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As little as nine years ago there were 29 race days on the UCI Oceania Tour. Last year there were just seven. In the same period the Asia Tour had 154 days of racing and the Europe Tour had 610. And this weekend, the Oceania Road Championships take place in Toowoomba, marking the end of the Oceania Tour for 2014, less than two months into the year.
For Australian-based teams the level and amount of UCI racing has never been worse. For riders seeking consistent international racing, Asia is the only answer. There are some that suggest that the Oceania Tour and Asia Tour should be merged and in this piece Jono Lovelock considers why such a merger might be a good idea, why it might not, and what Oceania president Tracey Gaudry has to say about such a move.
Stranded in Oceania
Although Australian Continental and ProContinental teams have very limited racing opportunities in Oceania, that does not mean they are precluded from racing at UCI events outside the region. It does mean, however, that these teams are not eligible for automatic races invites which are important to teams and their sponsors.
In 2012 Drapac were ranked highly enough on the Asian standings to qualify for these invites from March through to May, but as explained by Drapac director sportif Jonathan Breekveldt, the team’s ineligibility (due to being registered in Oceania) meant there was no incentive to defend their position.
“We led the Asia Tour for several months but this means very little [while Drapac remain in Oceania] and as there was no real incentive to maintain this position we elected to race events that suited our team and not the leaderboard,” he said.
If part of the Asia Tour, however, Breekveldt is confident they could have maintained a high ranking and therefore earned invites to some of the biggest early-season races.
“If finishing in the top three had enabled the same incentives [for us] as for an Asia Tour team, then we would have changed our program and I am confident we could have finished within the top three,” he added. “This would have enabled the team a start at Dubai, Qatar, Oman and Langkawi which are all races we were hoping to start in for 2014.”
Such are the benefits for an Australian team to be part of Asia, Drapac have twice previously tried to register there instead of Oceania.
“Whilst the team was Continental we tried to register with a federation which was included in the Asia Tour but this was not possible due to the regulations set by the UCI whereby the country of registration is determined by the nationalities of the riders on the team,” explained Breekveldt.
“Again we looked into registering the team in Asia for 2014 but the wildcard rules for the Tour Down Under encouraged us to remain Australian-registered for another season.”
Thus Australian teams can seek races in Asia for rider development and to expand their racing calendar, but no matter how well they perform, they are not guaranteed invites.
Asian race organisers tend to invite one or two Australian teams and the situation then arises whereby all four UCI registered Australian teams (Drapac, Avanti, Budget Forklifts & African Wildlife Safaris), as well as an Australian National Team and a composite team (such as the Perth-based Eddy Hollands Bicycle Services team) all fight for those one or two spots.
It’s important to note that each race organiser has an implied duty to favour teams from their country in order to further the development of their own riders. No Australian team expects to get an invite to every Asian race; instead it’s the lack of racing within the Oceania region that drives the problem. Last week it was announced that Drapac would be filling empty gaps in their calendar with NRS races for this very reason.
While many Australian teams would like the Oceania Tour to merge with the Asia Tour for more racing, do they do so without consideration for the interests of Asia? Simply put, Australian racers demand Oceania merge with Asia, but does Asia want us?
“The Asian confederation is there to develop Asian cycling, not to serve Australian cycling when Australian cycling doesn’t give anything back,” freelance journalist and consultant to many Asian races Jean Francois-Quenet told CyclingTips. “I see one form of cooperation between Asia and Australia: it’s OCBC Singapore and Serach2retain.”
Peter Shandon, owner of Australian NRS team search2Retain P/B health.com.au — which has a development arrangement with Singaporean Continental team OCBC — echoes the thoughts of Francois-Quenet.
“It should be seen as a collaboration,” he said, “Typically in business, Australians go across to ‘teach’ Asian businesses something and that’s why so many of them fail. If you listen to the smart business leaders they actually go across to learn.”
So what does Oceania need to offer Asia before a merger becomes palatable?
“Build a calendar of which the NRS [National Road Series] is the first step. The Herald Sun Tour where it is now is a second step,” explained Francois Quenet. “What’s next? That’s the question.”
How long will the build take?
Avanti Racing is very active in seeking races in Asia, and DS Andrew Christie-Johnston is fairly frank in his assessment of the current situation.
“We probably want minimum six to seven events in New Zealand and Australia. If you had that you would say ‘OK we’ll stay in Oceania,’” said Christie-Johnston. “But how long is that going to take to get those six to seven events?”
Christie-Johnston also believes that merging Oceania and Asia Tours would provide the necessary stimulus to develop new UCI races within Oceania, and subsequently provide the incentive that Asia is looking for.
“If building Oceania on its own is a three- to five-year plan, I think we’re just better to join Asia and these new events that come along … well if we join Asia then as part of their points system, the sponsors of the teams in Asia will want their teams to come to our new UCI races in Australia to gain UCI points.
“If they did that it would allow the Australian races to grow because they’d realise the races aren’t just attracting five to six Australian continental teams — they are also bringing an international contingent of teams, 50 or more from our experience. Those races would then get a far bigger budget and that’s a win-win.”
Budget Forklifts’ director sportif Cam Watt is not overly concerned with how it happens, but like Christie-Johnston and Breekveldt he is a strong advocate for change.
“We would definitely support joining Asia, especially if no other races are imminent in joining the Oceania Tour,” he said. “We’re sick of rumours that go on for years saying ‘oh this race is going UCI,’ and then nothing happens. People were saying Tour of Perth was going to be UCI, then Tour of Tasmania … we’re still waiting.”
So does the Oceania calendar need to build itself up before a merger with Asia becomes palatable? Search2retain’s Peter Shandon, whose business experience in Asia is extensive, doesn’t think so.
“The only way for it to get momentum is for it to happen at the political level,” he said. “Don’t worry about the calendar, it’s not one of those situations where you’ll build it and they’ll come because it just doesn’t work that way. You can’t build a program like that in Australia off our population and sponsor base; it’s just not possible.”
What does Asia say?
CyclingTips understands that as recently as 2012, the UCI — as part of an overall growth plan for Asia — were fully behind merging the two regions. But commissaire and consultant to the UCI, Jamaludin Mahmood, believes that the deal is in fact being held back on the Asian side.
“I remember when this issue was brought up and many [national] federations in Asia did not agree with it, including the Asian Confederation,” he said. “There are reasons why they refused, one being the level of performance between Australia and New Zealand with other countries in Asia.”
Others have hinted that the road block behind the merger lies behind qualification spots for road and track to World Championships and the Olympics. With a finite number of positions available, throwing the strength of Australian and New Zealand athletes into that pool directly threatens the prospects of federations already in the Asian confederation. It also threatens teams that currently enjoy automatic invites via a top-three ranking on the Asia Tour as explained previously.
In the same vein as race organisers, national federations have a duty to protect the development of their riders. Thus, to bring Asia around to accepting a merger with Oceania, we need something big to offer them. Perhaps it’s a thriving Oceania calendar of new races, perhaps it’s a heightened level of racing that concurrently helps develop Asian riders as well as giving Australian teams new opportunities. But whatever it is, we need to know.
Tracey Gaudry responds
There is no doubt that Tracey Gaudry inherited a tough task when she took on the Oceania presidency in late 2012; a time when the Oceania calendar was at its lowest point. And having returned the Herald Sun Tour to UCI status, helped upgrade African Wildife Safaris to Continental status, and Drapac to ProConti status since then, there is no questioning the commitment Gaudry has shown.
But frustrations remain over a clear communication as to the direction of the region. Gaudry has repeatedly fielded questions on a potential Oceania-Asia merger, but never given a definitive answer. CyclingTips put a few questions to her again:
For most NRS teams looking to make the Continental upgrade in Australia they’re continuing to hear very political talk of: ‘There’s a plan for more events in Oceania, there’s a plan for events’. Are there any actual new events that teams can look at and pinpoint?
“No because it’s [early in the year] and the sign-off of new events doesn’t occur until June or even September. Honestly speaking, we’ve already demonstrated that we’ve brought a new event on in this last 12 months which was a goal and an aim. And I think it’s fair to say that we can be reasonably enthused that there’s further interest in continuing to grow the calendar in this region. That’s as much as is able to be said at this point.”
For the teams who just want more events and are asking; ‘We want to join Asia. What is going on?’ … who do they have to lobby? How can we instigate change, or is it just politically impossible?
“No, politically anything is possible if the right outcomes are sound outcomes and it’s about growing cycling and growing pathways, and also growing the economy of cycling. I’d welcome people to come and lobby Oceania.
“I’m actually confused as to what you’re wanting change for: is it change for change’s sake? For example seven or eight years ago there were ten Oceania events in this region. Were people complaining at that point in time that there were was a dearth of events?
“And, we also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater as we know there is an appetite to rebuild a calendar here, that doesn’t mean doing that shuts the door on any collaboration with a neighbouring continent.”
I guess people would say though, if there is an appetite to rebuild the Oceania calendar, how come we are not seeing it?
“Well the fact is you can’t just turn an event on in three weeks’ time, so in 2013 we’ve planned for 2014 and we got an event back on the calendar under what was a significant political time for the UCI and this region.
“In 2014 we’ve been working already, very hard for next year and beyond. So the next three months is where the hard work happens and we consider seriously and confirm those opportunities.”
Will a merger between Oceania and Asia ever happen?
“The notion of a merger has not been put to me by the UCI. It has not been raised in a formal forum. The teams haven’t come to me to talk about it. As far as I’m concerned there has been no formal conversation from any party about a merger with Asia.”
“You have been hitting me with ‘will we merge, or will we not?’ As if it’s been sitting on the table for a long time! It’s not even on the table. There has never been, in a time of my presidency, a conversation about merging any one or other continents.
“At this point in time there are five continents around the world and each of those continents is building a continental calendar. In our instance we are rebuilding. I raced in a period where there were a lot of continental events on our calendar so I know what we had and what we can achieve. No-one has ever asked me the question, ‘are we going to merge or not?’ This is the first time it has come up.
“There are valid concerns over the decline in the Oceania calendar, concerns that I carry as a priority to reverse. We have demonstrated in one year that we have started to turn that around. We have been talking with Asia about combining some events but those talks haven’t progressed significantly, in part due to the changes taking place on the domestic front [ed. Gaudry is making reference to the efforts of Cycling Australia in modernising the NRS.]
“I welcome the opportunity to spend time with the Continental teams because they are a significant stakeholder in the way we move forward. This weekend [at the Oceania Championships in Toowoomba] represents a great opportunity to sit down with the team managers and staff about what matters to them.”
Gaudry maintains that “politically, anything is possible,” and perhaps it is. But regardless of the politics, Australian and New Zealand teams are in Oceania, and that is the region that Gaudry is currently working 18 hours a day to improve.
But what’s your take: do you think the Asia Tour and Oceania Tour should merge? Or do you think it makes more sense to focus on Oceania?
The feature image on this article was taken at the 2013 Tour de Langkawi, a UCI 2.HC event on the UCI Asia Tour.
About the author
Jonathan ‘Jono’ Lovelock has raced with a variety of Australian national teams, various continental teams and travelled the world a few times over, and is still just 24 years of age.
While trying to find constructive ways of procrastinating during his commerce degree Jono discovered the art of blogging and the rest is history. When not busy riding he was writing and what started as nothing more than a fleeting foray has snowballed into regular features with RIDE Cycling Review and full-time employment with Cyclingnews.com.
Jono recently retired from cycling due to a persistent knee injury and will now focus full-time on journalistic endeavours.