With the Herald Sun Tour drawing to a close, the world got to witness some of Australia’s most talented youngsters punch it out with the World Tour heavyweights. It’s common to see a small selection of riders riding for the national team in the Tour Down Under, Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the Herald Sun Tour. These national teams have been crucial to the breakout of some riders like Jai Hindley, Lucas Hamilton and Michael Storer in recent years. However, this year has been historic in seeing not two, but nine Australian based teams line up for the Herald Sun Tour – the first time in its short UCI history.
Australian cycling is witnessing a continental revolution. The continential circuit was introduced in 2005 in sweeping reforms across the UCI. This reform introduced the Pro Tour (now the World Tour), and 5 continental series’ around the world where PRO teams could compete against local teams. These local teams also were required to hold a continental racing license to ride events up to Hors Categorie, and a pro continental racing license to ride Pro Tour events (on invite). Without a license, teams couldn’t compete in races unless individual riders make up a national team. Since the introduction of the Continental Circuit in 2005, no more than 7 Australian teams (in 2015 there were 6 CTs and 1 PCTs) have held a Continental or Pro Continental License in the same year. 2017 saw one of the lowest number of licenses given to Australian teams, with only 4 teams receiving one.
With dozens of local teams riding ProAm in the National Road Series, having only 4 teams able to race UCI events limited the opportunities to showcase talent. Furthermore, some CT level teams like NSWIS couldn’t secure funding to race overseas often, restricting the growth of Australian cycling even further. Australia in the past has gotten around this – with the World Tour Academy taking the best NRS talent over to Europe, and national teams participating in the Tour Down Under, CEGORR and Herald Sun Tour. However, it would only showcase a select few riders, usually from the Avanti/Isowhey/Bennelong super team. With a lack of racing in the higher echelons of the sport, Australian talent often fell to the wayside unless they had extreme standout performances. It was a tier of the sport completely underutilised in growing talent and making the jump from ProAm to PCT/WT less harsh on riders.
2018 saw 8 Australian teams apply, and receive, Continental Racing Licenses. Australia’s best local team (aside from Mitchelton-Scott) Bennelong – Swiss Wellness renewed their license, giving them the opportunity to make their mark on the Asia Circuit with a stronger-than-ever team in 2018. The feeder team to EF-Drapac, Drapac-EF Cycling (confusing, I know) received one – allowing riders like Cyrus Monk to gain experience outside of the Australian cycling scene. Oliver’s Real Food, after a breakout year in 2017 with rider Brendon Davids (now at Bennelong), were granted a license for this year. St. George retained the services of Ben Dyball after he went to Delko Marseille as a stagiaire, which would have helped in discussions to retain their license. Mobius-BridgeLane took the step up from NRS after a decent season to secure a license.
It wasn’t just pre-existing teams who got licenses though, 3 newly formed (or heavily rebranded) teams received licenses in 2018. Australian Cycling Academy, a project started by Matt Wilson (Mitchelton DS) and Ben Kersten (Commonwealth Gold Medallist) out of Noosa, Queensland, received a license. ACA combined with the University of Sunshine Coast to provide young riders a pathway into their future on the bike on top of study. Brisbane Contintenal Cycling Team was born out of the dead Budget Forklifts team and headed by ex-rider Josh Prete, with the aim of providing racing opportunities to Queenslanders since the team folded in 2015. Team McDonalds Down Under rounds out the 8 teams, led by New Zealand veteran Alexander Ray.
Individually, there are some very strong riders who wouldn’t have been able to race overseas without their teams going continental. ACA has recruited former World Tour pro Leigh Howard to help lead some great talent like pursuit gold medalist Sam Welsford and Daniel Fitter, who spent time in Europe last year with NSWIS. The Bennelong roster is jam packed with talent, with South African Brendon Davids being a standout for another breakout year in 2018. They also have Ayden Toovey, who spent the latter half of last year as a stagiaire at Trek. Drapac-EF have Theo Yates (who I can’t believe is only 22) who took out his first two pro wins last year over in Asia, Cyrus Monk who is currently the U23 National Champion and Liam Magennis who rode over in America in 2017 with the NSWIS team. Peter Livingstone of Mobius took out a great victory at the Tour of Tasmania last year, while 21 year old Kiwi Nicholas Reddish took out a stage win at NZCC for Oliver’s Real Food this year. These are only just a handful of talented riders who have been given the chance to go international with their racing and get their name out there. They are also getting much needed experience at a higher tier of racing if they want to extend their career.
The impact of these licenses has already been seen in the Herald Sun Tour. 7 continental teams, Mitchelton-Scott and a National team all lined up in Melbourne for the 4 day stage race. The only registered team who missed out was St. George. Sam Crome got a stage win on the final day, while Alex Evans of Mobius came 2nd on the 218km Queen stage, 42″ behind Colombian climber Esteban Chaves. Bennelong team mates Dylan Sunderland, Chris Harper and Sam Crome all finished in the top 10, while Freddy Ovett of ACA snuck in after finishing in the top 10 of stages 3 and 4.
From here, with the shake-up of the NRS in 2018, races like Tour de Taiwan, Tour de Langkawi and Tour of Thaliand become possible next steps for Australian CTs before the start of the one-day season in mid-April after the Commonwealth Games. Over the winter months, the Tour de Korea and Tour of Qinghai Lake become major races before the tour season starts in August. These are only Asia Tour events – there are many more races on the Europe, America and Africa Tour which these teams can race in. If funding permits, teams like Oliver’s, Bennelong and Drapac will be able to attend these races while keeping up with the Australian scene.
While I usually love having a dig at Cycling Australia, their NRS reform for 2018 seems completely logical for growing road cycling in Australia. Sure, Simon Jones, the High Performance Director at CA, might only have sights on gold and not the 3.5 years between Olympics, but this step shows that CA might actually care about road cycling. In brief, the changes are splitting the calendar into 3 seasons. Starting in mid-April, there will be a 6 week one-day race series. From August to November, there will be stage races where the majority of points will be on offer; and to wind down the season over summer, there will be a series of criteriums around Australia. These changes mean that teams will be able to prepare for a series of races, and work their local schedules around bigger continental circuit races. Having time off at crucial times in the road cycling season (June-July-August for prime-time northern hemisphere racing, November for end of season racing) means teams can compete overseas, get themselves recognised, and have minimal impact on their racing at home.
In saying that, dismantling the Women’s road program wasn’t the way to go. Australia is considered a top 3 nation in road cycling, and finished 4th on the nation ranking after last years WWT. Garfoot got silver and bronze at the Worlds Road Race and Time Trial respectively in Bergen, and looking towards Innsbruck, climbers like Amanda Spratt and Lucy Kennedy have a fair chance of taking the crown (although, Australia would still be considered outsiders to the likes of Van Vleuten). That’s enough ranting about women’s cycling for this post, but the changes to the NRS calendar are a positive step for more competitive men’s racing in Australia, giving Australia a chance to develop talent globally.
If teams can juggle both the continental circuit and the NRS, the rewards will be incredible for Australian cycling. Rider development will grow as the local scene becomes more competitive, allowing for a higher level of riding. Talent will flourish internationally, getting Australia recognised as one of the great cycling nations again. With great results, funding towards road cycling will increase, snowballing the improvement further and further. While Australia might not be of the caliber of cycling nations like the Netherlands or Belgium now, good junior development and a strong structure in place to assist this will go a long way.
The continental revolution provides another tier of the sport which was once more closed off to Australian riders. They have the riders, they have the program in place, now we just need to wait to see the results.