it’s been successful.

“Our investment is focused on lifting the standard and increasing the profile. We don’t have the resources yet to have a big splash but what we’re trying to do is build a product that, in two or three years, will attract a lucrative sponsor. We want to get to that ‘national league’ – the ‘circus is coming to town’… that’s the status and the momentum we have to build.”

Cycling Australia president Klaus Mueller agrees the series has unearthed future stars. “It’s a terrific breeding ground,” he says. “It certainly doesn’t get the publicity and acknowledgement that it deserves for the calibre of racing that takes place.”

Mueller, who spent his childhood living in New Norfolk in Tasmania’s south, is also looking ahead with the series in the hope of taking it around the country. “We’ve got to inject some life into events in New South Wales and Queensland. We are too reliant on what happens in Victoria.” He understands the difficulties in promoting a road series but is hopeful for changes to the structure and an increase in exposure.

“We recognise the importance that John [Craven] and his events have for the Australian calendar,” said Mueller. “If you take those away it would leave an enormous hole. If we lost those events it would be a disaster. On the other hand there is sufficient interest in the sport that if John walked away from it I’m absolutely confident that the vacuum would be filled.”

One change some say is necessary is to reduce racing from two stages per day to just one. Craven’s stage races generally consist of dual stages which are becoming increasingly harder to manage, especially for the teams. “It’s all well and good for the president of Cycling Australia to say, ‘You oughta drop the dual stages’,” says Mueller, about his hopes for Craven’s events. But he also appreciates that it’s about commerce. “I don’t have to balance the books, he does. [This form of racing] provides greater exposure to more towns and that has an appeal to the councils who are helping to fund events.”

The more money the better, but shorter tours with longer stages – an opening day and closing day criterium, perhaps – are a neat package, that’s easier to manage and has the ability to attract more interest from all areas. “We’ve got to have that conversation with John,” admits Mueller, who took over from Mike Victor as CA president at the end of 2009.

“The National Road Series created a really magical moment for the sport,” says Mueller. “By having the Genesys team do as well as it did. Afterwards they continued that form and had some of the best at the Jayco-Herald Sun Tour.” Obviously. Nathan Haas won the title when the race returned following a one-year hiatus last October. He was also the NRS champion of 2011. His talents were exposed; now he’s in the big league. “There is still enormous scope for improvement,” continued Mueller, “and to some extent it’s like every aspect of life: it depends on the sort of resources that can be put into it.”

But the NRS isn’t just the foundation of the sport here. It’s the stepping stone and window of opportunity for our most talented to proceed to an elite level overseas. Can you imagine our cycling scene if there were no races between club racing and say the Jayco-Herald Sun Tour, or Tour Down Under?

It reminds us how few top-level races there are in Australia. It also shows the significance of the NRS and the place it holds on the domestic calendar, sandwiched between club racing and the two major tours mentioned above. It also offers a focus for teams like Drapac, Genesys Wealth Advisers and others to race in their home country as well as internationally.

Without the NRS and the Scody Cup in particular, cycling in Australia would be reduced to just two UCI stage races.

The domestic scene now offers a way for some former pro riders who have contested the Tour de France and the other major events on the international scene to pass on knowledge. Patrick Jonker and Henk Vogels have both been in charge of teams at the NRS: Jonker with Jayco-2XU and Vogels with the now-defunct Fly V Australia (ie. Pegasus Racing).

Jonker rates the series but believes improvement in the structure is needed. “I’d like to see certain NRS events become harder in the sense of more climbing and hilltop finishes to duplicate what the riders face when they race at WorldTour level,” he said. “It will give us an indication if there is another young Cadel hiding somewhere.

“At the moment there are too many sprints. We produce enough sprinters already,” said the 42-year-old who finished 12th overall in the 1996 Tour de France while with the ONCE team. “It’s climbers and time triallers that we’re looking for.”  Jonker would like to see certain races, most likely the tours in the Scody Cup, become UCI events, thereby enhancing the growth of the sport and encouraging international teams from Asia and possibly the US to compete in Australia.

“Funding is the major hurdle,” said Jonker, echoing what Craven, Fredericks and Mueller also said. “Maybe Cadel’s win and the emergence of GreenEdge will change this.”

Jonker believes Evans’ win has altered how people look at the sport here. “It has changed cycling in Australia forever, especially amongst the general public, who now all know who Cadel is and appreciate the efforts he made to win.” He hopes the sport will become more appealing to the corporate sector. “The NRS is evolving and Nathan Haas has proved that it is at a very high level and can compete with the best.”

 

 

Vogels would like to see more racing. “I think that the road season has too many holes as there is nothing much following the Tour Down Under. We lack a major mid-year objective.” Vogels cites the lack of stage races in other states apart from Victoria and South Australia as being a drawback and believes there is too much emphasis on the first round of the WorldTour. “That is great, but somewhere we need to share the wealth or come up with another mid-year event,” he explains. “The Scody Cup seems to be the only real motivating factor.”

In spite of all this we continue to develop quality riders at a rapid rate. The long overdue introduction to teams racing here has benefited our young riders and more people are taking notice of our domestic season – it’s taken them a while!

One of the great success stories to come from the local scene so far was last year when the ‘Orange Army’ took over our roads. The Tasmania-based Genesys Wealth Advisers took all before it. The team dominated the series from start to finish. Nathan Haas started it all with victory in the Tour of Gippsland and followed it up by winning the Tour of Geelong. Team-mate Pat Shaw was successful in the flatter Tour of the Murray River before Haas bookended the Scody Cup with a win in the Tour of Tasmania. The following week Haas rode brilliantly to win the Jayco-Herald Sun Tour and then took out the one-day Japan Cup among an international quality field. Along the way team-mate Steele von Hoff helped himself to 15 stage victories in the series and a podium finish in the Herald Sun Tour.

The rapid rise in the development of Haas and von Hoff has seen them earn contracts with the Slipstream outfit: one to the senior Germin-sponsored team immediately, the other to ride with the development squad with a view to the next step in 2013. In von Hoff’s case, this has come just 12 months after committing to bike racing full-time and after only two years racing the NRS.

Haas and von Hoff aren’t the first from Genesys to make the big time either. Richie Porte and Will Clarke have both since moved on to greener pastures, Porte’s success overseas being a true indication of just what the NRS can throw up.

Genesys manager Andrew Christie-Johnston has seen the team rise from the depths of a struggling combination to being the leading team in the country, but knows only too well the difficulties he faces each year with the series. “It costs a lot of money to run a team well, even at the NRS level,” he said. “You need a healthy budget to afford to do the entire series and it takes a lot of hard work behind the scenes to make it work smoothly. Plenty of hours throughout the year are spent on chasing sponsors for the following year; great sponsors are very hard to find. Luckily in Genesys Wealth Advisers, we have found a sponsor that supports us extremely well.” It’s a luxury other local teams are searching for.

Christie-Johnston agrees with Jonker on the idea of NRS stage races becoming UCI events. “This will cost more but it allows us to have an international standard of racing. The increased level of media will benefit all parties, not just teams but also the race organisers; they need more financial help to achieve this. Without them we have nothing. The teams will simply not be able to afford to do more races in the year without increasing their sponsorship dollars. To do this we need more media exposure for our races and the standard of our races must be high,” said Christie-Johnston. “This is where our national body should focus its energy, helping our organisers improve their races.”

Currently Genesys’ main competition on the local scene comes from Drapac, Budget Forklifts and Jayco-2XU. With a little bit of cooperation between these outfits and the national federation, Christie-Johnston believes in years to come the depth of the series will be even stronger.

“While I was deciding on my final roster of riders for 2012, I realised that I had about 35 names written down as riders I wanted to sign. This hasn’t happened before,” he said. “I could have easily made two teams; both would have been very competitive. This was without all the quality riders who had either re-signed with teams or already had contracts. The depth in Australian cycling is on the increase and I can only see it growing over the next years, especially with Australia having its own WorldTour team in GreenEdge.”

The depth of the series is getting stronger each year. The likes of Bikebug.com, Search2Retain and Plan B Racing are on the improve; every season produces a new stand-out talent. Just where the likes of the Tours of Gippsland, Murray River and Tasmania will be in five years’ time is unknown.

Perhaps John Craven and his band of dedicated supporters will still be doing all they can to satisfy existing sponsors while also trying to lure new companies to the sport. Maybe the races will become international, receiving live coverage on a sports channel somewhere in TV land. There’s much more that can come of the NRS and Scody Cup events. Cycling is about much more than the Tour de France and there’s a lot on offer in Australia. Talented riders, a glut of interest, the opportunity for a different style of racing that could help uncover the next big star from this country.

There are no guarantees. But let’s hope that we find another Cadel Evans out there somewhere, training the house down and preparing for a crack at the National Road Series, dreaming of the Champs-Elysées and yellow jerseys. Without races to test themselves, they’ll never know if they can achieve what had until recently seemed unattainable.

– Shane Goss

 

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Author: rob@ride

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