• Brendan Johnston (R) finished third for the plucky amateur team Stitch & Dart at the Melbourne to Warrnambool (Con Chronis)
My recent story about amateur team Stitch & Dart’s Melbourne to Warrnambool performance against Australia’s best NRS riders struck a nerve. To facilitate further discussion, I sat down with a couple of local cycling stalwarts including Stitch & Dart’s Tommy Nankervis to find out what they believe needs changing in Australian cycling now and put their ideas to Cycling Australia.
By
Craig Fry

22 Mar - 2:16 PM  UPDATED 22 Mar - 3:25 PM

How an amateur wildcard team mixed it with the NRS teams in the 2019 M2W
Lots of little stories unfold in each edition of Australia’s oldest one-day classic including the main game, Nick White's victory. But one with possibly wider ramifications also unfurled out on the roads between Avalon and Warrnambool.

The small number who objected to my piece publicly either disagreed with the claims made by Stitch & Dart rider Nankervis about the race tactics of some teams or dismissed the article as disingenuous and harmful to Australian cycling.

But there were others who agreed with the claims including key cycling officials and people close to the race who expressed support privately to me. Other influential people also publicly backed Nankervis, including Scott McGrory – the current Warrnambool Classic Race Director.

Outside social media, Cycling Australia and the Warrnambool Citizen’s Road Race Committee also discussed the Nankervis interview and the issues it highlighted for the Warrnambool classic specifically, and domestic road racing in general. It appears key Australian cycling officials and other decision-makers are prepared to consider even critical views, which can only be a positive thing for the future.

To facilitate further discussion, I sat down with Nankervis and Marcel Lema – another stalwart of Australian cycling* - to nail down the immediate issues they believe need solving now plus their ideas and recommendations. 

I also put these ideas to Cycling Australia’s CEO Steve Drake and General Manager-Sport Kipp Kaufmann, and include their responses. 

 

Changes needed in Australian road racing now - the "Nankervis-Lema manifesto’

Nankervis and Lema want to offer positive recommendations for the future and are keen to see more debate around ideas to restore what they see as the loss of Australia’s racing culture. They support Cycling Australia, pointing to recent leadership appointments and changes to the domestic road race calendar as positive moves for the sport.

“We’re extremely happy to have the passion, professionalism, and cycling knowledge of Steven Drake and Duncan Murray at the helm,” Nankervis said.

“These guys know what it’s going to take, and if we can have them overseeing cycling for the next 5-10 years we’re going to have an amazing cycling culture here in Australia.”

In essence, the ‘Nankervis-Lema manifesto’ encapsulates three key ideas for the future – a national forum on road racing, consideration of the European kermesse model, and a proposed national points system for all road races. 

National Forum

Marcel Lema believes Cycling Australia needs a vision of what they want the cycling culture and racing to be, and a clear plan for how to get there.

“We’ve got two competing things here now,” he argued. “You’ve got the question of what racing is, or what our racing culture is. And then you’ve got the NRS teams who are bringing money into Cycling Australia.”

“What I think is happening at the moment is the money and profile we’re trying to get from the NRS teams is overshadowing the culture of racing,” explained Lema. “I think there should be a better balance. We need the teams, but we also need good racing. If the good racing dies, what’s left for the sport?”

“If Cycling Australia want to address these issues and make domestic road racing stronger, they need to get all the clubs, the NRS teams, all the heads of cycling into a room, lock the door and say ‘Where are we taking the sport of cycling, and racing in this country?’

Cycling Ausralia's response:

For Drake and Cycling Australia it’s a question of feasibility and focus. “How would you hold that, and who would you invite?” he asked. “You’ve got 218 CA clubs, and you’ve got however many NRS teams…there’s a question of practicality.” 

“It comes to what problem are you trying to solve, because there are a series of them,” Drake said. “If you’re trying to talk about club level racing, then that’s not really a dialogue you need to have with the NRS teams. If you’re talking about racing format, that’s predominantly an infrastructure discussion. Because it’s about where can we actually race? And that ends up being a state based discussion not a national one,” he added.

Drake also points to the limitations of the current model of cycling administration in Australia, in terms of CA maintaining open communication with the clubs. “At the moment we have a federated model, so the primary link to the clubs is the states. That’s one of the problems of the federated model,” he said.

But the CA CEO appears comfortable with where the organisation is placed currently with stakeholder engagement. “We’re talking to people all the time…we’re living and breathing this every day” he said. “We will aim to lead the system based on the conversations we’re having every day.”

Kaufmann agrees. “We’re trying to align with the states more, working together to complement the states,” he said. “We’re taking a leadership role with the states and clubs with that racing element…and we’re starting to see more of that working together now.”

The European kermesse model

One idea Lema and Nankervis want considered at a national forum is an alternative model of racing to supplement the current emphasis on stage races. They believe a suitable candidate is the kermesse style races of Belgium and the Netherlands.

“In Belgium and Holland, they have a mountain of crits and kermesses all year,” Nankervis said. “You’ll even get amateur races of around 120km attracting 100 or so riders in multiple locations on the same day, with team cars and feeders for the team and so on. They’re creating these racers who are becoming really good winners.”

“England is doing it as well,” adds Nankervis. “They've got their nocturnal crit series, and then they do a bunch of road races. There’s no question their country is moving ahead in leaps and bounds in road racing.”

Nankervis believes the kermesse model would elevate the quality of racing here in Australia.

“The racing there is just ON,” Nankervis explains. “They race each other, and try and beat their teammates, because they have a set prize pool that pays from 1st to 30th, and in the bigger races 30th to 50th also get money.”

By comparison, Nankervis sees the Australian emphasis on multi-day stage racing as unsustainable.

“If you do a stage race, especially the point-to-point stuff, the amount of people that have to come to support you probably equals the riders doing the race,” he argues.

“And when you have commitments in life you can’t do a one-week stage race with no prize money, or without a team. But one thing everyone can do is rock up to a kermesse…it starts and finishes in the same place. You can travel as a group of four mates. You can race, and if you get dropped you can get back in your car and support, and you can see the start and finish of the race, and be a part of it.”

Apart from better quality domestic racing, Nankervis also wants to see more riders able to make a small living off the sport through prize money.

“It’s not right that only the top few guys can win prize money in Australia’s most prestigious one day classic,” he said. “Once that money is split between the team riders, I am almost certain the entry fee would barely be covered, let alone travel and accommodation costs.”

“If we stopped paying just top three, and were paying 30 deep if you want to get more prize money you have to get more teammates up there, like five in the top ten, that kind of thing. Then the guys not in teams also have a good chance to make money.”

Lema agrees alternative sustainable racing models should be considered in Australia.

“We have to look at those European models, and try to make it happen,” he argued. “It’s not going to happen by itself. At the moment the model we’ve chosen is to focus on the NRS teams, which is ridiculous in Australia because most of these riders are not getting paid."

Cycling Australia's response: 

Drake is sympathetic to the kermesse model.

“We don’t disagree…the kermesse style is great," he said. “Our main concern though is the transition of the NRS to that kind of world. We can’t say to existing race promoters, sorry you’ve got to take your race format and completely flip it, because there’s there’s just not enough resources in the system to do that. So we have to try to transition, and we also have to try to be efficient.”

“Our overall view is it would be much better if we could run on shorter circuits because its better from a spectator point of view, the road closure costs are likely to be cheaper, the marshalling costs are lower etc,” Drake added.

“But the real issue is how we secure access to infrastructure to ensure those events can actually happen. Over time, whether it’s Cycling Victoria or the clubs or whoever, we need to work harder to continue to secure access to courses, because this issue is not going to go away.

"Those kinds of stressors that are fundamentally linked to population growth and the size of the city are going to continue. We’re very focused on them. It’s something that ultimately is one of our key drivers behind the push to unify the sport around One Cycling, to improve the efficiency of the system to provide these kind of services.”

For Drake then, it’s ultimately a question of the ability to secure approvals for appropriate courses to race on.

“So when you talk about race formats, the first thing you should be talking about is have we got access to the infrastructure to change the race formats,” he argued.

“One of the things that cycling bodies, riders, and clubs have made the mistake with in the past is to assume that we would always have the right to race on the roads. So the work hasn’t been done in most states to ensure there are those sorts of courses and facilities.

Club-based national road race points system

Nankervis and Lema also strongly believe local cycling clubs are the main vehicle for growth in road racing yet don't receive a lot of support from Cycling Australia.

“Cycling Australia is currently not actively building the base of road racing in Australia,” Lema explains. “The clubs have shouldered most of the responsibility of developing the young riders, and most of the NRS team riders are bred and developed through the clubs,” he points out. “But the clubs get the least support.”

“The clubs are putting on more racing…than all the combined NRS, and bringing in all the membership fees, developing the juniors etc. So where’s the return coming back to the clubs?” Lema asked.

Lema thinks Cycling Australia should look at a government and corporate supported pool of annual funding clubs can all put in for, to support junior and other quality racing. But he believes he has an even bigger vision that could shift the culture of Australian racing, increase participation, and help build the financial sustainability of the sport.

“I’m a big advocate for a national points series for everyone, where you gain points for every race in the nation, including club races, and where all the races are ranked,” he said. “That way, riders could be ranked in a national system, which would mean if say you’re a guy in a team and you keep letting your teammates win, because you’re happy sitting in the bunch, you’re not getting any points, so your ranking will slip,” Lema explained.

Lema thinks a points system would make racing attractive to more riders, by rewarding both participation and results.

“We’ve got to incentivise and reward the riders who are racing,” he argued. “We need to be able to say, ‘Right, you've raced 20 times this year and you’ve accumulated a third, a second, a fifth, and points for starting – so you got 200 points.”

“I think that would change the way people think about their racing, where for example the guys in teams will start getting pushed by others if they’re not racing much or not racing to win in the races they do enter. It will cause a shift in the culture of racing,” Lema argued.

Nankervis agrees. “We don’t get many NRS riders at any of the club races at the moment. Many of them are skipping the local racing. I don’t know if they don't want to be found out, or if they have specific training they have to do, but if you want to be a racing cyclist the name of the game is racing and winning,” he said.

Both Nankervis and Lema think the current participation issue in Australian road racing is impacting the quality of racing, and in turn the prospects of younger riders.

“You’ve got to wonder what’s happening to the sport where guys are willing to take out a $300 licence, then train all year just to do two or three club races, and get an Instagram photo.” said Lema.

Nankervis is much clearer about the outcome.

“It means they don’t know how to race. And their coaches are not necessarily experienced racers, so they don't tell them how to race either,” he said.

“This is where a national points system might change things,” said Nankervis. “What it would aim to do is get more people to the races again, for a national ranking that means something. It could easily be coordinated by Cycling Australia. All the club race results are recorded and published every week anyway,” he added.

Cycling Australia's response: 

It is a view Drake shares, and he confirmed Cycling Australia is moving towards implementing such a system over the next 18 months.

“It’s the fundamental part of the new membership system we’re building,” Drake explained.

“What we do want clubs to do is report race results into Entry Boss, and that will allow us to have all the race data, and we will be able to produce a ranking. We will be able to have a D Grade national champion in theory. It will encourage people to race. That’s something that’s in the pipeline.”

Cycling Australia GM-Sport Kipp Kaufmann said “That system will go from end to end, so a national calendar all the way to a national database of results where the customer will be able to be better serviced. Parts of that are starting to roll out and it’s pretty exciting what will happen over the next 12 to 18 months. We will soon release the details of that to the clubs, probably in the next week.”

Doubts and hopes

Not everyone will like their ideas and Nankervis and Lema readily admit easy solutions are unlikely for the challenges they see today; they’re both realistic. And Nankervis admits to having moments of doubt.

“I wonder every time we talk about this stuff if we’re just the old fuddy-duddy’s who have no idea, and we’re just trapped in a time warp,” he said.

“But from the outside, it truly doesn’t seem like we’re currently in a good place for up and coming riders to develop and prosper as a top racing cyclist,” he added. “At the moment we don’t have a marketable product with our racing due to the tactics, location of races, and lack of media exposure.”

“We used to be a nation of true racers,” he observed. “It used to be one of the main reasons Australia produced such talent – that aggressive win-at-all-costs mentality…it all began with quality local and state level racing.”

“I’m 36, and I was lucky to see the tail end of the golden period we had in Australian racing. Marcel was actually there, and he lived and breathed it. We both just want to see those days return.”

Fortunately, it appears Cycling Australia wants that too. But the focus of their strategy is different – bigger picture thinking befitting their role.

Drake believes real change will only come if his organisation can “treat the disease, not just the symptoms.”

“Infrastructure and cycling participation are major issues driven by Australia’s increasing population, and high rate of urbanisation, and we need a well thought through and coordinated plan to address these issues,” he explained.

By contrast, Nankervis and Lema want action now for Australian road racing. Nankervis, the racer, is ultimately all about wanting changes to improve Australian road racing for the racers. And Lema, ever the advocate, feels strongly open dialogue and effort is needed from all cycling stakeholders to build a sustainable future for domestic road racing.

“It will take more than just two or three people in Cycling Australia to make changes. It needs the whole sport to move towards a shared vision of what we want it to look like.”

 


 

*Tommy Nankervis started cycling on the track because he lived near the Carnegie velodrome. With a grandfather, father and uncle who raced, cycling was in his blood. But it was Australian great Sid Patterson – multiple world champion amateur and professional track rider – who introduced him to racing. Nankervis raced for 10 years in the US and Europe, won the 2009 Oceania Road Race, and did two years in the NRS with Budget Forklifts. His local A grade crit race record is second to none, with over 100 wins.

*Marcel Lema is currently Vice President of the Carnegie Caulfield Cycling Club, and a past member of the Advocacy Commission at Cycling Australia. His competitive cycling background includes the 1991 Amateur Road World Championships in Stuttgart with the Australian team (Patrick Jonker, Rob Crowe, Matt Bazzano). Lema has also worked at the elite level in cycling, as a cycling coach at the Victorian Institute of Sport (1992-96), and Head Coach and Manager of the Australian Para-Cycling Team (1994-95). His cycling advocacy work led to the introduction of weekend clearways along Melbourne’s popular Beach Road cycling route.

Craig Fry is a freelance cycling writer www.pushbikewriter.com based in Melbourne. @pushbikewriter on Twitter and Instagram.