The NRS has lost seven events over the last two seasons, slimming a competition which was once considered a fertile ground for the development of talent to a place where those that have ambitions to race at a higher level need to supplement their calendar with racing in the US, Asia or lower level races in Europe.
In an interview with RIDE in early January at the Australian road nationals, some six months after the initial press release Cycling Australia CEO Nicholas Green talked about the review process.
“We’ve had a new person start on (11 January),” said Green, “so we’ve promised all the owners of the teams in the NRS and all the races a review of the National Road Series which will commence early 2016, as well as a communication on the 2016 season. We’re going to commence in six days.”
“It will take six months to do a review, with a view to implementing the changes in 2017.”
Some nine months later there has been progress made in the form of a high-level ‘Working Party’ which was made up of people across the spectrum of the sport, including team managers, owners, race directors, commissaires, representatives from cycling bodies and Cycling Australia officials.
One member of the Working Party is Avanti IsoWhey Sports team director Andrew Christie-Johnston, who gave his thoughts on the process.
“The group was put together to try and look at where the NRS is, the faults that it has had and where we go in the future,” said Christie-Johnston. “There’s been a few meetings over the phone and a catch-up in Melbourne and it allowed everyone to express their views on where they thought it should go and some of the issues.”
However, the positive momentum was halted with the Rio Olympics occupying many of the key management within CA and the pace of potential reform has seemingly slackened.
“I thought that it was a pretty reasonable process at the time, a few months ago now, but over the last couple of months, it has basically stalled. There hasn’t been a lot done since then, we got to a certain point and now we’re looking at nothing being done."
“I can understand with these things that you have to multitask and obviously there’s been a lot of focus on the Olympics with some of the people involved not available, but nothing has really progressed in the last two months. There were some good points and discussions and we need CA to get back into it and keep moving forward.”
There are ideas aplenty within the cycling community about how to improve the presentation of the sport to the public and achieve greater growth within the NRS, but Christie-Johnston was clear that it needed to be backed by significant investment to really see a tangible outcome.
“I think the board of CA needs to make a decision on how much they are going to spend on the NRS and how important it is to them. They’ve said it’s important, we’ve heard that but at the end of the day, it’s just words and ideas and you have to have the money behind them.”
“Cycling Australia has a large budget (just over $19 million in revenue last year), they’ll probably say that it’s not that large. We need to refocus on where to invest the money maybe away from things like the Olympics to the NRS where we already develop a lot of top level athletes and have the potential to grow the talent pool even more, which will help us at that next level as well.”
“At the moment the funding seems based on hoping we do well in the Commonwealth Games, Worlds and then the Olympics, and hopefully our professional riders do well overseas so the public turns on the TV for maybe one month to watch the Tour de France, but then that interest is lost.”
Cycling certainly does see a drop off in mainstream interest and viewership outside the Tour de France and even fairly dedicated cycling viewers who tune in across all the WorldTour races have little idea of what is happening at the local level of the sport.
“What we need to do is get the sport to a point where the people can come out and see high-level racing in Australia and become passionate about it and develop that passionate following that other sports have. Until we have that, I think we’ll struggle to be viewed as a professional sport."
Jon Leighton, owner of JML Racing and president of Bicycling NSW was also a part of the Working Party and was keen to put ideas on the table for how to engage the populace.
“When you look at the other major sports, they are all close to population centres. When you look at what happened to the A-League a variety of ethnic teams became one team in each city so a key event in each of the major cities that engages the commercial sponsors and the cycling fan base.
“That’s potentially solved by having a Friday night criterium around the city, then the next day might start in the city, but it would be out on the roads that could be more easily closed. There does need to be a part of the event that engages the populace.”
“This stuff won’t be in place by 2017, seeing as were discussing it in the second half of 2016, but more looking at implementation down the line from 2018 to 2020.”
Overall frustration at the slowness of the review process and the lack of communication by CA about the 2017 season is a consistent theme of conversations with team directors at NRS events. Kelvin Rundle, owner and team director of Roxsolt Ladies Team, summed up the general frustration whilst at the Tour of King Valley in August.
“I will spend about 80 thousand getting everything prepared for the season and riders will probably spend about four to five thousand themselves throughout the year and we’re getting no direction from CA about the 2017 season. For example, it’s about now that I have to talk to sponsors about TT bikes, skinsuits and helmets and we don’t know if there will be any time trial bikes used next year.”
When reached for comment Cycling Australia responded, “Cycling Australia is committed to staging an NRS series in 2017 but will not be commenting on the review until it has been completed.”
With the review process stretching on and on, the only thing that is clear there is very little in the way of certainty for teams, race organisers and sponsors trying to prepare for the 2017 NRS season.