The key word in this headline is not young Aussie, or Chris Hamilton, or WorldTour, but NRS.
The National Road Series. Our National Road Series. Our domestic racing calendar that has produced the likes of Richie Porte, Nathan Haas, Steele Von Hoff, Jack Haig and now Hamilton, the current under-23 national road champion, who, from 2017 onwards, will ride for Giant-Alpecin for the next three seasons.
"As far as road cycling is concerned the NRS is as important as the Australian Institute of Sport. Hobble the NRS and you may well kill off finding our next Tour winner."
On January 14 this year, when Cycling Australia released its calendar, in some shape or form the 25th running of the NRS, its CEO Nicholas Green said "athletes racing in Australia have once again shown the world that we have a series here that rivals anything you will see overseas.
"I for one can't wait for the new season to start, and am really looking forward to getting out into regional Australia and witnessing the action first-hand."
Two-and-a-half months before Mr Green got out to watch the first men's event (if that's what he was actually planning to do), bad news broke. The Tour of Toowoomba, scheduled for 28 April-1 May and considered by many NRS teams to be one of the best-run races on the already truncated 2016 calendar (the men's and women's Adelaide Tours and the Tour of Goldfields had been scrapped from last year) and the only one in Queensland, was not going ahead. "There's been a drop-off in sponsorship dollars," Mac Stirling, president of Toowoomba Cycling Development, told SBS' Mike Tomalaris, calling the mindset of Cycling Australia "Victoria-centric". “We think strategically CA should be looking at a broader mandate.”
The men's NRS, down to nine events, would now start with the Grafton to Inverell, on May 7. To justify the expense of sending their riders across to the east coast, it was Cycling Australia's intention to aggregate Toowoomba, Grafton and the Battle on the Border into a three-week racing block. But on March 1, two months out from the new start date, Battle on the Border race director Mike Crawley told Cycling Central that when three teams told him they were pulling out, he would, too. "We were at a stage where we were just going to break even this year," he said, highlighting the tenuous set of financial circumstances NRS race organisers perennially find themselves under.
Bad got worse. On April 8, a third event, the Tour de Perth, originally slated for 10-12 June, informed Cycling Australia "they will not be running the event in 2016". "The loss of this and two other events in 2016, which were withdrawn from the calendar at the discretion of the promoter/owners, is reflective of the fragility that currently exits with the NRS Calendar," said Cycling Australia's general manager of sport, Darren Harris.
The first half of the year was supposed to have 11 race days for the men. Instead they got one, Avanti IsoWhey Sport's Patrick Lane winning the Grafton to Inverell.
Both Tour of Toowoomba and Battle on the Border organisers plan to make a return in 2017. No news from the Tour de Perth.
On June 11 last year, Cycling Australia announced they would conduct an audit into the NRS. They did nothing till January this year, then, a day before it was scheduled, cancelled a meeting with team managers and owners during the road nationals. "It wasn't even on to be honest, so it was a bit of an error in the program," Mr Green told RIDE in a February 9 story. "We're going to commence (the review) in six days," he added.
"It will take six months to do a review, with a view to implementing the changes in 2017."
Well, it's been six months. No word from Cycling Australia.
From a initial 34 days' racing, the men are down to 24. For the women, a paltry 18 days. Next up for the men is the Tour of Gippsland (31 August-4 September), followed by the National Capital Tour (16-18 September), Tour of Tasmania (1-6 October) and Melbourne to Warrnambool (15 October). The women have Amy's Otway Classic (10-11 September) and the National Capital Tour, held concurrently with the men's race.
In the four-year cycle leading to the Rio Games, the Australian Sports Commission (ASC) allocated $34.1 million to cycling - the second highest-funded sport behind swimming ($37.9M) - as part of its contentious 'Winning Edge' program, channelling cash to those sports with a (supposedly) high chance of bringing home a medal. Across all disciplines - road, track, mountain-bike and BMX - Australia walked away with one silver (men's team pursuit) and one bronze (women's keirin). "Some sports require major change; cycling would be a good example of that," Simon Hollingsworth, CEO of the ASC, told the ABC's 7.30 program Friday night.
Given the calibre of competition at the Olympics, our population size, and the fact that other nations have caught up in terms of funding, coaching and sports science, I reckon Australia's athletes did alright. Tenth on the medal tally is not so much a failure or disappointment, but probably where we belong. But careers are not made at a once-in-four-year event. No, careers are made well before that, at grassroots: finding those diamonds in the rough, polishing them, pushing them, and getting them to the point where they can survive and thrive at a World Cup, world championship, Olympic Games, or Tour de France. Cycling Australia cannot be blamed for the way ASC allocates its funds, but as the body representing our sport, they could lobby the ASC into apportioning a percentage of funding into areas such as talent identification.
Without adequate investment in programs like the National Road Series and the track, MTB and BMX equivalents, there will be no careers. Or gold medals. As far as road cycling is concerned the NRS is as important as the Australian Institute of Sport. "The NRS has been the most important series in the development of my riders and it has been the starting point to many top professional riders' careers," Andrew Christie-Johnson, Avanti IsoWhey Sport team manager and the man behind the careers of Porte, Haas, Von Hoff, Haig and now Hamilton, said at the start of the year. Hobble the NRS and you may well kill off finding our next Tour winner.
Nick Green should remember that, then, before it crumbles further, get on with restoring the series to what it used to be.