There’s about to be some Australian influence in the Chinese cycling team. Tim Decker, the former track endurance coach for the Australian team, will soon begin the equivalent role but with the Chinese teams, both men and women.
RIDE Media recorded an exclusive interview with Decker a few days before his departure, destination Beijing.
Below is a Q&A with Tim Decker. He explains his new role, his hopes and expectations, and offers a little background into his coaching career and why he’s opted for a complete change of countries, cultures and team colours…
– Interview by Rob Arnold
RIDE Media: I’m speaking with Tim Decker. He’s about to jet off to another country and begin a whole new job. So, with that intro out of the way, I wonder if you could just fill us in and give me a little overview of what you’re up to Tim.
Tim Decker: “Yeah, I’ll be leaving on Sunday and taking up a new role as the Chinese track endurance lead coach, and that will cover men and women. It’ll be to build the endurance squad, not from nothing – they have a good provincial system – but to get competitive on the world stage.
“They had a female omnium rider compete at the Tokyo Olympics but aside from that [the endurance riders] haven’t been on the world stage for a couple of years now. So, it’s a build to get back into the world stage of track endurance cycling for the Chinese team.”
RIDE Media: In the lead-up to and during the Beijing Games, for example, we saw a prevalence of Chinese sprinters, particularly the women. So, we understand that they can come up to form and achieve a world-class level. Do you imagine that’s going to happen quickly or are you working towards a long-term cycle? And is it an Olympic focus? What is the strategy?
Tim Decker: “The strategy is to have an Olympic focus. They also have a high priority on the Asian Games, which are on this year and that’s a big focus for the team in September and they’ll actually be in China this year. So, a home Asian Games will be quite important for them. But it’s definitely an Olympic focus and the track program – the track sprint program – has been quite competitive for many years and as you know, the women’s team sprinters have been Olympic gold medallists a couple of times.
“It’ll be quite exciting because Theo Bos has taken on the role as China’s sprint coach, so I’m excited to be working alongside him, even though I’ll be working on endurance and he’ll be working on the sprint side of things. It’ll be really good to be saddle up beside Theo as he takes on his first national coaching role.
“I’m looking forward to building some more relationships and having some good and challenging times.
“The long-term view is that the endurance teams can be competitive on the Olympic stage. But also, this is not just Paris (in 2024), this is also LA (2028) and Brisbane (2032) after that as well.”
RIDE Media: What is the length of your contract?
Tim Decker: “My focus will be until Paris, at this stage. And we’ll see what unfolds after that but a priority will be to qualify an Olympic spot in each endurance event at the Paris Olympic Games, so that’s male and female, six events.
“That will be quite a big ask but it’s not out of the question. And that’s setting up the pathway for the future.”
RIDE Media: We’ve known you as The Team Pursuit Coach, basically. I know it’s ‘track endurance’ but I know that the team pursuit is a passion of yours – it’s also a passion of mine. Can you give me a quick overview of the men’s and women’s national records for China, for example? Do you know that yet?
Tim Decker: “No, I don’t know that yet but from what I’ve seen so far, the [men’s] team is around the mark of between 3:56, 3:57 to four minutes. That’s what I know right now and it’s a really good challenge to build from that and try and get their national team under that 3:50 barrier. To set a standard now, you’ve got to be 3:45 to be competitive…”
RIDE Media: You have to have a giggle at that, knowing the history of the team pursuit. The times have come down really quickly in recent years…
Tim Decker: “It has.”
RIDE Media: So, really, it’s a blank canvas. Do you even know the riders that you’ll be working with or are you just going to be introduced to them next week?
Tim Decker: “The introductions and selections will start over the next four to six week period. There’s a whole selection process to go through yet and I’ll be looking at multiple facets to pick a national team for track endurance, male and female.”
RIDE Media: Shall we just run through the other events [in the Olympic endurance program] for clarity? We’ve got the team pursuit, men and women, then omnium…
Tim Decker: “Yep, the omnium as well, which is four events over a day – or, at the Olympics [in Tokyo] it was over a three and a half hour session. And then the Madison.”
RIDE Media: Does it mean you’re taking the whole family to China, effectively in the coming days, or how will you manage that?
Tim Decker: “No, not at this stage. I’ve got a very big first year, so the family will stay here at this stage, for this year; they are quite settled here with their schooling and stuff so we need them to stay focussed on that for this year and then we’ll see what unfolds towards the back end of the year. Anything is possible.
“It’s going to be a big year with a lot of time away from the family which will be tough for all of us but I’m not shying away from the hard work and the challenge ahead of me.
“There are a few competitions and there’s selection and a lot going on this year so I really have to step into it this year.”
RIDE Media: It’ll be a total life change for you, and the life of a cycling vagabond continues. Will you be based in Beijing? Can I make that assumption?
Tim Decker: “Yes, the cycling base is in Beijing. But they have quite a few indoor velodromes and there’ll be options to move around.
“I want to be checking out the indoor velodromes and which ones will suit which preparations. That’s another part of the puzzle that I’ve got to put together.”
RIDE Media: Can you talk to me a little bit about the Chinese road cycling program. Will you try and utilise riders from other disciplines based on the reality that team pursuiters tend to come from the road, or vice-versa?
Tim Decker: “The integration of the road, and the road racing scene, will probably happen a lot more in the following two years. There’s quite a lot already going on this year, so it’s key to make sure I keep things relatively simple and make sure it doesn’t get too complicated in the first year.
“Also, I need to really learn on the ground and get through where things sit in regards to the road racing scene over there.
“The Chinese have recently started a continental team which is part of building the whole endurance side of cycling… but the aspect of road will come in more after 2023 and 2024.
“That doesn’t mean that the riders who are selected this year won’t compete on the road, but as far as it being a part of their continental team, I think that will be on hold for this year.”
RIDE Media: Can you please give us a quick overview of your history with the Australian Cycling Team please? How long have you been in the role of endurance coach there? It seems like a very long time.
Tim Decker: “Yeah, it is quite a long time. And I guess that links back to my junior worlds coaching days.
“It became pretty seamless from my junior worlds coaching career, which started in 2007 and crossed over into the elite track endurance program which began, for me, after 2012 and led all the way to the start of 2022.
“It has been a long history. I started coaching at a club level, also coaching my brother as an example, and a few local cyclists. That then grew into coaching the Bendigo Bank Academy of Sport, and then actually starting our own little coaching business.
“But the coaching business wasn’t about writing programs and sending them out as emails; my coaching philosophy is all about connections with people and helping them get the best out of themselves, while pushing people to be better.
“So, we had our own coaching business going for a while and that linked into coaching for Victoria and that led into getting a coaching scholarship – a lot of the more senior coaches at the time set me up with that, and I can’t thank them enough for getting me involved.
“That was through 2005 and 2006. Then it just went from there.
“I did a year at NSWIS with Gary Sutton, and I really learned a lot off the master coach, ‘Sutto’. Then I went back to Bendigo before moving across to SASI, when I started to really dig my heals into my own coaching pathway.
“NSWIS and SASI, and the national junior program which started in 2007 and had such an impact on developing me as a coach.”
RIDE Media: It’s a long way from Bendigo to Beijing. And it’s certainly a massive cultural change. Shall we even attempt to delve into the specifics of language? I’m assuming you don’t speak Mandarin or Cantonese…
Tim Decker: “Not yet. No.
“But they have been fantastic in setting me up and the Chinese team is really enthusiastic about having me on board. I’ll have an interpreter because they know the importance of communication, and that will be super important to build up the trust between myself and the staff and the athletes.
“This is all going to be a big challenge, but it’s also quite exciting.
“To be honest, it is good for me to have this challenge. I want to keep developing as a person and as a coach. Who knows what doors that might open further down the track but I just want to keep progressing.”
RIDE Media: I’m uncertain if it’s going to be big coaching staff; do you feel like it’s going to be on par with what you’ve been dealing with at the Australian Cycling Team? Or smaller? Larger? What is the arrangement in China like?
Tim Decker: “It’s definitely larger… it’s a bigger scale. In late 2018 and 2019 I had a role with both the men’s and women’s track endurance program [in Australia] and that changed midway through 2019, when I had another accident and a brain injury. But having scope over six Olympic events and two genders, I’ll certainly have some assistant coaches and some good people around me to make sure that I give China and the athletes every possible chance of success.”
RIDE Media: You raised it, so I’ll follow up on your head injury: are the ramifications of that all behind you or are there some long-term effects?
Tim Decker: “No, I’m all back to full health now. It took a year or so to really get back to full health but I was pretty good three or four or five months after, but it’s only on reflection… after about a year, I was thinking, ‘I’m really feeling more like myself now…’
“Everything is fine. I’ve been super lucky. I’ve had a couple of big knocks to the head but I’m lucky with how I’ve responded to that, and I think a lot of that comes back to staying fit and healthy.
“I’ve always been a person who wants to stay fit and healthy. And also, I’ve got an inner drive just to be healthy and make sure I’m setting a good example for the people around me.”
RIDE Media: In other words, you’ll keep riding…
Tim Decker: “Yeah. I’ll always ride my bike.
“It’s such a beautiful sport and it has given me so many opportunities and I’ve been able to see so much around the world. How could I ever think about not being able to ride my bike? That just doesn’t click with me.”
RIDE Media: I can understand that. You have a limit to your time, so let’s try and conclude this interview…
You’re known as a coach. You’ve got a hell of a lot of respect. Every rider who has been under your guidance has been complimentary. But you must also be a bit of a politician because – correct me if I’m wrong – it did seem like quite a toxic culture at the Australian Cycling Team for the last couple of years. Have you been scarred by that? Have you come out the other side with a better understanding of how to manage different personalities? Can you talk a little bit about how things were these last couple of years?
Tim Decker: “Look, there’s no doubt there were some challenges over the last couple of years, and different leadership styles, for sure. But I look at these things and the way I would probably put it is that these things are challenges, but also the biggest thing was around learning and learning how to deal with people.
“Nobody is ever going to agree with you 100 percent of the time. And sometimes you never agree with some people but learning how to deal with that and move forward is probably one of the key learnings for me over the last couple of years. You know, learning how to deal with challenges, uncomfortable conversations, challenging conversations…
“Sometimes your opinion might be heading down the right way and you stick with that. But if you agree or disagree, one of the things that I’ve learned is that you have to always work out how to move forward for the greater good of the people around you.
“In my case, it was athletes. So, my focus was more on the athletes, and I will always put those athletes first. I will do whatever it takes to make sure that they are put first and they were given the opportunities that they needed to keep trying to perform at their best.
“When you have got that focus and that drive, then the other areas are challenging and – like I said – the biggest learning for me is how you can keep moving forward.
“No environment is perfect, and culture is something you’ve got to work on every day! It’s not something that you set and forget.”
RIDE Media: I’m working my way through the report [into equipment failure for the Australian Cycling Team at the Tokyo Olympics] that was issued yesterday. It highlights the complexity of what you’re involved in. Okay, a team pursuit might be a four-kilometre race but it’s very, very far from simple. There’s a lot of detail involved. I wish you all the best for what’s to come. I know that you’re a passionate bike rider and a passionate coach and a big challenge awaits you. I look forward to finding out more but I wonder if we could conclude just by asking if you leave the green-and-gold with a tear in your eye, or if you’re going to the red team with a big buoyant mood of optimism?
Tim Decker: “I am Australian, so of course I’m going to miss the people and the environment that was built over the period I’ve been involved. I wish everybody the best for the future.
“Of course, there were quite a few tears around making the decision that I ended up making. There were quite a few sleepless nights and it was quite challenging but you grow from these challenges.
“You look at what we’ve been able to achieve and the riders I’ve had to work with… Kell O’Brien, Luke Plapp, Sam Welsford – they are all set up in WorldTour teams now. They have got huge careers ahead of them. They’ve got to really establish themselves and the track program has been very good for them.
“I hope that they do come back to the track at some stage, but they have also got to make sure that they set themselves up for their future careers [on the road] for the next 10 or 15 years.
“It has been a great journey and there’ll be many more journeys ahead. They are just three athletes from the latest Olympic cycle. There are many more from previous campaigns – Miles and Callum Scotson, and so forth.
“So yeah, there were many tears but there’s also a lot of excitement for the future. And a challenge awaits.
“I love my work and I’m passionate about bike riding. And I’m passionate about getting the best out of the people around me. In this case it’ll be for a different country but it doesn’t mean I won’t be interested in how Australia is going, and I’ll always be watching and supporting from afar, but it’s also important that I commit and give China what I have to try and get the best out of their athletes.
“If they become more competitive on the world stage, isn’t that going to be great for cycling?
“It’s about beating the best in the world and if the best in the world are about to develop more, then I think that’s great for cycling as well.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold