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For Australian professional road cyclists the off-season is a time to leave their European base and head back home to relax. For Richie Porte, heading back to Tasmania means, among many things, getting back to his passion of mountain biking on some of the many great trails around Launceston. And now Richie is looking to give back to Tasmanian cycling…but not in the way you might expect.
CyclingTips spoke to Richie Porte and Phil Leslie from the Launceston Mountain Bike Club about how the Team Sky rider is playing a role in developing the next generation of Australian mountain bikers.
Richie Porte’s increased profile over the past couple of years means that his off-season isn’t exactly the ‘offy’ of the past. It now entails charity rides, corporate events, criterium racing, 400km birthday rides, all while trying to reclaim motivation, prepare to defend his Paris-Nice title, and ultimately win the Giro.
At the moment Porte is one of Australia’s most prominent riders who has the greatest potential of winning a Grand Tour. But he didn’t come from a thoroughbred pathway like many other success stories. He was one who slipped through the cracks and never made the TAS or AIS programs.
Following the lead of some of his Team SKY teammates, Porte says, “One day on the bus during the Tour de France  I remember Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins talking about how they’re putting their own money back into cycling and helping athletes develop. They feel they owe it to the sport. When I think back at that I realise that I’m now in the position to be able to do that too.”
Fortunately there are alternative pathways for young promising athletes who want to make a career in road racing (just as Richie did) but there is a serious gap in Australia’s Mountain Biking development program. That’s where Porte feels he can make his biggest impact.
“This is where I really want to contribute. Not necessarily towards road cycling though. Here in Tassie we have some amazing mountain bike trails and some very impressive athletes that nobody will ever know about unless they’re given a pathway and some support to race at a higher level.”
About five years ago Cycling Australia discontinued funding towards their mountain bike development program. This left athletes who wanted to compete at the National and World level without any support. To compete at the highest levels of mountain bike racing means that athletes need to fund it themselves.
This is where Phil Leslie fits in. Phil donates his own time and money towards a program he calls ‘The Pathways Program’ out of Launceston, Tasmania.
In 2010 the Launceston Mountain Bike Club began a junior development skills-orientated program. Phil says, “We had 10-12 kids come along once a week at our twilight events and learn skills and get mentored by riders like Rowena Fry, Ben Mather and club racers like myself. Through that we saw some juniors progressing through the club and another stalwart of the club, Adrian Cooper, and I sat down and talked about what happens to these juniors when they get to racing level and national level. There’s nothing there for them to go to — no program for them to go into to get into to race at national level.”
Phil doesn’t want to take on the world with his program though. The gap that he wants to fill is by providing assistance to riders wanting to race at a National level. MTBA is given minimal funding by Cycling Australia to support an elite program, but that money is for an Australian elite team to go to Europe and race in the World Cups. There no development program; there’s no institute program for kids to apply for and hopefully get into, like there is for road and track.
Phil says that there’s more to the Pathways Program than just financial assistance. The program is about the rider’s wellbeing — not just about racing. “It’s the whole package” Phil says, “being good on the bike and good off the bike as well.”
“Riders have to put back into the club – we don’t just hand out financial assistance. The riders from U15 through to U23 is our age group so they put volunteer time back into track maintenance, they help out at sausage sizzles, they help out at club races.”
The lack of a traditional pathway is something Richie Porte is familiar with and Phil’s program strikes a chord. Richie now provides financial assistance to the Pathway Program as well as volunteering his time and ambassadorship to the cause.
“I feel a sense of responsibility to support alternate pathways such as this since that’s where I came from.” Richie says.
“I want to give back to cycling and offer some support to the guys that slip through the cracks. I slipped through the cracks with the AIS, didn’t I…”
“Some of the guys whose parents who can’t afford to send them to National Series races or can’t afford to buy them the new 29’r, it’s guys like Phil who are putting their own time and money into these programs to get these young athletes the opportunities they deserve.”
But the reality is that nobody expects many of these young athletes to stay on the mountain bike for long once they’ve had a taste of success on the road.
“Look at a guy like Jack Haig” Richie says. “He’s a phenomenal mountain biker going as far as he can up until the Commonwealth games, but he’ll most likely switch to the road after that. Obviously the passion for him is the mountain bike and so was it for someone like Cadel, but unfortunately they need to go to the road in order to make a living. ”
Richie downplays his contribution to Australian Cycling and his own role in raising the profile of the Genesys/Praities team that helped him to where he is. He says that it’s guys like Phil Leslie who work tirelessly in the background that make sure that youngsters get the opportunity on the bike that they deserve.
“Phil is the Andrew Christie-Johnson / Steve Price of mountain biking.”