Amidst the coronavirus crisis sweeping the globe, racing within Australia is laying low with an eye to returning with a bang in the latter half of 2020.
The news of an indefinite freeze on cycling came in much the same way as other sports, with initial confusion about the extent of the pandemic’s impact to a near immediate shutdown of sporting activities.
Now, teams and athletes are staying at home as hosted cycling club meets, National Road Series (NRS) races and carnivals are all indefinitely postponed.
Cycling Central caught up with some of Australian cycling’s main players to see how the racing scene, and the cyclists involved, might emerge after lockdown.
The Administrator - will funding exist to run events in 2020?
Races, carnivals and club meets are the mainstay of competitive cycling. The road is always there if you just want to ride, but without the infrastructure of clubs, state bodies, Cycling Australia, event organisers and teams, bike races wouldn’t happen.
One man who feels the pinch of the financial crisis accompanying the coronavirus is Lachlan Ambrose, CEO of Cycling South Australia (CSA) and team manager of NRS squad Butterfields-Insurance Advisernet.
“I think cycling is in a fairly good position compared to the other major codes in that we don’t have major financial sponsorship or gate fees,” said Ambrose, talking in terms of South Australia’s abilities to continue to host races.
“I never thought I’d say this! But our income isn’t dependent on key deliverables."
“You look at the AFL, as soon as they lose their TV rights they’re losing $300 million a year or whatever it is. Our income streams are a lot more stable.
“Events are a part of that but we probably won’t feel the impact of that until we hit the other side of winter. From September through to December, if we lose that period then we’ll be hurting a bit more.”
Cycling hits a hiatus during the Australian winter months: it’s less pleasant to ride and is a good time for budding stars of the future to try their hand in European, Asian or American racing blocks.
Ambrose highlighted his concerns with the economic flow-on effects onto an industry featuring cash-poor athletes struggling to make ends meet and teams without the budgets of high-profile Australian domestic sports or approaching anywhere near those of international squads.
He says this will impact memberships and ultimately the bottom line for CSA and their ability to provide benefits for a reduced pool of members.
“My concern is the other end,” said Ambrose, “where we’ve got younger uni students working casual jobs who no longer are, or older people who’ve had employment uncertainty and don’t have that disposable income coming out of the virus.
“That’s what going to hurt us more with participation levels and kids not signing up for memberships, not racing, which will make events harder to run.”
One of the problems with the economic downturn is there are going to be a lot of mouths that go unfed with there being less to go around.
“From a rescheduling perspective, I think we have to be careful as a sport not to try and jam too many events into the back end of the year," he said.
“You have to think about how many people are going to have financial uncertainty and how you need to schedule events that travel, race accommodation and entry fees don’t become too much for those people.
“It all flows on, if you have less people enter, the field sizes aren’t as good for racing and less people enter next time… also the numbers aren’t what they promised to the local council, so it compounds quickly.”
The High Performance Coach - racing in lockdown, and what the future holds
From a training perspective, cycling is in a relatively good position compared to most other sports. Aside from riding in a bunch, it is still possible to stick to most training regimes and scratch that racing itch on virtual cycling platforms like Zwift.
Stuart Shaw, high performance director for men’s and women’s squad ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast and coach of a number of the better young riders in Australia, outlined the problems some are facing mentally.
“Depending on where you are you can go out solo or with one other person,” said Shaw. “That’s where we’re in a decent spot, you can still be out and about and we’re lucky to be able to do that.”
“The ones that just ride for the racing, that’s tough without a timeline back to racing. For the ones that like riding for the sake of it, making it adventurous and fun, that’s easy to continue. We’ve been getting the guys out on mountain bikes, now just in ones or twos.”
While the team’s ambitions of racing in America and continuing early season success in Asia lie scuppered by the pandemic response, ARA-Pro Racing Sunshine Coast lost less than some other Australian teams who booked flights and accommodation for cancelled races like the Tour de Tochigi and the Tour of Thailand.
Those teams are now looking at gaps of thousands of dollars in their slim budgets.
“We were pretty lucky,” said Shaw. “There was sort of a bit of a hole there after Langkawi and the Sun Tour. We hadn’t put too much of an outlay into events, so nothing too bad.
“We’ve had a few meetings and things should be okay for the rest of the year, but the challenge will be 2021. Whether there will be enough teams to go forward with racing for a lot of these events.
“No one has a crystal ball to know when racing is going to come back, but we’re planning to be ready to go as soon as there is racing."
"We don’t want our riders to sit back and let it happen, we’re trying to be a bit more proactive and make it happen.”
The Sunshine Coast-based team is relatively stable in terms of sponsorship going forward, as are much of the Australian peloton, with GPM-Stulz, Team Bridgelane, Butterfields-Insurance Advisernet and St George Continental all saying in conversation with Cycling Central they are confident of their finances for the rest of 2020, and that situation continuing into 2021.
“We are relatively stable, but this is unprecedented,” said Shaw. “You can’t relax because nobody knows how this is going to affect all our sponsors and athletes until we come to that time.
"There’s going to be a big whip in the tail financially, so we have to work extra hard as a sport to make sure we’re not sitting around doing nothing.”
The Team Director - international racing dreams dashed
While many will be happy with a return to the road in Australia, a lot of teams’ models are based off racing overseas.
In women’s team Roxsolt-Attaquer’s case, they were looking forward to a Tour of Flanders start, but saw those dreams dashed. They’ve put in a big outlay for the 2020 season with team part-owner and manager Kelvin Rundle hoping that the UCI takes the situation into account into the future.
“We are currently ranked sixth in the world and hope the UCI give consideration to this as they determine 2021 rankings,” said Rundle.
“We also hope the UCI give consideration to reducing or rebating the team fees for 2021 as these are the two top issues for us in terms of stability and remaining a UCI team for 2021.
“With the decline of the Australian dollar to the Euro and if we don't receive any Pro or Women's WorldTour starts due to not being able to race and gain UCI points this will be the biggest impact.
"We may, due to travel restrictions, not be able to participate in any more UCI races this season. I really hope the UCI are mindful of the isolation of Australia when we come out of this.”
The Rider Agents - the pros in limbo
For rider agents like Jason Bakker (owner of Signature Sports / agent for the likes of Caleb Ewan) and Mark Isaacs (SEG International), who together represent a significant proportion of Australian men’s WorldTour talent, they’re taking a bigger picture view.
Bakker gave his reasoning, though stressed the crisis was constantly evolving.
“It's a situation out of everyone's control so the major first step is to reach acceptance of that and use the time wisely relevant to your position in the industry," he said.
“I don't see why there should be viability issues given the business model isn't directly related to broadcast revenue or gate receipts.
"What it will take is scheduling innovation when things become clearer and most importantly a lot of goodwill and good faith from commercial partners.”
Isaacs gave an insight into how forward planning was being executed for the future, but highlighted arguably the number one uncertainty in the cycling world; what will happen to the Tour de France?
“We've got a pretty good handle on how the teams are holding up, which most are doing ok,” said Isaacs.
“The transfer season will be super late this year, but the big teams are still looking forward to 2021 already - team structures, young talent, etc. I think the status of the Tour de France will have a big impact on teams’ budgets moving forward.”
Cycling Australia Head of Sport - the racing will go on
There will certainly be events, with Cycling Australia’s Head of Sport, Kipp Kaufmann confirming to Cycling Central they are actively looking into trying to ‘maximise racing opportunities later in the year without compromising the integrity of the limited time that might be available. While some races won’t go forward many will still occur.”
The other major point of agreement was the need to make smart decisions, though it’s all about striking the fine line between having something to look forward to on the return of the sport, and not over-committing towards an uncertain future.
These are just a part of the larger conversations happening within Australian racing currently. The major theme is one of cautious optimism, that most teams and riders will emerge through the other side of the crisis and get back to racing.