It was hard to comprehend how Australia, the third-best cycling nation in the world as far as elite women go, did not have enough "quality" riders to fulfil all seven available spots for this year's road world championships in Bergen, Norway.
"From what I can see, looking at the events in the single road races or the big races, we don't have a clear athlete that we can back 100 per cent with a full team. And on that basis – and on the only basis that I think which is performance first – we felt that was best," Simon Jones, Cycling Australia high performance director, told CyclingTips in a September 6 story, a day after the men's and women's teams were revealed.
To say "we don't have a clear athlete that we can back 100 per cent with a full team" not only sounds pessimistic, but terribly defeatist. It almost sounds as it's not even worth going to Bergen, other than for touristic reasons, or that Australia is third-last in the world rankings, not third-best.
Jones gave historical context behind his decision that, as of yesterday, has since been overturned after successful appeals from Chloe Hosking and Rachel Neylan. "In the last 10 years, 50 per cent of the winning teams had teams of three or less because what's important to win a world championship is a quality athlete. On that basis we've worked backwards and then supported that athlete with the team, with specific roles, responsibilities to achieve the outcome," he said.
However, Jones' rationale was based on historical data from the elite men's road races: as far as the elite women were concerned, over the past decade, 90 per cent of the winning teams had more than three riders, and 80 per cent fielded six or more.
It's also worth noting that Peter Sagan, the men's world champion for the past two years, is a once-in-a-generation rider that can piggyback off others without expending too much unnecessary energy, and has the lucidity and ability to make or follow the right moves. That said, had he been on teams with more riders and/or greater depth, he most likely would've won even more races (including at least another world championship and an Olympic Games gold medal). Since he became world champion in 2015 and found himself even more of a target, the Slovakian has noticeably made a conscious decision to let races go because he's been outnumbered and/or others have expected him to chase down a break; last weekend's Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal was the latest example.
Furthermore, there has rarely been a situation at a road world championship where too many riders has resulted in less than optimal performances. Internecine rivalry - such as that between Italians Paolo Bettini and Michele Bartoli in the '90s, or Spain's Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodríguez (think the 2013 Worlds in Florence), or that between Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews (think the 2015 Worlds in Richmond) - who this year is Australia's outright leader - have seen gold medals slip through the cracks, but not actual numbers per se.
Have you ever heard a leader remark they would prefer less support heading into arguably the most important one-day event on the cycling calendar - or afterwards say the reason why they won/lost was because they had two or three too many team-mates?
By their very nature, with so many teams competing (I counted 50 competing nations for the women and 48 for the men) and, by consequence, the lack of familiarity with all the riders and vast differences in ability, being part of a coterie that can cosset you till the final laps is essential. You therefore need experienced, "quality athletes" with specific roles and responsibilities, as Jones pointed out, but you also need numbers in the event that one or more of those aforementioned domestiques is unable to fulfil their duties on the day, mishap, or the need to execute a 'Plan B'.
To say "we don't have a clear athlete that we can back 100 per cent with a full team" not only sounds pessimistic, but terribly defeatist. It almost sounds as it's not even worth going to Bergen, other than for touristic reasons, or that Australia is third-last in the world rankings, not third-best. It's true that the 2012 Worlds in Valkenburg, Netherlands aside, our elite women have not performed to expectation - but does fielding a undermanned line-up lead to improved outcomes?
"We need to raise the bar, we've got to make it challenging to get into teams," said Jones. Indeed, it should be about merit, or as he says "performance first". Yet there haven't been seven elite women who have merited a spot this year? The results appear to suggest otherwise: while there hasn't been a big WorldTour victory by an Australian female, collectively, they have done enough to be considered in the top three nations. And that silver medal aberration in 2012 was courtesy of Neylan; a rider seemingly predisposed to injury but can get herself into form very quickly, and on her day be highly competitive. Spanish rider Oscar Freire was not dissimilar, and won three world road titles.
Perhaps much fewer of us would have got our knickers in a knot if Heinrich Haussler, with all of 10 race days under his belt this season, was not selected in the nine-man men's squad. However to be fair to Jones, he didn't want to send a full-strength line-up for the men, either: "I didn't see the reason to take a full team in the men. I would have preferred a smaller team, a crack unit." He was convinced otherwise by other members of the selection panel, who argued Matthews' "clearly demonstrated performances" aligned with "that performance belief and the mindset required to win the race", according to Jones.
Upon his appointment in February this year, following his role as head of performance support and innovation at Team Sky, and at British Cycling before that, Jones said he wanted to be "successful, measured by gold medal outcomes at the Olympic Games." It's true that since the 2004 Games in Athens, Australia's track cycling results have gone off the rails, and desperately needs a rethink. "If you look at the UK system, they support less sports and they have less athletes identified in their athlete pathways with three times the population," he told Reuters.
"Going forward, we need to have a very athlete-focused approach. Who can win, do we have the quality of athlete, do they have the potential to progress?
"Are they in an environment in which they can optimise their performance? Do we have shared goals? That's absolutely vital."
At a time the Australian Olympic Committee bemoan cuts to funding of Olympic sports including cycling, Jones, incidentally, says there is enough in the coffers to produce our next gold medallists. The money needs to be distributed more effectively, he argues.
My question is, at a time when our men and women have rarely been more competitive in terms of depth of talent, can this less is more approach also work in road cycling events when it comes to world championships and Olympic Games?