National teams in road cycling are an unusual thing.
In some sports, national teams constitute the primary vehicle for participation at high-level competition. In football, FIFA international breaks every few months provide opportunities for coaches to hone a finely-tuned unit between major competitions. In other cycling disciplines, meanwhile, appearances in national colours occur at reasonably regular intervals.
Not road cycling. Even the best rider will only represent their country six or seven times in a four-year cycle: annually at the world championships, quadrennially at the Olympics and possibly once at the Commonwealth Games or other regional events. Instead, members of the professional peloton spend the bulk of their season in trade team kit, which makes the annual world championships gathering particularly interesting.
“Getting the best out of a team is not just about the best individuals,” explains Cycling Australia performance director Simon Jones. “Selection is very complex. We look at quite a lot of factors – our selection criteria clearly include team cohesion. But that’s a broad statement and quite difficult to measure.”
With riders arriving for the world championships just a few days before their race, coaching staff need to be creative. “Building the team is part of the challenge for all national teams,” says Jones, formerly of Team Sky and British Cycling. “We don’t just start when we get here, we start immediately after we select them.
“We do that through engaging, having conference calls, talking about objectives and getting everyone around a common goal,” he says. “Our job is to get individuals to work as a team irrespective of their day jobs.”
For the riders, the change of scenery can be refreshing. “It is nice to come in and get to know other guys, it changes the environment,” says Jack Haig, who finished 19th in Sunday’s road race. “It makes it more special – racing with new guys, getting new ideas. Most of us are already good mates so it’s just fun to catch up.”
For riders who now live in Europe and spend 10 or 11 months of the year on the other side of the world to their homeland, putting on the green and gold has special significance.
“I don’t think most people realise quite how special it is when you change from trade team colours to Australian colours,” Haig continues. “Now that I don’t go back to Australia so much, it is nice to be in this environment and represent my country.”
Matt White offers an interesting perspective on the national team set-up. As Mitchelton-Scott’s chief sports director, he has to balance the Australian and professional aspirations of his riders. He has also been directly involved in the national team previously, both as a coach and a rider.
“It depends on the individual,” White explains when asked about the significance placed on the world championships. “Alejandro Valverde probably got the biggest result of his life [on Sunday]. It is a big event – it’s bigger than Paris-Roubaix, or any other one-day race. We have had guys in the past whose pro-racing has taken a back seat so they can get the best preparation for worlds.”
The timing of the world championships also adds a degree of complexity. “Worlds are not the last race of the season,” White continues. “It is an important race and a big part of a big end of the year. But racing goes after that, with Il Lombardia, then China and the Japan Cup.”
Mitchelton-Scott’s involvement with the world championships runs deeper than most teams, with the Australian-registered outfit loaning their bus, trucks and cars to Cycling Australia (for a fee). Several Mitchelton-Scott staff are also involved with the national team; the women’s head coach in Innsbruck, for example, was Gene Bates. “It just makes sense – they have to get vehicles from somewhere,” says White. “We are already there, our staff are already there.”
That might change in 2019. The UCI has announced that the trade teams’ team time trial, a highlight of the world championships schedule, will be replaced next year by a mixed team time trial for national teams. White does not approve.
“I think it is a big shame,” he says. “The team time trial was a great standalone event. It is a big part of our sport – it often features at the Tour de France, the Giro, the Vuelta. The changes for next year – I don’t agree with them.”
White suggests that the decision was motivated by the UCI’s decision to save pennies. “It is a financial decision,” he argues. “The teams cracked it because for three years in a row the world championships were in exotic places that cost the teams a lot of money. The teams weren’t happy with the subsidies we were getting.”
One benefit of the establishment and dramatic rise of Mitchelton-Scott has been the grouping of Australian riders within one trade team. Of the 15 elite riders in the Australian team in Innsbruck, six were drawn from Mitchelton-Scott.
“The national team is amazingly tight,” says one of them, Lucy Kennedy. “I was really surprised by how well we came together. There are three Mitchelton-Scott riders and then four from all different teams, so it was a bit unknown how that would work. But we really gelled.”
But while having Australian riders racing with each other week in, week out has certainly helped, national technical director Brad McGee insists that once in camp trade team loyalties are forgotten.
“This is the Australian cycling team,” declares the former Olympic gold medallist. “They are kitted in the Australian kit from breakfast to dinner, on the bike and off the bike. I couldn’t tell you off the top of my head what state or team each rider is from. Once we have made selections it is the Aussie team.”
McGee was a regular member of the national team during his own racing days, and has observed a noticeable improvement. “There has been a really strong culture built in the last 10 or 15 years,” he says. “I go back to the late 1990s when I was a member of the team and it has changed dramatically, particularly with the level of commitment the riders are making. It is not just another bike race, it’s the world championships.”
White, whose own national team career overlapped with McGee, agrees. “I used to love riding for Australia,” he exclaims. “When you look at medal tally, we have been one of the most successful nations in the past 15 years because we gel well as a team. We have a real sense of pride when riding for our country.”
The 2018 UCI Road World Championships were a good outing for the Australians, with Rohan Dennis’s rainbow jersey in the men’s individual time trial and a silver medal for Amanda Spratt in the women’s road race. But, says boss Jones, the work of he and his colleagues is not over yet.
“I have not met one Aussie who is not super proud to be part of the team,” he muses. “They want what is best for Australia. It is a unique situation but that’s part of our role – we’re not just engaging this week for the four days they are part of the team, but we want to engage throughout the season.
“Perhaps that’s something we need to do more of,” Cycling Australia’s performance director continues. “Bearing in mind people live all around the world, so many time zones, so many different disciplines. We know where we need to improve to create the optimum team culture.”