A vision for the future of the National Road Series

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Yesterday we published an article here at CyclingTips about the decision to cancel one race and postpone another on the National Road Series (NRS) and why Cycling Australia has launched a review into the series as a whole. In that piece we spoke to two of the biggest teams in the NRS peloton — Avanti Racing and CharterMason Giant Racing.

After publishing that article we received an email from Angus Bell, sports director at the Phoenix Cycling Collective, one of the smaller teams in the NRS. Angus wanted to give his perspective on the issue, in which he proposes a potential vision for the future of the NRS.

It has been an interesting week for cycling in Australia with the cancellation of one race, the Tour of the Murray River, and the postponement of another, the Tour of Gippsland. There has been a lot of comment and discussion around this, particularly on CyclingTips.

For the Tour of the Murray River the explanation was “the event had reached the end of its lifespan”. The Tour of Gippsland “was under some commercial distress”. What that actually means for both races I am not sure. I suspect there are other contributing factors beyond the reasons given.

It is a shame to lose two races mid-season. They should still have gone ahead; cancelling them now makes Cycling Australia look unprofessional. Cancel them at the end of the season.

These cancellation and postponement decisions impact the smaller teams as well as the big teams. We had Murray and Gippsland down as races to compete in. We could not afford to send a team to Perth or Adelaide, but planned on racing the remaining ones. This prevents us from trying to develop our young riders, losing 10 days of honest, hard racing.

And in terms of Cycling Australia’s review of the NRS? That needs to be completed by the end of this season, so that the solution can be confirmed at Nationals, rather than simply presenting the review at that time.

But my main focus in this article is the strategy needed in order for the NRS to develop.

I believe the NRS is stale. It is a system that was put in place a few years ago and has grown in certain areas and died in others. Races and teams have come and gone. There is very limited money in cycling across Australia. While some states do things much better than others, most state cycling bodies are volunteer organisations with very few paid staff. It feels like cycling in Australia is 10 or 15 years behind where it should be.

Fighting the big fish

There is daylight between the top teams and the remainder of the NRS. There are 30 men’s and 17 women’s teams registered but it might be more correct to say there are eight or nine strong men’s teams and five or six strong women’s teams, with the rest of the teams being just pack-fodder with an outside chance of grabbing a stage win or putting in an outstanding effort.

It is very hard for small teams to compete with these strong teams on a three- or four-day tour. The Tour of Toowoomba, for example, was extremely hard racing on very tough courses which typified the difference between the strong teams and the smaller teams.

A lot of the strong teams want races to be like the Tour of Toowoomba, and I have to agree with them. But how does that develop other riders in the smaller teams with young and developing riders? It must be very hard on some of them, struggling to hold on and riding on their limit day in and out. Yes they are learning, but this in itself can be dangerous in the peloton. Someone chewing stem will not react quickly enough or will touch wheels without realising they are doing it, suddenly causing crashes.

How the NRS should be structured

In a nut shell we need to split and combine the NRS. That mightn’t sound like it makes a lot of sense, but let me explain. Cycling Australia should split the men’s NRS into two categories, with 12 or 15 of the top teams in Category A with the remainder in Category B. And then the men’s and women’s events should be combined (rather than having Tours that are raced just by women, or just by men).

Teams in Category A should have to meet certain criteria, similar to what Conti and Pro Conti teams have to do for the UCI. At the end of the season the bottom two teams from Category A should go down and the top two teams from Category B should go up. When the number of women’s teams increases a split may need to occur there as well, which would be a great problem to have.

This solution would provide more stable racing and potentially more attractive racing in NRS A. NRS B would really be for the smaller teams to develop their new, young riders, or for new teams to work their way through. NRS B should be where entry into the NRS starts, particularly for riders in states that don’t have a State-level series like the Victorian Road Series. Having an NRS B category would also give older riders a place to fade away. It is these fading riders that bring experience to the younger riders.

To be clear, we at the Phoenix Cycling Collective see ourselves as more of a NRS B team.

Each event or race series on this revised NRS would potentially have three races on each day (or six if it was a double-stage day): an NRS A men’s race, an NRS B men’s race and a women’s NRS race. You could potentially add some other local-level racing as well. Race organisers would need to ensure all races could make use of the same road closures and infrastructure. Who would race first thing in the morning would need to be worked out.

With a structure like this we’d hopefully start to see more manageable, exciting events; events that start attracting more attention.

Team budgets

I don’t know why but there is a massive misconception that all the men’s NRS teams get everything for free and have huge budgets. Free kit, free bikes, free equipment, free race entry, free accommodation and travel … and the misconception that riders get paid to train and ride.

While there might be a few that fall into this category, most riders in the NRS have to spend their own money to race. While some teams will cover kit, race entry, travel and accommodation, they don’t get free bikes. For the few teams that do get a bike for free, it is usually given back at the end of the season and sold to buy new ones. In some teams the rider buys the bike at a discount, but they still have to buy the bike if they want to race on the team.

The cost of nutrition and equipment for some teams is covered by sponsorship. Million-dollar-budgets are very unlikely. And yes, the men’s NRS is nearly as broke as the women’s. One thing we have come to realise for a lot of sponsorship is that it’s who you know more than anything else.

Most riders in the NRS simply love racing and want to challenge themselves and strive for that very slim chance that they might ‘make it’ one day. Unfortunately most don’t, but they have had a chance to race against some of the country’s best. If they are really good, they might have had a chance to race against international riders and achieved a few good results along the way. Many riders also save their own money and head to Europe and the US in the mid-season break to try their hand at racing over there. I take my hat off to them.

Money in Australian cycling

One of the reasons there is no money in cycling is the small number of people in the Oceania region — roughly 30 million. That is the size of a small European country. France is about the size of NSW but has more than 65 million people. In Europe alone there are more than 300 million people and the US has a similar population. That is buying power.

Where am I going with this? Most of cycling’s sponsors are represented by importers and distributors and we don’t have all the cycling manufacturers in Australia and New Zealand necessary to support all these teams.

There’s also the fact that few businesses will drop hundreds of thousands of dollars into cycling as it really does not seem commercially viable. Cycling needs to give a good return on investment, which at this point does not happen. To get a greater return on investment we need more media coverage (especially mainstream media coverage) and TV broadcasts in good time slots. These will help to attract and show value to sponsors.

Having a set group of teams in the NRS A category would help provide a marketing angle. Also there is the potential for the top teams to help run the smaller teams as a development avenue.

Which brings me back to team budgets. I suspect that Avanti Racing Team’s budget wouldn’t be much more than $200,000 or $300,000. I also doubt that Charter Mason has a $1 million budget [ed. CharterMason have clarified their position on this in the original article]. At the Phoenix Cycling Collective our budget is around $20,000 and riders contribute to this for the opportunity to race at the national level. We don’t have much in the way of sponsorship, but what we do have we value greatly. But that is another story.

About the author

Angus Bell is sports director for Phoenix Cycling Collective. He has worked as an IT consultant for the past 10 years and is currently the CTO of a small training company. He spent 10 years in the NZ Army (Military Intelligence), serving in places such as East Timor and Afghanistan (Private Contracts). He enjoys riding and racing bikes, but admits he is “not very good at it”. This lack of talent does not stop him from supporting cycling though.

Angus offered his services to Phoenix Cycling Collective to help out young riders based in Canberra that were not getting a chance to develop, to try and help them step up to the next level. He was lucky enough to be shown the ropes by the Avanti Racing Team: learning what driving in the NRS convoy is about, what systems work with running a team, how to plan and organise the team in the races and so on.

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