Bridging the gap: Just how good is Australia’s National Road Series?

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In a little more than a month the Men’s Subaru National Road Series (NRS) gets underway for 2014. The series will see Australia’s best domestic teams and riders compete in 11 races in seven states and territories around the country. And while the standard of the NRS has never been higher, how does it compare to road cycling’s strongest competition, the UCI WorldTour? Scott McGrory offers his insights, considering the plight of Garmin-Sharp rider Nathan Haas as a case study.

Nathan Haas became the first rider to go straight from our National Road Series (NRS) to the big time after dominating the 2011 NRS season while riding for the Praties/Genesys Team. We in Australia knew his talents before the end of that year, but winning the Herald Sun Tour and Japan Cup in October confirmed to the rest of the cycling world that Nathan was the real deal.

Nathan’s 2011 teammate Steele von Hoff was the standout sprinter of that NRS season and was also courted by Garmin-Sharp. But wisely, Jonathan Vaughters put Steele into Garmin’s development team Chipotle-First Solar, to have a look at how the speedster would handle sprinting at the end of longer races than our NRS has to offer.

Steele was elevated to the pro ranks in 2013 after a stint as a stagiaire for Garmin at the end of 2012. For Steele the transitional year appears to have been a good segue from the NRS to the WorldTour.

The step up from NRS to the WorldTour is far greater than we care to admit. I’m guilty of talking up the level of the NRS when I’m commentating. Like everyone I want the NRS to continue to grow, and we’ll avoid stating the true extent of the divide for the sake of staying positive.

I am happy to say that the NRS is growing every year, and in the last couple seasons the competition has been stronger than it’s ever been. But the reality is that the Aussie peloton is a mixture of A- and B-grade riders with quite a young average age. Combine that with often very short stages and you can see how, at the moment, we lack a true proving ground for riders wanting to gauge their WorldTour potential.

“What about Richie Porte?!”, I hear you ask. Richie is often used as an example of a rider going straight from the NRS to WorldTour after he too came from the NRS-conquering Avanti/Genesys/Huon/Praties squad. But Richie had his own ‘gap year’ riding in Italy with the Bedogni Grassi Natalini Team in 2009 to learn the way of the Euro, before heading to Saxo Bank.

As we now know Richie is also quite special so perhaps, while he did have a transitional year, a rider with the ability to win Paris-Nice is at a level of physiology that doesn’t fit on a standard graph. In the same way, trying to replicate the path taken by Cadel Evans would see 99% of us fail.

For now we’ll make do knowing that riders like 2013 NRS champion Jack Haig show the potential of a being a big-time future star.

Until this week Haig was in furious debate with himself about his dirt roots and whether he should have a crack on the mountain bike at the Commonwealth Games. He’s now decided to focus on the road.

To the benefit of the NRS he stayed in Australia last year, and will do several NRS events in 2014 before having some time with the Australian national team later in the year. A classy rider such as Haig would normally have slipped into the WorldTour Academy Team, formerly known as the AIS Team, and been exposed to the European scene. And until he has an extended stint in Europe he won’t quite know what to expect.

As well as Jack Haig I’ll also be keeping a close eye on new Sky signing Nathan Earle and hoping he isn’t simply thrown into the deep end at the WorldTour level.

But back to Nathan Haas. The jump to WorldTour in 2012 was, it’s quite fair to say, a shock to his system. Not just because the racing is longer and faster but because very few, if any, Aussie NRS riders really know what’s in store.

What we are doing well in Australia is looking after our riders — most of the NRS managers get involved with their riders’ training and preparation. Sure, Team Sky are taking the hands-on approach to new heights, but with some of the traditional pro teams it’s still very much a case of “see you at the race next month and make sure you’re going well.”

As a pro you’re responsible for being in the required form to perform your job, as set down by your boss when planning your program. If you need massage, medical assistance, training guidance and so on, it’s often up to you to chase it down.

Nathan was a bit lost in his first year with Garmin it must be said, and yet he still pulled out a second place overall in the Tour of Britain towards the end of that season. That result showed he was capable of holding his own among the Euro pros, but to be consistent requires more than just ‘talent’.

Season number two was better for Nathan as he seemed to find his way and play a more important role within the team. It was good enough to warrant a new two-year contract which he’s started in great form.

Nathan was fifth on GC at this year’s Tour Down Under, including a solid second on the Corkscrew Hill stage behind Mr Evans. He then backed it up with a stage win in the Jayco Herald Sun Tour — beating Matt Goss in an uphill bunch sprint mind you — which shows he’s hitting the ground running in his third season.

He took the race lead with that win, and it was more the poor team tactics from Garmin than the strength of the winning break the next day that saw Nathan drop to fourth on GC. I’m convinced that had the final stage (with its three ascents of the Arthurs Seat climb) not been cancelled Nathan would have used the disappointment from the previous day as fire in his gut to go for another stage win.

I wish Nathan and everyone involved in the 2014 Subaru National Road Series the very best of luck, but sometimes we do tend to forget just how far we are removed from the big time of the WorldTour. We’re getting closer, but let’s keep our feet on the ground.

Correction: This article originally suggested that Nathan Haas had received a one-year contract for 2014. We’ve been informed that his current contract is actually for two years. We have updated the piece accordingly.

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