I came into the three days of racing in the ACT with the intention of writing a piece that would capture the imagination of those that hadn't been exposed to racing at a local level, to promote the sport that I love and has been suffering from a lack of support and funding from Cycling Australia (CA).
Things aren't that simple however, and in the end there were three key takeaways from the weekend.
The level of racing is almost always worthy of hype in the NRS and it was no exception at the race in Canberra where half the field has either raced UCI events in the past or have the potential to do so in the future.
For example, the men’s field completed Stage 3 of the race at an average of 50 km/hr and even then there were attacks going off the front and a nail-biting finish with two late attackers, Ben Hill (Attaque Team Gusto) and Anthony Giacoppo (Avanti IsoWhey Sports) only caught within the final 400 metres.
The moment of the Tour came in the women’s final stage. Two breakaway riders desperately trying to hold off the peloton in the final kilometre when Rebecca Wiasak (High5 Dreamteam) attacked out the bunch to get across to the leaders, then kicked again to sprint her way to victory.
Hair-raising moments like that are amplified by the proximity that you have to the riders. For those of you who have only known cycling through watching on TV, it’s very accessible. Riders find each other afterwards and swap stories from out on the road, talk tactics, congratulate each other and mingle with spectators.
I always enjoy the impromptu conversations that you have with people who all share a passion for cycling. From subjects as wide-ranging as Orica-BikeExchange’s performance to the calf definition of Robert Stannard (Mobius Future Racing, a young rider whose name it’s well worth noting), you can pick up a conversation with almost anyone and get an opinion.
The stories of the athletes on the local scene are a lot more relatable as well, there are the youngsters who’ve known little else than professional sport, but there are also riders like Jake Kauffmann (Subaru NSWIS) who converted over from rugby, works as a builder and always makes seemingly suicidal solo moves. Lisen Hockings (Holden) who came to racing at the age of 36, is an anaesthetist and is far too self-deprecating about her achievements in becoming the NRS individual champion.
Put those characters alongside the volunteers, sponsors and staff who commit time and money to the sport they love and you have something very special.
Money, money, money, or lack of it
It’s fair to say that the National Road Series is having a bad news year. Numerous events have been cancelled, riders who want to develop to higher levels have got nowhere near enough race days to do so without having to fund their way to go overseas and race. The promised review process by CA is taking a long time to complete and with criticism coming in over social and mainstream media, there has been no response.
CA appear to have adopted a strategy of not engaging with negative press or getting into arguments publicly, but the difficulty with that approach is there is little outward difference between that and appearing to not support or care about the NRS at all.
I’ll preface this second point by saying the organisers of the National Capital Tour on the whole did a good job. Traffic management on a budget isn’t easy. Riding around central Canberra on completely closed roads was one of the smoothest experiences that I’ve seen at a race.
Unfortunately, a series of errors and poor communication marred the event. The worst was a surprise announcement of no prize money, with teams informed only the night before the race.
With the majority of riders on no money and teams having to get by on a shoestring budget, even the modest few thousand dollar prize pool that is usually on offer over the entire race is enough to make everyone feel that the effort is worth their while.
Another was the extra lap run on the women’s second stage. Mistakes happen, but the worst of it was that no one later took responsibility for the error, giving the race a disappointingly slapdash look.
The smaller the stakes the bigger the fight
Perhaps the most revealing point of note over the three days of racing was observing how everyone is fighting for their own interests within the sport.
While everyone ultimately has the good of the sport at heart, conversations about the way forward for the NRS were heavily influenced by the interests of the organisations they were affiliated with.
It’s born out the structure of cycling, each team owner, director and race organiser has their own pet project that they’ve had to push hard in order to ensure it’s survival in a competitive sport.
In that context, it’s a requirement, but when you are talking about growing the sport for everyone, there needs to be more cohesion.
If local cycling is to move closer to the spotlight in Australia, it will take a coming together of the community.