With a ninth Tour de Langkawi in the bag, Anthony Tan’s thankful he was only saying goodbye, and not farewell, to a stalwart of the Aussie cycling scene last Sunday.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:36 PM

With a ninth Tour de Langkawi in the bag, Anthony Tan's thankful he was
only saying goodbye, and not farewell, to a stalwart of the Aussie
cycling scene last Sunday.

After the Tour de Langkawi finished in
Kuala Lumpur and I bid Jayco-Skins team manager Brian Stephens adieu
outside the famous Shah Alam mosque, it dawned on me I was also saying
goodbye to a largely unsung hero of Australian cycling.

You see,
after nearly two decades as national under-23 men's coach, travelling
with the boys each year to their European base in Italy which becomes
their home away from home for the next six months or so, sharing their
highs, providing a shoulder to lean – and occasionally, cry – on during
their lows, and grooming what we perennially hope to be the next big
thing, Stephens has decided to take a step back, and hand over the
reigns to James Victor.

While his brother Neil received the
majority of the limelight during his years as a pro and still does to a
certain extent, it is Brian's indefatigable nature and unrequited
selflessness that has provided the foundation for the likes of Robbie
McEwen, Michael Rogers and Allan Davis, among many others, to realise
what was once just a boyhood dream.

"I don't really like handing
them over," he said, "but the first family comes first."

Stephens
told me that so long as Victor, a former national women's road coach
and para-cycling head coach, continues to get one or two young guns
signed up to the ProTour each year, his job is done.

"You'd like
them all to go to ProTour teams, but there's just not the places. We
can't get them all to that standard to catch the attention of ProTour
teams," Stephens said.

"But I think if we can keep one or two a
year going in – the last year was three, which is excellent – we can
keep the flow of Aussies going to the ProTour, and keep the Australians
up there in the international scene. You got to be happy with that – you
can't just get them all through."

Asked if he's satisfied with
what the Aussies are achieving given the level of funding and in light
of Britain's 'Olympic Podium Program' that seems to boast coffers of
gold, Stephens offered a mixed response – and outlines just how
important an Australian-backed ProTour team is to our future ability to
compete.

"We're never going to match them [the British]
funding-wise; we just have to be smarter about what we do. They're doing
quite a good job at the moment, but we're going to keep trying to take
it to 'em," he said.

"I think the big step that they've made –
which we've been trying to do for quite a while – is a ProTour team. And
I think we've got to keep working in that direction, because that's the
missing link at the moment.

"It's a place that these [Under-23]
guys can be directed towards, and so that we can keep control of our
good riders, rather than put them in the ProTour teams – which is great,
but then we're at the mercy of the ProTour directors, and what they
want to do with the guys."

I didn't clarify those last remarks
with him, but after what cycling's been through the past decade, I
couldn't help wonder if Stephens was alluding to the dreaded possibility
of an Australian rider returning a positive drug test result at the
Tour de France – which, touch wood, has not happened yet.

If
Australia had its own ProTour team, said Stephens, we could have guys
directed towards success at the Olympic Games, guys focused on the track
and road, and guys focused more on the track or road.

In short, a
lot more control.

And what of this relative unknown from
Canberra, Michael Matthews, who returned to Oz with two stage wins from
Langkawi? Is he a once-in-a-decade rider, in the vein of a Mick Rogers
or an Alby Davis?

"I think he fits right into that category,"
Stephens replied.

"The fact that he's got so many strings to his
bow… I wouldn't call him a superstar sprinter and he's probably more a
time trialer, but he can climb a bit, he can get on the front… so he's
just got a lot of strings to his bow and I think he just needs to keep
all those things going – [it] makes him a valuable rider."

According
to the Cycling Australia Web site, Brian now has the title of "AIS U23
Men's Road Coach".

For Australia's sake, thank God I was only
saying goodbye, and not farewell to him last Sunday.