Vélo Files: Compassionately Ruthless

A term recently used by the director of the Australian Institute of Sport, defending an ethos he says is far removed from a win-at-all-costs mentality but is nonetheless unpityingly pragmatic. Whatever you want to call it, the system in place at the AIS is no different to the system we all face in life, writes Anthony Tan.



Monday last, attending the Jayco-AIS World Tour Academy Team launch at the Middle Park Hotel, a Melbourne drinking hole owned by Jayco owner and Cycling Australia president Gerry Ryan, listening to CA national performance director Kevin Tabotta talk about the reality of what's in store for the Class of 2014, I was reminded of some recent comments made by the eponymous owner of the Drapac cycling team, and wondered if they had any merit.

Also on a Monday and also a team launch, though one month ago at Adelaide's Mercury Cinema, slotted in between the People's Choice Classic and the Tour Down Under proper, Michael Drapac denounced our elite sports system, otherwise known as the Australian Institute of Sport, believing it to be founded on a win-at-all-costs mentality, after AIS Director Matt Favier described their modus operandi as "compassionately ruthless".

"I'm still shocked and still appalled... they (the AIS) have clearly lost their way," Drapac said.

"They are clearly out of sync with what the rest of the world are doing. The idea that we are compassionately ruthless in the development of sport… one negates the other. I don't believe that anyone in the Australian government can possibly support a statement (with this) philosophy – if it's called a philosophy."

While he did not name names, many I've spoken to believe the salvo was aimed not just at the Australian Sports Commission's 'Winning Edge' program, but also Orica-GreenEDGE.

For the nine baby-faced undergraduates of the Jayco-AIS World Tour Academy, eight of whom were present last Monday, Tabotta made no bones about what lies ahead for them, and how long (or perhaps more correctly, short) their stay will be. "We will work with these young riders for two to three years, maximum," he said. "Generally, they come in at 19 (years old), and we've got two years to work with them before, potentially, two or three of them get picked up by a WorldTour team, or a Professional Continental team."

Two World Tour Academy members, Harry Carpenter and Alex Clements, are attempting to combine part-time study (engineering and human movement, respectively). But unlike the Drapac cycling team, it is something the AIS supports, rather than actively encourages or mandates, as Michael Drapac did before his team went Pro Continental this year. Still, Tabotta was keen to mention that an important part of their tenure at the academy, where they will spend up to seven months in Europe based at the ASC's European Training Centre in Varese, also home to Orica-GreenEDGE, involves "preparing them for their future as well, as human beings".

"These guys live together, they cook for themselves, they do their own laundry… they basically make house themselves. For some of these guys, it's the first time away from home for more than a week. So, (they experience) a little bit of culture shock early on, but as is always the case, over one year they adapt, they get the cobwebs out of the way, and in the second year, they're well and truly underway, living like everyone else in society, and learning all the things you need to do in society. (As for) life skills, they're learning a new culture, learning a new language, or languages, as they're travelling all the way through Europe."

New for this year will be the implementation of a 'Big Brother' program (no hidden cameras), to provide World Tour Academy undergrads an easier assimilation into their new environs, where an Aussie WorldTour pro with at least eight to ten years' experience will be paired with those about to, or most likely to make the cut. In this regard, professional road coordinators Bradley McGee and Brian Stephens have recruited the likes of Mathew Hayman and Simon Gerrans, who willingly come on as mentors.

I think there's an argument for both models: one that is all about the bike, the other combining cycling and studying, or casual/part-time work.

That said, one key takeaway from last season was that even if you're a current Grand Tour winner (Chris Horner) or an Olympic champion (Samuel Sanchez), there is no job guarantee in the WorldTour. For an aspiring neo-pro or second- or third-year newbie, the prospects are invariably tougher: no results, little to no UCI/WorldTour points, not yet race-hardened – why would a team hire you?

It is, therefore, all about potential.

That final year or two as an amateur, which provides a portent of what is to come. And, for a lucky two or three World Tour Academy grads, a ticket to realising a lifelong dream, which generally involves riding the Tour de France or one of the five Monuments. "It's not a holiday camp – these guys have to work very hard, and under pressure, week in, week out, to perform. But there's a really good, strong support network around them," Tabotta said.

"The most important thing here is we don't actually set up this program to chase results, like a standard team would. It's not about satisfying the sponsors. For us, it's about developing riders towards podiums for Australia, whether it be in two years or ten years. We make sure that message with the riders is: 'You're there to do your best, you're there to perform, but ultimately, it's about long-term development'."

That message, of course, applies only if you are still riding, and still performing.

If you don't make the cut, or are not performing, you are, for the most part, largely forgotten. It is here that Michael Drapac's way of operating becomes apposite: "Of course we want to win bike races, of course we want to sell advertising. But like all great companies, you never subordinate your values and ethics.

"You must maintain (your values and ethics). We need to ensure that each of these athletes is acutely aware that one day the door of his sport will close... What are you doing to prepare for that day?" he asked the audience that January Monday in Adelaide, no doubt aware his rhetorically loaded question would quickly disseminate via the invited media corps.

To my knowledge, only one former Drapac rider, OGE's Mitchell Docker, has managed to bridge the gap to the WorldTour (via Skil-Shimano). Conversely, I've lost count of the number of AIS cycling alumni who have made it to the Major Leagues since the program began in 1990/91 and from '97 was based in Italy, though I can tell you seventeen graduates, or nearly seventy per cent of Australians competing in the WorldTour, represent alumni of the program first conceived by German super-coach Heiko Salzwedel, including Gerrans, Michael Matthews, Matthew Goss, Rohan Dennis, Cameron Meyer, Jack Bobridge, Luke Durbridge and this year's Herald Sun Tour champion, Simon Clarke.

I remember, vividly, something Avanti team manager Andrew Christie-Johnston told me about Nathan Haas, researching the chapter I wrote for the third edition of The Cycling Anthology, when in 2010, he was attempting to study and race his bike at the same time, and wasn't doing particularly well at either.

"I told him I was very disappointed in his season, because I knew how talented he was. And I actually found out he was quite lazy in his training. He was at university, and I think he was enjoying university life and trying to cycle as well. I said: 'I can't tolerate this any more – if you want to be a cyclist, you need to defer your university, get out of campus, and have a crack. If you wish to stay at university and on campus, then I don't want you on the team.'

"Not that I was trying to get him away from his studies; it was that he was frustrating me with how talented he was, on the basis of doing little training… doing ergo sessions because he'd been out partying, that sort of stuff. I just put it back on him and he just said, 'Yep, you're right – I'm going to give it a crack'."

Never in the history of domestic road cycling in Australia has there been a rider who dominated like Haas did in 2011. He won five out of twelve National Road Series races including the Tour of Tasmania, thus topping the individual NRS rankings, also winning the Jayco Herald Sun Tour and the Japan Cup, and finished second in both the under-23 national road race and Oceania road race titles. The following season, unsurprisingly, he made his WorldTour debut for Garmin, where he remains today.

With a not inconsiderable amount of pride, Tabotta said the WorldTour Academy, and its previous incarnations, is "arguably the richest single source of cycling talent in the world".

"That's the objective – these guys know how tough it is to make it in the big leagues. Not everyone gets a prize, but everyone gets a chance to try and make their way over there," he said.

While Favier did concede the AIS system, particularly athlete welfare, could be improved, the WorldTour Academy is, essentially, a microcosm of the life most of us are accustomed to living each day but which these young-guns are yet to face head-on.

Life is often not fair. No, life is often about surviving – survival of the fittest.

It's the way it's always been, and always will be.

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9 min read
Published 7 April 2015 at 11:32pm
By Anthony Tan