Robert Merkel is a cycling tragic who dreams of one day repeating his glorious summit victory in the local D-grade club criterium. In his spare time, he is a lecturer at an Australian university.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM

Cadel Evans is an unbackable favourite to fill his bulging trophy
cabinet a little further at the 2011 Australian Cyclist of the year
awards on Friday, writes our guest columnist, Robert Merkel.

But as Australia's cycling establishment gathers to
recognize the year's achievements, it's worth pausing for a moment to
note what an anomaly Evans represents in Australia's more than 100 years
of cycling tradition.

Tour de France winners are obviously the
rarest of breeds. But champion Australian road cyclists have become
increasingly common. Australians have won stage after stage in Grand
Tours for over a decade now.

Mick Rogers' three World
Championships against the clock. Stuart O'Grady has won the toughest
one-day race of all, Paris-Roubaix, and Matt Goss won the sprinters'
monument, Milan-San Remo - an achievement that in any other year would
have earned him the Oppy.

Robbie McEwen and Baden Cooke, at
their sprinting peak, were two of the fastest men in the world. In the
women's peloton, Kathy Watt and Sara Carrigan's Olympic gold medals
represent a proud record.

However, to the extent cycling
captures the imagination of the broader Australian sporting public, it
is primarily through the Tour de France.

Without Cadel Evans,
however, Australia's achievements at the business end of that race, or
indeed any other grand Tour, would be very thin on the ground. Phil
Anderson's Tour fifth places, and the 2010 Giro D'Italia of Matthew
Lloyd and Richie Porte - all fine accomplishments, but hardly at the
same level as our exploits on flatter terrain. So why are there so many
outstanding Australian sprinters, and so few climbers?

Rather than lack of the raw material, it's my belief that Australia's elite cycling culture plays a considerable part.

Australia's
cycling establishment, with the prodding of millions of dollars of
Olympics-based funding, has built one of the world's most efficient
sporting development pipelines. Its purpose? To identify, nurture and
develop brilliant track cyclists, many of whom later go on to become
road time-trialists or sprinters. Diminuitive GC riders, whose light
weight is almost meaningless on the track, aren't a priority.


Australia's domestic road scene is similarly biased towards powerful,
heavier flatland riders. The annual chorus of complaints about the
Australian Road Cycling Championships course ignores the fact that it is
virtually the only national-level event where climbing prowess matters.


Aside from the revived Herald-Sun Tour and the Arthur's Seat
climb, the only other national-level race with a mountain-top finish is
Stage 2 of the Mersey Valley Tour, a low-profile race with a small, thin
field. Australia's biggest one-day classics, too, are races for hardmen
and sprinters rather than climbers.

And now, we have
GreenEdge, the logical endpoint for a cycling establishment geared so
much to sprinters. The entire roster is geared to dragging any one of
their half a dozen sprinters to the line.

A logical progression
from our historic strengths as a cycling nation? Sure. A way to win a
lot of races, if not necessarily high-profile ones? Without doubt. A
good pathway for the next Cadel Evans, should there be one among our
hugely talented crop of young riders? That's a stretch.


GreenEdge is, of course, a private organization whose backers can pursue
whatever strategy they deem the best use of their dollar. But, given
its intimate ties with Cycling Australia and its talent development
pathway, I have to wonder whether Australia's cycling establishment are
focusing even more narrowly on track riders who become flatland fast men
and women.

This is not to denigrate the wonderful achievements
of our track teams, nor those who follow in the footsteps of the likes
of McEwen and O'Grady.

But I wonder if a little bit more care
and feeding of our young mountain goats - with some specialized coaching
and a few more national-level races where they have a chance to shine -
might just help to find that next special talent who dances up the
impossible slopes, while the flatlanders grind away in the grupetto.