Guest opinion: Is Team-UniSA a ‘National’ team or NRS team?

cycling, Australia, Avanti Racing Team, Team UniSA-Australia, Santos Tour Down Under
The Team UniSA concept has been vital in giving opportunities to a wide range of local riders (Mark Gunter)

When the Santos Tour Down Under gets underway around the streets of Adelaide, it will once again feature Team UniSA-Australia, historically lauded by roadside supporters as the team of underdogs, the young guns up against the big boys, the development team that gives young ‘un-signed’ riders a shot at exposure to the pro peloton, and the opportunity for a pro contract.

Is it right for NRS teams to essentially elbow their way into a gap that really wasn’t there, to bolster the fortunes of NRS riders who have already had a wealth of opportunity as professionals with well resourced Continental teams?

Patrick Jonker, former professional who rode for Team UniSA in 2002-2004 and won overall honours in the 2004 Tour Down Under (TDU), posed a question on both Twitter and Facebook after the completion of the Mars Cycling Australia Road National Championships.

The responses were many and varied. Mark O’Brien (Vic), Tim Roe (SA), Harry Carpenter (SA), Rhys Gillett (Vic), Robert Power (WA), Zak Dempster (Vic), to name just a few.

So when the final roster containing Caleb Ewan (NSW) Jayco-AIS WorldTour Academy, Jack Haig (VIC) Avanti Pro, Mark O’Brien (VIC) Avanti Pro, Anthony Giacoppo (WA) Avanti Pro, Neil Van Der Ploeg (VIC) Avanti Pro, Campbell Flakemore (TAS) Avanti Pro/Jayco AIS WorldTour Academy and Bradley Linfield (WA) Jayco AIS WorldTour Academy, was announced, what stood out was not the relative balance in representations from States, but that five out of seven riders were signed to NRS and UCI Continental team Avanti Pro Cycling (formerly Huon-Genesys), with the remaining two signed with Jayco-AIS.

As a proud South Australian, I’ll declare that my initial surprise and disappointment was that it will be the first year in 14 editions of the TDU that Team UniSA-Australia won’t feature a local South Australian rider. No Queensland riders either, and none from the ACT.

Avanti Pro did win the Team Ranking in the 2013 National Road Series (NRS), under its previous guise of Huon-Genesys, and the Jayco-AIS World Tour Academy riders are the cream of the crop, all who have gained Team UniSA selection in 2014 are to be congratulated. But for selectors to imply that the majority of the best of Australia’s young talent suited to the TDU fall within just one or two teams, is controversial.

When National and Team UniSA selector Kevin Tabotta was asked to respond to questions about why no South Australian riders such as Tim Roe, Harry Carpenter, or Robert Jon-McCarthy were included, his response to Adelaide Advertiser journalist Reece Homfray was: "There was certainly a lot of discussion but it boiled down to a group of bike riders we believed were a better fit for the event."

From its first incarnation in 2001, the UniSA team has provided a unique opportunity that arguably no team in Australia could provide. A chance for young, local, unsigned riders to be exposed to European racing, with European teams, but on local, home soil, and with a knowledge of the roads in their backyard that exceeded the best in the peloton.

Given the TDU has always been hosted in and around Adelaide, it’s always made sense and has been a crowd favourite. As is the fact that the team always included South Australian riders, though over the years its become more a mixture of young riders from all states.

The experience and exposure has been invaluable, and the alumni of Team UniSA is impressive. Luke Roberts, Gene Bates, Alan Davis, Mitch Docker, Simon Clarke, Wes Sulzberger, Rohan Dennis and Tim Roe have all have gone on to have professional careers at an international level.

When Drapac secured a wildcard entry in August 2013, Cycling Central’s Al Hinds reported that TDU organisers had allowed Drapac a spot in the race under its newly-awarded UCI ProContinental status and suggested that the only other team that could qualify for the spot was Huon-Genesys.  

And while the latter’s bid for UCI ProContinental status is ‘on hold’ under its new sponsor and name, it seems to have succeeded in almost completely winning over the Team UniSA spot. 

A quick analysis confirms that the majority of riders selected for Team UniSA over the past three years have come from either Drapac, Huon-Genesys, or Jayco-AIS, and there are several riders that have had more than one bite at the Team UniSA cherry.

Is Cycling Australia aiming to diversify the pathways, or concentrate all efforts into an increasingly narrow pathway? What does this imply for young cyclists outside that pathway? That if you’re not signed to Drapac, Avanti Pro Cycling, or Jayco-AIS, forget it?

There’s no doubt the NRS has professionalised the domestic version of the sport in leaps and bounds in recent years but the beauty of Team UniSA at the TDU lies in its ability to provide a singularly unique opportunity and alternative pathway to a professional career, in a way that is rarely available elsewhere.  

If the NRS isn’t already providing a clear enough pathway for Continental riders to be signed to ProContinental and WorldTour teams, then those in charge of the NRS need to look at that.

Is it right for NRS teams to essentially elbow their way into a gap that really wasn’t there, to bolster the fortunes of NRS riders who have already had a wealth of opportunity as professionals with well resourced Continental teams?

Is appropriating the unique opportunity that Team UniSA has offered over 14 years the right way for the NRS to improve the fortunes of its riders on large Continental teams, or their commercial sponsors?

For all the rhetoric espoused now by Cycling Australia about the critical importance of not only pathways, but the ‘right’ pathways, are we just creating an environment in which teams and riders are offered opportunities to stand on the shoulders of those less fortunate than themselves, to gain an even bigger advantage than they already have?

I believe it’s time for those in charge of Team UniSA to either institute a clear and transparent selection policy that gives all riders equal opportunity, regardless of state and team affiliation.

As it stands, it’s looking more likely than ever that even more pressure will come to bear on TDU organisers next year, and that Team UniSA as it has existed for the past 14 years, will disappear, wholly replaced by a wildcard entry for a powerful Continental NRS team or another from the ProContinental ranks. I certainly hope I’m wrong.

As with all things in cycling, transparency is crucial for integrity.

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