The great 'leg-drain'

Tom Palmer

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Cycling's spiritual home remains in Europe, but for more and more riders there are viable alternatives outside of the continent. Australia's own domestic series could in the future be where the best locals choose to race, rather than simply a development platform for the grassroots. (Getty Images)
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Does the Subaru National Road Series, and the domestic calendar represent an enticing alternative to slugging away in the amateur ranks in Europe? Tom Palmer thinks so, and hopes for a day when it won't even be something aspiring professionals think of in their pursuit of making a career out of the sport.

A European pilgrimage has become a rite of passage for young cyclists and formed a sub-culture in itself.

It’s that time of year again when the other cycling hemisphere wakes from its winter hibernation, beckoning our best and brightest away with the promise of opportunity and adventure. But for me, one of a few now choosing to stay home, it has me questioning why this 'leg-drain' occurs in the first place?

Australians have a decades-old tradition of cycling pilgrimage. We sling a bike over our shoulders and set off for Europe’s mountains and cobbles to turn our passion into a profession.

Pioneers like Allan Peiper even slept on freezing butcher-shop floors and stole vegetables to survive when prizemoney was scarce. First-hand stories from this era make me proud to have been a part of an old and unique Aussie sub-culture. Of course the details have changed (I’ve mostly stayed in plush B&B’s and specialist training facilities) but the motivation remains the same. My generation wants to see the world and adventure, but we’re also hungry for opportunity: jobs.

The accepted cycling knowledge is that ‘if you want to go pro, go to Europe’. The big teams see success there as a prerequisite, or at least the customary expression of interest. Pragmatic grounds like racing format and ‘depth’ of competition are cited, but I believe these attitudes are based more in cultural values and convention than rationality.

A European pilgrimage has become a rite of passage for young cyclists and formed a sub-culture in itself. It’s a healthy variant of the ‘gap-year’ trips taken by most of our non-cycling peers. Unlike the hardy desperados of old, we benefit from the reputation of Australian riders, the Internet, the proliferation of our home tongue, and the development of the sport’s amateur levels.

With events daily, hundreds of club teams, and cheap lodging aplenty, a young cyclist without the support of one of the NRS’ bigger teams may find 30 races over a few months’ stint in Belgium no more expensive or onerous a prospect than a comparable campaign in the NRS back home.

“So why am I staying?” I ask myself.

Setting sail for the lands of opportunity also means sacrifice; uprooting and leaving behind education, family and friends. It isn’t unusual for riders or their families to take out loans or credit-card debts to finance the exploits. The lifestyle is isolating and incompatible with almost any form of education, training or employment.

Some riders (like me) are lucky enough to have the support of trailblazing Australian pro teams. Drapac Professional Cycling, Huon Salmon - Genesys Wealth Advisors and Budget Forklifts support riders with professional logistics, support and racing. Our races are not yet considered to be of the European calibre that riders traditionally chase at great cost, but these teams are now enticing riders to stay home.

This year my team has dropped its European program for a more local focus, yet still attracted some of Australia’s most exiting talent. This is owed to the growing credibility of the Asian - and to a lesser extent Australian - calendar. Baby steps indeed, but it is a very novel development for riders like me, accustomed to traveling the world in pursuit of opportunity to consider finding it at home.

Perhaps in the future teams will no longer be forced to supplement Australian racing with Asian programs either. Some might flock to Australia for the same reasons they now venture north. With the globalisation of professional cycling, the traditional cycling ‘draft camp’ that is the European scene is beginning to spread across the globe and other centres will soon establish their place on the cycling world’s radar.

Cycling in Australia is reaching a turning point at a time where we can begin to show ourselves as an alternative development ground and hold onto more of our best talent. As the changes to the NRS calendar continue we can and should be taken increasingly more seriously. Aussie teams await the challenge of facing our foreign counterparts in UCI races on home soil and hope to be joined by more professional homegrown contenders.

I look forward to a time when we can switch on Australian TV to watch the most exciting Aussie riders in Australia’s classic races, on Australia’s pioneering teams. Hopefully this year domestic racing will take a step closer to such a reality.

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