After a calamitous 2016, which saw a number of races organisers pull out their events from being run. That led to a dearth of competition for Australian teams and riders with the women reduced to racing a paltry 18 days for the year and 24 for the men. I spoke to Cycling Australia (CA) General Manager for Sport, Darren Harris, about the 2017 season.
“It was a testing time last season,” said Harris. “There were a number of events that didn’t go ahead with races like (the Tour of) Toowoomba and Battle on the Border pulling out late. (In response to that) we made some changes this year, we’re getting formalised legal commitments from the race organisers and that will ensure more certainty in the calendar going forward.”
Event organisers appear to have gotten little in addition from CA in return for signing legally binding deals as opposed to the arrangements in previous seasons.
“Cycling Australia provides the running of the overall NRS and the connection with the broadcast partners, which gives the race and sponsors that much more exposure than they would otherwise get.”
Whether the certainty in having a signed agreement on the table helps, the changes made by CA in preparation for this season appear to have enticed more event promoters back to the fold.
There will now be 33 race days for the men and 25 for the women in an expanded schedule for next year.
The biggest highlight is the return of the Goulburn-Sydney, with the 110th edition of the storied one-day race being run in 2012. It will now to be run in the opposite direction as the Camden-Goulburn. The race had previously been plagued by safety concerns by the teams for the riders on the Hume Highway, where the traffic posed significant risk. Harris spoke on that point during the interview.
“I know that Phil Ayres (Cycling NSW CEO) has done a significant amount of scouting of the course, as it was a big issue a few years ago when the safety concerns were first raised. There are back roads that you can take but there’s a 6 kilometre stretch of the Hume that is unavoidable so there will have to be some management of that.”
Other additions include former Victorian Road Series races, the Tour of East Gippsland and the Tour of the South West, whilst Western Australia will also see some racing as the Tour of Margaret River takes on NRS status. Two of the highest profile events of the season, Amy’s Otway Tour and the Melbourne to Warrnambool will run races for both the men and the women next year.
The most notable absences from the schedule are the Santos Womens Tour, run just before the Tour Down Under and the women’s Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. Both saw significant interest from larger overseas teams last year and in reality they weren’t races where the NRS riders were challenging for the win consistently.
“It’s one of the downsides of growing races like the Santos Womens Tour and Cadels so quickly into popular events, but obviously it does a lot of very good things for the sport with bigger racing and more exposure.”
“Speaking with the teams at the moment, we’re getting the team sign-up portal open now and we’ve done work in optimising the administration side of things. It’s not sexy, but the feedback we’re getting from the teams so far is one of positiveness.”
There were a few disappointments in the schedule, with events like the Tour of Toowoomba and Tour de Perth expected to come on the scene despite not being run last season. The Tour of Toowooba in particular will be missed, with many considering the John Osbourne-run event to be consistently one of the best throughout the year.
"We put out the word to all the event organisers that we have dealt with in the past and the state bodies, we can only work with those that put their hands up to run races," said Harris.
Many teams have opted to do a significant amount of racing outside Australia in recent years, with many racing in lower level UCI races in Asia, the USA and Europe, not only in the search for higher quality fields but simply to get enough race days for their riders to have a proper season. On the women’s scene, individuals often have to make their own way to find racing and it’s not unusual for riders to have three or four teams that they race with during the course of a season.
Part of the concern of riders and teams alike was the late release of the schedule for the 2017 season, with the Australian summer of racing starting in earnest in little over a month and teams having to convince sponsors to sign on with little certainty over what level of exposure they could guarantee with the events they would be racing next year.
The expansion of the NRS for 2017 is unlikely to change those problems immediately, but the steps taken appear to be in the right direction.
2017 National Road Series Proposed Calendar:
Tour of East Gippsland 18-19 February VIC Women
Battle on the Border 29 April - 1 May Nth NSW Men & Women
Tour of South West 6-7 May VIC Women
Mersey Valley Tour 12-14 May TAS Women
Grafton Inverell 13 May 2017 NSW Men
Tour of the Great South Coast 26-30 July 17 VIC & SA Men
Tour of the King Valley 25-27 August 17 VIC Men & Women
Camden to Goulburn 10 September 2017 NSW Men
Amy's Otway Tour 16-17 September 17 VIC Men & Women
National Capital Tour 22-24 September 17 ACT Men & Women
Melbourne to Warrnambool 14 October 2017 VIC Men & Women
Tour of Gippsland 18-22 October 17 VIC Men
Tour of Margaret River 10-12 November 17 WA Men & Women
Tour of Tasmania 17-22 November 2017 TAS Men
Tour of Goldfields TBC VIC Women