In 1996 Cycling Australia appointed a new chief executive officer. The sport’s governing body had overseen the integration of professional and amateur cycling a few years earlier but the administration was still largely done by volunteers, often with family connections to cycling. The job had been done by Martin Whiteley, who would leave Australia and go on to become a successful owner/manager of an international mountain bike team. His replacement, Graham Fredericks, had little knowledge about the cycling world; he came from a rugby background and was open-minded and optimistic about the future of his adopted sport.
Fredericks has been the CEO ever since: 18 years in the job, but now it’s time to move on. On 16 October 2013, he announced that he will be leaving Cycling Australia.
RIDE‘s publisher, Rob Arnold, met with Fredericks during his first week on the job all those years ago and the two spoke regularly over the past 18 years. Near the end of his tenure as CEO, Fredericks reflected on his time at Cycling Australia with enthusiasm and optimism even though he was often dragged in front of the media to discuss some of cycling’s more sordid and scandalous moments. He is a believer in the benefits of the bike and all that it has to offer and although he doesn’t yet know what his next job will be, he’s leaving his current posting at a time when the popularity of cycling is arguably at an all-time high.
Here is a transcript of RIDE‘s interview with Graham Fredericks…
“That’s taking the hits, learning from the mistakes…”
– Interview by Rob Arnold
16 October 2013
RIDE: Cycling has changed a lot in the time you’ve been involved. Before we start to reflect on your career, however, I wonder if you can explain what your announcement today is all about and how you came to the decision to move on.
Graham Fredericks: “It’s something I’ve been chewing over for the last 12 to 18 months: what is the appropriate time to exit?
“This year sees me having been in the position for 18 years; you have to reflect and look in the mirror sometimes and just say, ‘Well, is it time for me to step aside and let someone else with new energy and enthusiasm take over the position?’ And, likewise, ‘Do I need to reenergise in another challenge?’
“That’s probably the way I’ve looked at it in the end.
“The last 12 months have been so up and down that it wasn’t appropriate for me to think about moving on until things stabilised a bit. That’s why I thought that the annual general meeting – coming up at the end of this year – is appropriate timing.
“You’d be aware of the significant project of integrating the cycling disciplines and so forth; that is going to step up in the next 12 months, the Australian Sports Commission is going to be driving that agenda fairly hard, and I believe that there shouldn’t be – even if it’s only perceived – any baggage. The fact that I’ve been here so long effectively means that I need to get out. I think that, for the best interests of cycling, it’s best if I stand aside and make sure that there is no impediment to what I think is essentially another exciting chapter in Australian cycling’s history that’s coming up.”
RIDE: Eighteen years is a long time. You came from a rugby [union] background. Do you have anything to do with rugby anymore or is it just cycling that catches your attention now?
“I get to watch the occasional game, it’s still a sport I enjoy but I must admit I watch more cycling than anything else these days. I’ve earned a great respect for the athletes who take part in the competitive side of cycling, not to mention just the general benefits of cycling as a recreational pastime as well.”
RIDE: Are you riding a bike now, Graham?
“Not as much as I should but maybe that might step up a bit if I get the hell out of this job and find some more time just for a little while.”
RIDE: You’ve been through some high points and some low points. I wonder which stands out more the ups or the downs?
“I think the downs come and then you deal with them and then move on. The upside to me is not so much one particular occasion or anything like that; to me the upside has been the steady growth of Australia as a competitive cycling nation from what we’d have to describe as a minnow in the 1990s – when I started – to now when we are one of the world powers in the sport. I think we have to accept that. I mean, 10 or 15 years ago, we could barely finish a world road championships and nowadays we’re expected to be top 10 and, hopefully, on the podium.
“That transition and that establishment of Australia as being competitive right at the very top is probably the most pleasing thing for me to have witnessed, and watched, and be a part of.
“There is not necessarily a particular result that stands out above others but I remember sitting in a grandstand at a race about seven or eight years ago in Germany and watching around the second-last lap of a road race. I was seeing the Australian jerseys come through near the head of the pack and listening to the murmur of the crowd talking about… ‘Oh, Australie!’ and I thought, ‘Oh jeez, we’ve made it.’
“I got as much as a buzz out of that – being recognised as a nation of cycling – as I have out of one particular gold medal or one particular performance. Does that sound weird?”
RIDE: No, not at all. Perhaps the anecdotes that stay with you are ones that you haven’t repeated too often. No one would have asked you about that criterium in Germany while I imagine that plenty of people would have spoken to you about the Olympics in Athens in 2004, for example.
We saw you as part of the shenanigans on 27 September this year in Florence where you were overseeing the counting of the votes in the UCI presidential election.
“Yes, I got roped in as an Oceania scrutineer for one of the motions that were moved.”
RIDE: That leads us to the fact that you – and many others over the years – are in the sport as administrators but you’re also very political. It’s a very political game that you’re playing isn’t it?
“Look, it has to be from time to time. Obviously, the likes of Brian Cookson and Pat McQuaid are actually elected personnel so they are far more political than I am. I’m only playing a political game when I represent Australia at the next tier up, certainly, and as an officer of Australian cycling, I’m far from it.
“There have been many situations where I’ve had to do some diplomatic fence-sitting and handle issues that come from both sides. That’s just part and parcel of the job. A classic example of that is, when you’re looking after an athlete who is being heard for a disciplinary matter – or a doping matter – on one hand, I’m there imposing penalties and the rules and, on the other hand, I’m trying to help the athlete with their rights and give them assistance to help them through the challenge. That’s where a CEO differs from the elected officials.”
RIDE: And, by default of watching the athletes make their way up, you become friends with them and then should they have a fall from grace you need to be the authoritarian who manages the situation. People observing often forget that there are emotions involved don’t they?
“Yeah. It’s certainly a well-worn phrase but it’s an ‘emotional rollercoaster’ – I suppose that’s applicable to all sports but cycling in particular has very passionate and committed people involved in it…”
RIDE: Can you outline the difference in Cycling Australia from when you started to what it is now? A big reference point would be membership numbers: what was it in 1996 and what is it now?
“Well, it was only about 8,500 then, or around that. And that included mountain bike. Now it’s around 25,000 and, if you add mountain bike, it’s up around 35,000.
“Another thing in recent years is the growth of the non-competitive membership within our numbers.
“The growth has been pretty steady and I think cycling continues to move forward. I was surprised to learn of other sports where the membership numbers have actually been in decline at about the same percentage that we are increasing of late. I think that’s probably a mark of the opportunity that cycling has as more contemporary sport than perhaps it was seen 15 or 20 years ago.”
RIDE: Everything has evolved – equipment, the understanding of cycling, the media coverage… most things about cycling have become better – even the fight against doping. That gives us great confidence in the future, the very fact that the sport has been so bold when it comes to topics such as that.
“One thing that I’ve always thought was the strength of cycling – standing back and looking at it – is that, if you look at the contemporary sport participation market place, cycling has the capacity to adapt. Whereas a number of traditional sports, I think, are caught up in various rigid structures that dictate how they’re conducted.
“Cycling has that capacity to adapt and provide people with different opportunities to participate in different ways; ranging from the very basic going for a ride to challenge yourself, to elite competition and how that takes place. That’s one of the strengths and one of the reasons why cycling continues to grow as a sport…”
RIDE: It’s almost as though you’ve been doing the sales pitch long enough that you’re doing it on autopilot now…
“Well I believe the sales pitch, I guess that’s the difference.”
RIDE: With your announcement, you could feel quite despondent. I’d imagine you’ll feel quite empty but it seems to me that you’re buoyed with optimism.
“I am, for the sport. And I’ll make a silly statement: it’d be a terrific time to come in as CEO of this organisation… 18 years is a very long time any job in this day and age. Genuinely, whether I want to go or not, I think it’s the right thing to do.”
RIDE: I don’t know if you’ve thought about it but are you privy to who might be your replacement?
“No, and I think you’ll find that the board is working with the Sports Commission now to find a replacement chairman/president and, I think, that person will have a fair role to play in [selecting] the new CEO. There’s a whole new structure that’s likely to be on the horizon in the next year or so that will be the peak body of cycling in Australia. We’ve been working towards that for a number of years and I just think that it’s the right thing to do – but it’s the right thing for new blood and new energy to do it, to drive it.”
RIDE: I am curious about a couple of things that happened during your tenure. Let’s start with lowlights… If we go through the years of your involvement in cycling, there’s been the Festina Affair scandal, the Mark French saga – and the whole equine growth hormone episode – and then, last year, there was the ‘Reasoned Decision’. You seemed to able to cope with them all but, for example, the Cyclist of the Awards night last year after the ‘Reasoned Decision’ was particularly flat, sombre and negative. Which one affected you the most?
“That’s a good question. Probably the most recent one affected me the most. The French Affair and all that surrounded that in 2004 was probably, in terms of Cycling Australia’s direct involvement – and the fact that these were athletes directly involved in our programs and the AIS programs – it was technically more of a blight on the structure. But, by the same token, that meant we had more input and the ability to deal with it and work our way through it.
“The frustrating thing of the last 12 months has been that the real problem has been at the professional level of the sport, where there’s money. And, let’s face it, if you want to find the potential for cheating – where there’s money, that’s where you’ll find it.
“I think what frustrated me – and what frustrated the board in the last 12 months – is that we struggled to get the message out there that the sport did have some serious problems at that elite level. But, by the same token, we felt that here in Australia, our track record was really being held together pretty well.
“Even the Wood Review didn’t find that we were doing anything particularly wrong.
“Yes, the Wood Review helped us work out how cycling – and a whole lot of other sports – can do things better in the future. We always accepted that you’re never always doing everything perfectly; you can always do something better. But it was just so frustrating that we wore a lot of mud for stuff that happened on distant shores, if I can be that simplistic.”
RIDE: And you needed to wade through a hell of a lot of mud before you even got there… Was there any point in your time as CEO when you thought that it had gotten to the point of being beyond absurd?
“The three months at the end of last year, when there was frothing at the mouth and blood curdling from the impact of what was being thrown at the sport. As I said, even Matt [White] and Stephen [Hodge] – by their own admission – left our shores as cleanskins and it wasn’t until they were confronted with the reality of the professional cycling world off-shore that they dabbled in what they dabbled in.
“Cycling was splashed across front pages and all sorts of things for all the sins we did and yet by Christmas everyone had calmed down and thought about it and started to see some of the practicality and rationale about it. Then the Wood Report came out and we started to work on the positives to resurrect the situation.
“Clearly that was one of the reasons that those who supported Brian Cookson [at the recent UCI presidential elections] did so: it’s because that what the UCI had failed to do in the last 12 months of the old regime was two or three things, really. They hadn’t addressed the allegations thrown against the UCI; they hadn’t addressed the imbalance people had with the government structure of the UCI; and they hadn’t been able to draw the line in the sand about cycling’s dark past.
“It meant that an Erik Zabel or Stuart O’Grady would just keep popping up at regular intervals and not necessarily doing any more damage, as I said at the time, but just retarding the capacity for the sport to move ahead again.
“That, sadly, was when we were looking for some international leadership and didn’t get it.”
RIDE: I guess you’ll be watching with interest what happens to the AFL and the NRL and a number of other sports now. They’ve been implicated in scandal, even if they’re not called ‘Systematic doping regimes’ – rather, when it comes to them, it’s called ‘Supplement use’… It’ll be interesting to see if the lessons of cycling do transfer to other sports.
“I think that the Olympic sports have a little bit of an advantage there because we’ve been subjected to those regimes for the past 10 or 15 years whereas some of the non-Olympic team sports really only signed up to the WADA code in the last five or seven years. Therefore they haven’t been used to that regimen that we have and if people look behind the scenes they’ll see that the way we treat ‘supplements’ in our programs – only talking about the athletes that we have direct responsibility over – we are fairly ruthless in the way we control that.
“Let’s face it, if you go back to the French Affair in 2004, really only a small percentage of what was found in that infamous bucket [at the Del Monte] in Adelaide contained vials of equine growth hormone. The rest was predominantly vitamins and supplements. But, from that day on, we just wiped them out in terms of self-injection or anything like that.
“Been there, done that… had our fingers burned, so to speak.
“That’s administration. That’s taking the hits, learning from the mistakes and improving your position from there.”
RIDE: I’m going to ask for a highlight – one specific moment of international competition – from your time in the role as CEO of Cycling Australia.
“You can’t go past Cadel [Evans] winning the Tour de France, I don’t think.
“And to be gender equal, I think Anna Meares’ performance in the sprint competition at the Olympics in 2012; I could barely bare to watch it but she did it, got the win and made a true show of it.”
RIDE: There’s been a remarkable amount of change during your time in the sport. Remember back to 1997 when Liz Tadich got a silver medal in the road race at the world championships and we were jumping out of our skins thinking that was the best thing that had happened for Australian cycling. A lot has happened since then Graham…
“I still remember Darren Elder, who was our media liaison officer in 1996 when I first joined, coming in to my office one day all excited. He held up all five fingers on his hand and announced, ‘We’ve now got five pros in the international peloton!’
“It highlights the growth. And that’s what has given me the biggest thrill; to watch the evolution.
“There’s also considerable growth in the organisation at Cycling Australia. I took eight staff out to the Dunc Gray velodrome after the Sydney Olympics to set up an office there. There was one staff member in Adelaide and the rest were involved with the AIS. But now we employ 60 or 70 in three offices around Australia and a little office in Italy. In terms of growth of the organisation and its capacity… that’s been the behind-the-scenes satisfaction.”
RIDE: Let’s hope that that satisfaction brings a legacy and that that legacy is to have more people riding bikes.
* * * * *
RIDE Media publishes both the Official Tour de France Guide (Australian Edition) as well as RIDE Cycling Review, a quarterly magazine all about cycling.
RIDE Cycling Review is now available in a digital format via Zinio.