For so long the focus of the Australian Cycling Team has been on winning gold at the Olympic Games. As we ride towards the closing ceremony, there must be a sense of relief for many involved. Could now be the time when cycling in Australia starts to have a more wholistic approach?
The Tokyo Olympic campaign didn’t exactly go according to plan for the Australian Cycling Team but that’s no indictment on the riders. Instead, we look at the approach of the program as a whole and wonder why so much emphasis is placed on the Olympic Games. For a sport that has many disciplines, and much potential, it’s a shame to offload many established initiatives in favour of a quest by the high-performance program to try and win Olympic gold. It is an approach that, in 2021, doesn’t entirely fit with expectations from the broader cycling community.
Of course, what makes the Olympic Games special is that it is the pinnacle of sport. It’s not easy to win a gold medal and there is enormous respect for those who strive for that lofty ambition. There is, however, also a need to examine the ramifications of what has happened in Japan over the past fortnight, largely because much has been sacrificed so that the Australian team could have the best possible chance to excel in Tokyo.
Never mind the results as nothing can change what has happened, instead what we need to do is consider the personal (and financial) toll of this must-win attitude, especially when wins have proven so hard to come by.
It wasn’t a cheap exercise, and the budget for the Tokyo campaign was significant – with some suggesting a price tag of close to 50 million dollars, most of it taxpayer funded.
There is, however, some good news for Australian cycling once the Tokyo Games are over. Now the national federation, AusCycling, the riders, coaches, staff and many others associated with this beautiful sport can centre their efforts on other objectives and showcase how much this sport has to offer.
When Olympic glory comes, it’s a unifying thrill. Australian cycling fans know what it’s like. It happened in 2004 when the national team came home with a haul of medals, including six gold: first in the women’s road race (Sara Carrigan); first in the team pursuit (in world record time with Graeme Brown, Brett Lancaster, Brad McGee and Luke Roberts – with Steve Woodridge and Peter Dawson chipping in enormous efforts during the qualifying rounds); first in the men’s sprint and keirin (Ryan Bayley), first in the 500m time trial (in world record time with Anna Meares); and first in the Madison (Stuart O’Grady and Graeme Brown).
It was a time of celebration and pride, on the road, on the track and also at the mountain bike circuit (where no medals were won but that – I think we all agree – isn’t the only marker of success).
BMX racing wasn’t on the Olympic program in 2004 and BMX freestyle was still 16 years away from making its debut.
In 2021, we have first-class riders for all events and a team that includes multiple world champions who have made a considerable sacrifice for the sake of achieving good results.
Commentary about the (con)quests of the Aussie riders at the Olympics in 2021 comes with a qualification: this was the only focus of the program for the past five years and many other objectives were set aside with an understanding that Tokyo was the priority. Strong, successful initiatives (including men’s under-23 and women’s road programs) were foresaken by the high-performance unit and all emphasis was placed on events on the schedule for Tokyo 2020.
The Olympics are wonderful on many levels. The Games conjure high emotions, and the inevitable result is that some objectives are met while others prove too bold. In 2021, when the pandemic influences so much in our lives, athletic performances are not immune either.
These days, if you have to travel to compete then there are many other associated sacrifices; #Tokyo2020 was not only late, it was severely impacted by COVID and the weeks in quarantine and other associated protocols that had to be adhered to.
We recognise this and realise there was so much else to consider in what is already an extremely complex task of trying to find form and hold it all the way through to race day.
All riders have done well to even get to the start line in Tokyo, and the Australian camp held their heads high while incidents beyond their control influenced the outcome. When handlebars break a little over a kilometre into a four-kilometre pursuit, it’s difficult to come back but Alex Porter – after his initial shock of sliding along the boards on the opening night of the track competition – was beyond stoic.
Porter was not just courageous for backing up half an hour after his accident, he was outstanding and somehow managed to put the disappointment and frustration of his crash behind him and ride through the qualifying, setting up the Australian team on a course that would ultimately lead them to an impressive bronze medal.
When it came time to race, the riders were ready and the team pursuit bronze speaks volumes about the spirit that exists in the Australian camp. They got knocked down, but they got up again… and they raced to the medal round in an outstandingly quick time: 3:44.902! A national record by our quartet.
Of the four who raced in heat two of the first round in Tokyo, three were part of the line-up that won gold at their home Commonwealth Games (in world record time) in 2018. Sam Welsford, Kelland O’Brien and Leigh Howard were joined by the phenomenal young talent Luke Plapp for the bronze medal ride a few days ago.
Even when they did get to race, it wasn’t in ideal circumstances.
The bronze in Tokyo came after one of the riders from their rival team, Aaron Gate of New Zealand, crashed and effectively ended the Kiwi bid for a medal. Of course, everyone would have preferred for the race to play out, to be completed without incident, to have provided the stage to show which team was better. But this is the Olympics. It’s a pressure situation and that creates a pressure environment.
After the race, instead of celebrating their bronze, Welsford, O’Brien, Plapp and Howard rolled around the track wondering what might have been if they’d raced the full 4,000m. Could it have been a new Australian record? Could they have matched the pace of the phenomenal NZ team?
Similarly, many other events in Tokyo will be considered for years to come. Competition is only just coming to an end in Japan but some are already thinking about Paris, or LA, or even Brisbane. The Olympics are front of mind for some riders and Porter is one rider who remains focussed on completing what he set out to do in 2021.
“Over the past few years I’ve worked out road isn’t for me,” Porter told RIDE Media moments after the Madison race on Saturday night. His comment came in response to being asked if he was going to try and find a pro team to race with now that the Olympic campaign has concluded for him.
“I’m happy with the track,” he concluded, “and want to just bring home that gold.”
Porter’s commitment is admirable, as is the way he conducted himself after the crash on Tuesday evening. There was surely someone he could blame, but he vented his frustration, dusted himself off, patched himself up, somehow regained composure and went back to the start gate to finish off the job he had for the Games in Tokyo.
“We’ll be right,” Porter said after the crash. “It’ll take a lot more than last night to stop us!”
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After the Sydney Games, Australian cycling arrived at a new era. The long-time coach of the national team, Charlie Walsh, ended his tenure and Shayne Bannon took over as the manager of the high-performance unit and the Olympics remained a focal point through to 2004 and beyond.
The glow from the Athens campaign lingered and Australian cycling matured over the years, with Bannon establishing an Italian base for riders in Varese, teaming up with experienced coaches like Aldo Sassi and the famous Mapei development program. The legacy of these years is significant. It allowed Australian cycling to diversify, to create programs for all riders (and both genders).
Even while holding a focus on the quest for Olympic gold, there was time to consider other elements of competitive cycling. The road program grew, an under-23 team was established with support from sponsors like Bianchi and the South Australian government.
In combination with the AIS, there was the opportunity to develop riders – road and track, men and women – and fine tune the approach so that there was success between Olympiads and career opportunities for riders who also wanted to tackle challenges that existed in the pro peloton.
World championship wins, Commonwealth Games gold medals, and world records followed and the Australian cycling team had become one of the most formidable forces in cycling.
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Track cycling remained the focus at the Olympics but not at the expense of other disciplines. Furthermore, by 2012 there was plenty of other Australian cycling success that extended well beyond the Olympic Games. In 2011, an Australian won the Tour de France and by 2012 Bannon had exited the national program to focus on building the GreenEdge professional road cycling team.
Still, on the track there was plenty to look forward to with Australian riders capable of taking on the world’s best.
Anna Meares became a flag bearer for the Australian Olympic team. She would continue her quest in the sprint events even after her coach from Athens, Martin Barras, was moved on to manage the national women’s road program. Furthermore, she had to adapt: her pet event – the 500m TT – was removed from the Olympic schedule and now she had other races to perfect: the team sprint, keirin and sprint… and she medalled in these at world championships and Olympics from 2004 to Rio in 2016.
Gary West took over the role of sprint coach and although it took a while before Meares settled into the rhythm of working with ‘Westie’ the coach/athlete relationship developed and prospered. It was an example of what could be done with a committed, considered approach and although Meares faced an adversary in the form of Victoria Pendleton, the darling of the developing UK sprint program, the Australian was still able to win.
Meares’ sprint gold at the 2012 Games in London showcased her consistency and ability to overcome challenges that included a freak accident and a spinal injury. Of course, she also won the bronze medal in the team sprint with Kaarle McCulloch at a time when there was depth in the national team.
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In 2021, Kaarle McCulloch wouldn’t get to race the team sprint. Instead, the Commonwealth champion of 2018 (when teamed up with Steph Morton) concentrated on the events she could do on her own. Morton retired once the Tokyo Games were postponed and the national team, now managed by Simon Jones, opted not to contest the team sprint in Japan.
“As the mother of Kaarle McCulloch there is a lot to be said,” writes Karen Bates on a thread on RIDE Media’s Facebook page last night. “It will come out.
“Sweeping changes need to be made. No angst with any of Kaarle’s immediate team, but yes it has been a shit show!”
It echoes the sentiment of many who have watched the travails of the Australian Cycling Team in the five years since Jones took on the role of High-Performance Director.
What is important to note in this article is that none of the criticism of the Australian Cycling Team is directed at the riders. Furthermore, many of the coaches and staff should be given credit for the way they have managed themselves during an extremely challenging time.
What is now clear, however, is that the approach taken by Jones – at the urging of the Cycling Australia board that hired him and gave him unprecedented powers to do things his way – has not worked.
The Tokyo Olympics was to be the yardstick by which we were told to measure the impact of Jones’ management strategy. It was an all-or-nothing bid to try and get the Australian cycling team back to the top of the medal table, and it has come with enormous personal cost to many people involved.
Jones never offered any apologies for the decisions he made as we raced towards Tokyo. He was steadfast in his objective and nothing was going to get in the way of the quest for gold in Japan. Alas, he was also given powers to influence other elements of the Australian cycling team and he opted to scrap initiatives like the under-23 development program and the women’s road program.
The logic was simple: we’re doing this so that we have the best possible chance of achieving success in Tokyo. Still, it’s difficult to explain how the unchecked power of one man affected so many.
McCulloch is just one of many riders who had a compromised campaign in Tokyo because of the approach taken by Jones. The dilemma for those who have stories they desperately want to share – like Kaarle’s mother and many others who have reached out to RIDE Media to explain their concerns about Jones’ approach – is that they risk their future by speaking out.
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Simon Jones is leaving the Australian Cycling Team. He made the announcement about his decision to “move on and pursue goals outside the cycling world” a fortnight out from the Tokyo Games. The High-Performance Director had one focus for a tenure that was meant to last until the Paris Olympics in 2024 but ends after a little over five years.
He has a contract that extends through to October 2021 and, for the time being, remains a person with considerable power in the Australian Cycling Team, even if – as RIDE Media has been told by one of the coaching staff (who, again, insists that they remain anonymous) – he is not welcome at the Paralympics in Tokyo.
The summary of Australian cycling’s Tokyo campaign is a long and complex story that will continue to fester while people are still unable to fully explain the impact Jones and his methods have had on them and their careers.
The board of Cycling Australia wanted to make dramatic changes after the Rio campaign when the pursuit team and Meares were the only medallists for the nation – with silver and bronze (in the keirin), respectively. They advertised for a leader who could steady the ship and try and steer it in a similar direction to that taken in advance of the Athens campaign in 2004.
There were several strong candidates for the role although some were given only a matter of days to prepare their application. Ultimately, it was Simon Jones who got the position and, early in 2017, he went to work with his wrecking ball. Riders, their parents, and many associated with the Australian Cycling Team were affected by his decisions.
What comes next is anyone’s guess but we can only hope that similar mistakes are not made again and that the focus shifts to a more complete cycling program which puts emphasis on the beauty of bike riding and the many benefits that come from cycling.
To the riders who represented Australia in Tokyo – and to the Paralympic team that is yet to begin their quest for gold – thank you for putting on a show, for doing your best, for allowing us to have a thrilling distraction from the lockdowns imposed by the pandemic. Thank you for putting years of your life into this quest. Thank you for giving us inspiration and for holding your dignity at a difficult time.
There is plenty of frustration surrounding competitive cycling in Australia but also much to celebrate. And with the Tokyo Games almost at an end, it’s a liberating and exciting time for cycling in this country. There’s more to riding a bike than winning Olympic gold. And when that doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world. It’s the beginning of an exciting new journey. Australian cycling has been set free and a new chapter begins.
– By Rob Arnold
Note: had the Tokyo Games actually been held on the original dates, there would have been more riders to call on and other events that could have been contested. But the pandemic forced some to make hard decisions and riders of genuine quality, like Steph Morton – a multiple world championship medallist – decided to call and end to their career and concentrate on a life after bike racing.