Q&A with Steve Drake, Cycling Australia’s CEO
There’s a new administration in charge of cycling in Australia. At the helm is former national champion, Steve Drake. The 48-year-old spoke to RIDE Media about a series of topics in a long interview after almost three months as CEO of Cycling Australia.
RIDE: It’s the 24th of April  and I’ve got a chance to talk with Steve Drake, who is the new CEO of Cycling Australia. You’ve been in the role for, let’s say, five or six weeks. Is that right?
Steve Drake: “It’s actually now closer to three months, I think…”
…time flies. It was announced on a Monday that you would take over the role from Nick Green and we caught up on the Tuesday and had a bit of an overview of where you see things headed for cycling in Australia. Can you paraphrase your vision?
“I think, from a higher level, what we want to do is become a lot more customer focussed and provide a better service to our members – and that will ultimately drive a growth in our membership base overall.”
That’s the end goal? Are you still considering Cycling Australia to be racing entity? Or is it a cycling entity?
“I think it’s both. Our overall purpose should be to get more people on bikes. We would, of course, like some of those people to race but I think the more people we get on bikes, the better. It’s a great activity to do.
“I’m in this role, ultimately, because I love cycling and thought that I can help to improve CA – that’s why I joined the board in the first place. And now I’m in this position.
“We want to get more people on bikes, point one; and if we can do that I think we’ll get more people to race as well.”
Click the SoundCloud file (above) to listen to the full interview.
Let’s get the elephant out of the room… when Nick Green was in the role of CEO, I was critical of his performance. Have you had much legacy of his administration?
“Yeah. I think Nick copped a lot of flack from the cycling community and a fair bit of that was undeserved.
“I think Nick came into the business when it was really on its knees and I think there are a number of analogies that you can use for his period. Whether it’s a patient that’s just gone into intensive care and Nick kept the patient alive, or where it’s a house renovation and he’s done the first part – where he’s done the under-pinning, or whatever… the restumping – and the house doesn’t look much different but it’s fundamentally improved from when he started.
“I think there is a bit of unfair criticism of Nick’s tenure. [His administration] really restored the business to a position where it’s no longer as structurally loss-making as it was when Nick took over.
“Now it’s our job to get on with the next stage of the transformation.”
Where do you start? To be honest, it looks to me as though there’s quite a few entities all conflicted with one another, rather than cooperating with one another.
“Do you mean in the CA family? Or in cycling more broadly in Australia? Probably both apply.”
I think it would definitely be on all fronts… and, to be honest, it’s a great shame because it should be collaboration of minority groups rather than disparity. But what I was getting towards was, I guess, the concepts of bringing all disciplines into the one umbrella so that everyone understands where they fit. So that’s road and track and mountain bike and BMX and cyclocross… that’s the key elements. Do you see it coming to a point where everyone is part of a broader Cycling Australia membership? Or is it going to continue to be disparate?
“Whether it’s called ‘Cycling Australia’ or something else, I think it’s a very good objective to try to get all of the disciplines together under the one entity, with one licence because that’s a much more user-friendly approach.
“It’s crazy that we have three different entities with different licences and I’m sure it results in frustration for members and duplication of effort across the three organisations.
“So, it’s definitely one of the things that we’re thinking about. Can we achieve that sort of a unification?”
Do you take your cues from triathlon or from AFL…? Where do you look to for an example of good sports administration?
“I suppose the AFL is the pinnacle in Australia. Having spoken to some of the guys at the Sports Commission who have been involved over the years in sports administration in Australia – and I’m thinking of one particular person who had an involvement in football a long time ago… so far back that he can remember to when the AFL was almost on its knees. He told me the other day that the TV rights were worth seven million dollars at that point. It’s obviously very, very different now. And the AFL is massively transformed.
“Cycling is not very comparable to the AFL in Australia.
“I think there are other examples of sports that have been able to improve their administration and we’re working with the Sports Commission to learn from those examples and make some changes in our own organisation.”
We can go on several tangents but I’ll ask one question that’s timely at the moment. You just got back from a trip, quite an adventure in Europe… it was so that you could go and celebrate a mate’s 50th and ride the Tour of Flanders ‘sportif’ and the Paris-Roubaix ‘sportif’… you got an example of how cycling can attract people because of racing.
“Yes. About a year ago, I committed to going on this trip and so I didn’t want to drop my mate who had been looking forward to it for years [because of my new job]. So, we went across and did that tour and it was fantastic.
“Clearly, those events have a history that not many events in Australia have but they do a pretty impressive job of getting people out the day before the race(s).
“I think the Flanders sportif has something like 16,000 participants and Roubaix maybe about 6,000, or something like that – and I think that’s only because they cap [the numbers]. They could probably have more if they wanted.”
Is that an example of how CA could enhance membership? I mean, we don’t have a Tour of Flanders or a Paris-Roubaix or anything that’s even close to those races to create a coming together of cyclo-sportives… but what cues did you get from that experience? And how can you apply it in Australia?
“Maybe not anything specifically from that… one of the things that we’re keen to do as part of our changes that we’re making to the NRS (National Road Series) is to try to have more financially sustainable races by, over time, having most – or all – of the NRS races having some sort of participation event that’s associated with it.
“For instance, the race down at Amy’s Gran Fondo – that not only helps to promote the aims of the Amy Gillett Foundation but having a race associated with a gran fondo allows you to leverage the effort – particularly the road closure costs – that go into that. It makes the whole event more sustainable.
“If we can organise events that have an element of public participation, not only does it get people involved and get people down to be able to watch the race, but it also helps to make the races more sustainable which has been an issue with the NRS in the past.”
Can you try and break down for people listening, or reading, the membership percentages? Who has come to CA because of track? Who has come to cycling Australia because of road? Or mountain bike? Or BMX? I know those [final] two elements are still on the periphery [of CA membership]. What do you think the vast majority of bike rides in Australia are doing…?
“I don’t have the numbers but I’m sure the vast majority are road riders.
“In terms of break down, I think we’re about two-thirds ‘race’ membership and about one-third ‘ride’ membership at the moment. But most of the race members would be roadies.”
And if you were to incorporate MTBA, how big a difference – or what sort of spike – would there be in membership?
“…So, CA’s membership is broadly about 27,000. I think, when you add in BMX and MTB, you get to about 55,000 in total.
“And the age split: BMX has a lot more younger members, lots and lots of kids.
“And then MTB’s age split is probably a bit more even.”
It ended up this way, so I’ll ask it – but it wasn’t my aim… We’ve seen a huge spending priority for track cycling. And we saw a fantastic couple of team pursuits at the Commonwealth Games, a world record by the men and a fantastic ride by the women – and gold medals for Australia both times. And then a glut of other conquests, let’s say. You’re meeting with the Sports Commission on Friday. Do you envisage a conversation where you do reallocate funding and maybe steer away from the gold medal quest?
“I haven’t seen what the new National Sports Plan is yet and I don’t know what implication that might have for high performance funding or other funding.
“At the moment we’ve got no plan to change the way we allocate funding in high performance.
“What we do want to do over time is to achieve the best outcomes we can from the funding that’s given to us by the government.”
I recognise that. I think that what has been done by the Australian team at the Commonwealth Games was fantastic. [There were] very impressive performances – great to see a couple of gold medals on the road as well. I didn’t get to watch the mountain bike racing but it was happening and certainly the track got a lot of coverage because [riders] like Matt Glaetzer and Amy Cure and people putting on fantastic performances but is there a time when you get to talk to [ASC CEO] Kate Palmer and say, ‘Listen, can we get a prioritisation and look for participation over international conquests?’
“Look, I would love to get a little bit more participation funding from the Sports Commission. I think one of the challenges that faces cycling in Australia is how urbanised we are.
“When I think about the changes in population since I was a kid mucking around on my dragster, there’s probably another 10 million more people in Australia since that time. And most of those people have gone into the five major cities, [it] results in urban sprawl, lots more cars, longer journeys… and some of that has resulted in changes in parenting styles that make parents a little bit more reluctant to let their kids ride on the road or ride to school. One of the knock-on impacts of that is kids not being as active as they were 40 years ago or whenever I first got on a bike.
“I think cycling has got a big role to play in changing that. But when I look at the amount of participation funding we get, particularly compared to, say, the UK… it’s difficult for us to make big changes.
“What I’d love to be able to do in conjunction with a commercial sponsor is dramatically expand our participation programs so we’re getting more kids on bikes. That comes back to what we were talking about at the start about the purpose of CA. I think our job is to get more people on bikes.”
I agree 100 percent. I think about the things that I do and why I do them and that’s my end goal: I’d love to see more people riding bikes. I don’t want to get bogged down on government funding: it is what it is, government policy will be what the government dictates anyway but I’d like to think that the obesity epidemic, the congestion of our cities – the number of things that are leading towards the bike being a suitable solution, something positive for society – is something that should be explored. Hopefully your administration is able to tap into that in some way…
“We won’t be the sole cause – or sole mitigant – to the obesity issue but I certainly think that cycling has got a role to play. It is an activity that can be a whole-of-life thing.
“I think the government should be mindful of doing all it can in a preventative way to minimise long-term healthcare costs. Otherwise, at some point, things are going to get pretty ugly.”
That’s a much bigger conversation to be had but ultimately bike riding is good for the soul. I went out for a ride this morning in Sydney and it certainly tests your mind – because you’re dealing with traffic and trying to figure out a way to get home safely… that’s a great shame. And I know what you’re saying about it not being as safe as when you were a child. The same applies to me. But I still think that there are ways and means of cyclists encouraging others to take up the bike. What messaging are you trying to deliver through Cycling Australia to its members to try and entice others into the fold?
“I think that most people who end up being members of CA do it because they love riding. Some are very competitive but many just love riding.
“I think if we can educate people better about the benefits of membership and we can improve the value of our membership then it will almost be self-fulfilling – the word will get around, people will go, ‘Okay, this is an organisation that’s worth joining.’”
I talked about this on an SBS podcast a couple of years ago where I was trying to make a commentary about the various disciplines that are under the CA charter. It’s a long intro but I’ll go with it…:
We ride in our family: we have mountain bikes, track bikes, road bikes… we love to get out and explore. I’ve got two young children and they are very enthusiastic about their cycling. I, obviously, enjoy my cycling. And we can go to Canberra and pull our mountain bikes off the roof of the car after [our drive from Sydney] and we can go and ride at Stromlo – which is a fantastic facility and it offers a great array of terrain and obstacles and challenges and climbs and descents… at Easter time, I had a crash and cracked a couple of ribs and took some skin off. And I didn’t sign a waiver. I didn’t have a membership. I basically took that risk and I applied it to myself and I got the consequences of that.
If I want to ride my track bike at the local velodrome, I have to become a CA member so that I can ride on a perfectly protected piece of tarmac which has banking and basically very little obstacles and very little potential damage.
How is it that track cycling has to jump through those hoops when something like mountain biking can just be free and accessible – much like road cycling is?
“Ah… I don’t know.
“I didn’t know that you necessarily needed to be a member to ride on the velodrome, but I guess it depends on the particular velodrome.”
“As much as anything, I suppose, it’s because of potential risk to other riders. As much as anything, it’s a protection mechanism for other riders. If you do have a membership – and therefore you’re insured.
“I think we’re actually seeing it in Melbourne that some groups of riders don’t want to allow others to join their groups anymore unless they do have some insurance because of the potential crash risk… that’s, I suppose, a function of congestion on the roads in Melbourne – they’re so many bikes, particularly on Beach Road now.”
We did see an explosion in cycling participation, I think, in or around 2011. There was a huge coming together of many elements that made it that way: bikes got better and more accessible – and cheaper. And I think that the interest generated by Cadel Evans’ win in the Tour de France gave cycling huge prominence in the media. And lots of things benefitted the sport. Do you see it, for example, if Richie Porte wins the Tour de France this year, we’ll see another rise? Or: is there one thing that you could envisage [that] would really propel cycling forward?
“I think cycling is already very popular.
“I’d love to see Richie win the Tour de France. And I’m sure that would help to get some more interest.
“I think in terms of getting more people riding, there are a number of challenges that need to be faced. One is an infrastructure related challenge, so whether that’s having marked trails for mountain bikers, or bike lanes that make people feel more comfortable about riding in certain parts of our cities – because some of those factors are important for getting more women out on bikes as well.
“I think there are a number of different challenges that we need to address to get more people on bikes.”
Ultimately, often when we talk about Cycling Australia membership, the main sales pitch relates to insurance. And I guess that’s what we’ve come back to again with all of that commentary: is that people need to know that they’re insured.
“Yeah, I think insurance is important. But when it comes to our membership, one of the things that we’re conscious of is improving the value of membership. So, it’s not just going to be led by insurance.
“We’re working on trying to improve the range of member benefits that people get aside from insurance. That’ll be something that we’re continuing to improve over the coming months.”
As we’ve discovered, we can go off on many different directions in this discussion but I think that’s a good opener and a nice introduction. Thanks for taking the time to consider some broader concepts. Let’s put this air… and perhaps we can just encourage Cycling Australia members – or potential members – to write in and give us their thoughts on what could be done to improve the state of play of cycling in Australia. What do you think?
“Sure. I’m always happy to get some constructive suggestions.”
Steve, thanks very much for taking the time… To be continued. I think it’s part of a much broader reaching discussion.
“Indeed. Good talking to you, Rob.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold