Comment by Phill Bates: track cycling, crisis point
After more than 50 years in cycling administration at club, state, national and international level, Phill Bates AM is fretting for the sport that he has devoted much of his life to.
Recently, an email to the riders of the St George Cycling Club seeking their support following a very disappointing turn out for a track race on Sydney’s Olympic velodrome, 1962 Commonwealth Games representative John Buckley asked the question: “Why?”
It is a difficult question to answer and it prompted me to write about the plight of cycling – more specifically, track racing in Australia – at the end of 2018.
I grew up in the sport of cycling, watching the likes of Olympic champion Lionel Cox racing Ian Chapman in great sprint clashes. The speed, the showmanship and ability was always evident.
My racing career was interspersed initially with helping the club; taking on the role as publicity officer and attempting to develop a good relationship with the local newspaper and other media. Then I would pursue sponsors for our track races, even compete in events and, sometimes, win some of the prize money.
My ability as a cyclist was limited to being a good A-grade rider – a few heavy crashes did not help but had the honour of winning some state titles and representing my state, but my focus was on developing the club, coaching cyclists, administration and, of course, promoting the sport.
My life, from my late teens onwards, was totally devoted to the sport of cycling.
Junior riders I coached became senior riders in the earl-1970s and I became very much the linchpin in providing accommodation, schooling, peer support, and a host of other assistance for some budding champions. Many of them became household names, even legends in cycling.
I was a very proud member of St George Cycling Club and my father was an inspiration – a former cyclist with the war intervening on much of his career, but as a coach, a President, treasurer and most other positions he was always at the forefront of the club.
It was a club founded on ideal administration basis and, with guidance from Charlie Manins, secured the services of legendary European cycling star Joe Buckley in the mid-1950s.
Buckley, a star of the Six-Day racing circuit, developed the culture of the club, a culture that had remained for many decades and helped establish St George as the most successful cycling club in Australia.
Finding the love… track cycling is a fantastic spectator sport and the prospect of the Melbourne Six Day and other showcase events this summer offers hope for the future.
Photos: Casey Gibson
There has been more than 100 national representatives from the St George Cycling Club and representation at every Olympic and Commonwealth Games since the 1956 Olympics when five club members were part of the Australian team. It is a record no other club could match.
St George Cycling Club was blessed with a wonderful 400 metre flat track at Hurstville Oval. It was a grass track prior to 1910, then the surface changed: first cinders, before the club paid for bitumen in 1934. The track was improved to host the national titles in the mid-1950s and widened again later to stage the last of the national track titles in 1980.
The club was also grateful to local Council to have our own road circuit since 1950, which became devoid of all traffic from 1976. The three-kilometre circuit is a tough racing circuit and it helped develop our club’s riders.
In 2018, despite the fact that nationally there are growing numbers of competitors within the sport – and also within our club – club racing is becoming extinct, especially track cycling.
Sure, you can see our cyclists – many of them state or national, or even world champions – compete at the various open track carnivals but they are now largely devoid of competing at club level, certainly on a velodrome.
Some say they need rest days and even shifting race day to a mid-week Wednesday time-slot, from the Monday night, has netted no response.
It is not that there is a shortage of St George riders as they make up the most of any club at open competitions but I wonder if these open competitions are draining the life blood of the sport – club racing.
I have witnessed two open carnivals in the past month at Dunc Gray velodrome and race programs that run for more than eight hours are hardly entertaining, nor even beneficial, for cyclists or officials… and the yawning public.
It was good to catch up with Gary Neiwand and John Nicholson, both world champion sprinters, at the Clarence Street Cup in November and the Sydney Cup on Wheels in December, but I bet they blushed at the sprint series held at the Clarence Street Cup. The tactics, the racing and lack of speed would place that sprint series up there as the worst I have ever seen.
Where is the rationale? There is a need for a rethink, for organisations to eradicate the vast number of open events and, when staging them, restrict them to a more economical timed carnival.
* * * * *
There is considerable investment being made to ensure strong performances in track cycling at international level but little being done to increase the media exposure and remind the public of how significant Australia’s conquests on the velodrome have been.
Historical context: cycling in Sydney
In 1905, the Motorists’ and Cyclists’ Annual, states that Summer Nights Amusements filled the Sydney Cricket Ground inside and out with “the biggest crowd ever registered at the famous Ground”. The Sydney Thousand first prize was 750 pounds with visiting American cycling star, Major Taylor, being paid 1,500 pounds to compete in 1903 – and 2,000 pounds in the following year. At the time, the annual wage for an Australian worker was around 150 pounds.
We have certainly slipped a wee bit since then.
What do we need to do to address the situation?
In the last decade or so, the St George Cycling Club has come under intense scrutiny to look towards going to another venue and for the local Council to remove the track to make way for an Aussie Rules playing field and allow even bigger games of cricket at an oval steeped in history and regarded as one of the best wickets in Australia.
The velodrome required significant repair and, at one stage, Cycling Australia and Cycling NSW made it unfit for racing with cracks appearing on a regular basis. The work undertaken by the late Dick Paris, a great Olympian, was legendary. Along with other members of the club, he helped to fill the cracks and allow racing to continue. It was an annual patch-work of immense proportions.
A strong and committed media campaign resulted in the Council backing down and the track was not only being saved but restored to its brilliant best by Council and government to the tune of $180,000.
Sure, our 100 lappers on Thursday night after cricket training is finished is going strong but the cornerstone of any cycling club, especially St George, club racing appears dead in the water.
I have recently looked up a program of club racing I produced 41 years ago – it could have been one of any decade that I have maintained records of. It could be the 1960s headed by the likes of Chapman, Langshaw, Buckley, Goldie, Hardaker, Scarfe, Brazier, Edwards and Paris; or the 1980s headed by Vinnicombe, Dutton, Seers, Nichols and co; or the 1990s with Brown, Wooldridge, Christinson, Brooks; or the turn of the century with the Kerstens, ‘Wazza’ Scott, the Fitzpatrick boys, and another generation from the Sutton family.
For those that may not be so steeped in the history of the club, the riders were developed through training and racing at Hurstville Oval and Oatley Park during the winter.
Moving forward: what the future holds
The main point I want to focus on is that club racing provides a perfect platform to improve skill, bonding and provide the younger riders a pathway to follow and become known to the champions of the club.
St George is still producing world champions like Nic Yallouris, Ashlee Ankudinoff, Kaarle McCulloch, Amanda Reid and Cameron Scott, and our St George Continental UCI Road Teamhas been outstanding during the past 18 months building a wonderful reputation in Australia and races throughout Asia, but this does not rectify the problem with developing and staging successful club events and developing grass roots participation.
When only two young riders showed up to track racing a month ago, we moved the club racing from Monday nights to Wednesday to allow a rest day following weekends of cycling. It was even worse – a junior arrived limping from a sprained ankle and a veteran from the Southern Cross club managed to undertake 20 laps. I had never felt so demoralised about the plight of bike racing in my life.
It has since been suggested to me that this is epidemic – and that other clubs are struggling to get numbers for racing – and that we should do ‘combines’ at a collective of clubs. This is a band-aid solution with racing to be staged at Hurstville Oval just once a month.
I believe it is now up to the cyclists to change their attitude – not be so self-centred and give a little back to the club and junior members. In 52 years on the club executive, the last 25 years as President, I have never seen it worse across all aspects of our sport.
Australia has a rich history in track cycling and the sport should be nurtured.
In my years of involvement in cycling, I have knocked down doors to get the support of media to help promote the sport. When I started as St George Cycling Club’s publicity officer we had no computers, mobile phones, emails, or internet yet we managed to get face to face with major players in newspapers, radio and television – local and national – and cycling earned good coverage.
I took the attitude that, without media, you have no sponsors. And if you have no sponsors, you have no worthwhile event.
It was not easy, but as far back as the 1971 national road championships in Centennial Park – as the publicity officer at just 18 years of age – I managed to get television, pre- and race-day coverage, and some great stories on Dick Paris and Gary Sutton in the metropolitan press in the lead up to the event that helped attract more than 5,000 spectators.
In my time I built up a wealth of great ‘journos’ who became part of the broader ‘cycling family’ and would cover my events with great passion and extensive coverage. They were the best sports reporters in the country and invariably these converts to the beauty of cycling achieved extensive coverage in all the major newspapers resulting in more than 700 pages of coverage annually.
As a club, we earned a good dose of print publicity and this continued to expand to national TV coverage that helped introduce thousands to the sport of cycling.
From the very early stages of the Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic (1982 to 2000), I was always keen to involve television. SBS covered the first race and by 1984, I’d managed to procure live coverage of the final stage in Coogee on the ABC with a massive crowd that helped cement the bank as title sponsor for many years to come.
There were a few little hurdles along the way and in 1986 my young sports promotion company began packaging our own television coverage and relayed it to all networks. In 1987 we became the first organisation to use the Aussat Satellite Earth Station so we could shoot live pictures, a far cry from the smaller units these days.
By 1988, Phil Liggett had been enticed to head my national and international coverage and even Phil was amazed at the level of support, both with corporate and media exposure, with the race now being beamed to 140 countries.
Every time slot, from early breakfast shows to late night programming on all national networks, covered the event.
In 1994, Paul Sherwen joined Liggett at the helm of our TV broadcasts, due to the level of coverage with more than 30 hours screened nationally and five hours internationally. The Bank Race’s success was the cornerstone of the growth of road cycling in Australia and it helped with the birth of races we know today, like the hugely successful Santos Tour Down Under.
There were other cycling events that attracted great interest. The criterium series in the lead up to the Bank Race and World Series Cycling, a track series where Australia’s best took on some of the best track cyclists in the world from 1986 to 1988.
In the Bicentennial year, the track racing series was staged across four eastern states of Australia with 11 of Australia’s best against a world team of 11 superstars.
It was 12 track meets in 22 days of racing and crowds and television loved it. And so did the journalists.
This is what they said:
- Jeff Wells– Sunday Times: “WSC had brought back the golden years of international track cycling in Australia.”
- Peter Kogoy– The Sun: “Track racing at its finest – fans were never off the edge of their seats as the world’s best gave plenty of thrills, spills and loads of action.”
- Gary Carr– Network Ten: “WSC is a very promising format which helps identify Australia’s best riders and gives valuable exposure to the sport itself and help get children involved in the sport.”
- Mike Porter– Brisbane Sun: “World Series Cycling is providing the only opportunity for the Queensland public to view international track cycling – they are responding in their thousands.”
- Jason Dacey– SBS Sport: “WSC offers far greater excitement and enjoyment than its cricketing counterpart – the most satisfying sporting event I have covered in 12 months.”
In 1999, as a Board member of Cycling Australia, I introduced the Qantas Cup for several years and staged events in all capital cities featuring three men and two women from all states in a televised national series. It provided great coverage and exposure for the sport and I was able to stage in Adelaide in 1995 and 1997.
In 1993, the UCI appointed me as one of four Track Commission members to introduce a track cycling World Cup series to the international program to enhance track cycling throughout the world. Not only was it successful, but we made it the qualifying basis for world championships and Olympic Games, as well as adding four track medals to the Olympic program by the year 2000.
All this coincided with my appointment as Chairman of the Australian Track Commission and eventually to being the Chairman of the Organising Committee for the sell-out world championships in Perth in 1997. It was then regarded as the most successful ever, netting a $280,000 windfall of profit to Cycling Australia.
I have been greatly honoured by hosting other wonderful events over the years, World Cup Women’s Road and Tour de Snowy, Ride for Life for 10 years, Tour of Hawaii and Cronulla Grand Prix with live coverage by Network Nine for nine years as well as the NSW Grand Prix Series, also with live coverage on Network Nine.
All of those were achieved through hard work, media exposure, sponsors, raising millions of dollars annually.
If I was able to achieve all of what has been achieved in the sport of cycling, surely cyclists could put themselves out just a little to spend 90 minutes at club racing and show some support and commitment to the club they represent.
This could very much be the biggest issue for the sport of track cycling. No grass roots – no long term possibilities!
– By Phill Bates AM