Do the Australian Road Nationals really need to move from Ballarat?

Image: Con Chronis

by Sophie Smith


It’s an annual debate that has started to bore some road cycling professionals and continues to drive others to despair: “should the Australian National Championships be moved from Ballarat, Victoria?”

Australia may be the only country that hosts its national road race titles on a fixed course and in the same location as part of a multi-year deal with relevant stakeholders. And it’s unanimously agreed that, from a business aspect, this multi-year deal has been of significant financial benefit. It’s also been a huge success in terms of boosting the profile and status of the sport while also engaging fans.

“I don’t think Buninyong has done the sport any harm over the last 10 years that’s for sure,” says Cycling Australia’s national performance director Kevin Tabotta. “I can see the advantages of finding really great road and time trial courses, like the ones we have in Buninyong, which we can establish as an event, lock in great council, police, sponsor support and also venues that allow us to build a culture for spectators to attend.

“That culture has been able to be built in Ballarat and that’s pretty important.”

However, from a sporting standpoint, athletes and politicians alike stand divided.

Fifteen riders, from 127 starters, finished the 183.6km elite men’s road race last week and it was this attrition rate that brought the debate into sharp focus once again.

Lead-out specialist Mark Renshaw said the statistic was a “joke” for a national championship, which he returned to after a hiatus to support new Dimension Data teammates Cameron Meyer and Nathan Haas (who finished second and fourth, respectively).

Renshaw staunchly believes the national championship course should change annually and has previously expressed this opinion to Cycling Australia. The 33-year-old headlines a list of predominately pure sprinters who are of the same view: Leigh Howard (IAM), Olympic gold medallist Graeme Brown (Drapac) and three-time Tour de France green jersey winner Robbie McEwen, who won on the Mt. Buninyong circuit back in 2002.

Equally, Olympic track medallist Annette Edmondson (High5 Dream Team) weighed in on social media this week advocating a change to the shorter 102km elite women’s road race, which runs on the same 10.2km circuit as the men’s event.

The general stance is that the fixed course does not cater for all types of riders and race scenarios, which to a degree is true. A mass bunch sprint has not determined the elite men’s champion in recent memory and UCI Oceania Cycling Confederation president Tracey Gaudry questions whether a pure sprinter has ever won the elite women’s title in Ballarat.

“I would have to say it’s a certain type of rider that appears to be making the point but I think variety is great and I’d be fully supportive of seeing some changes with the course lay-out over time,” says Gaudry.

“Variety creates a different competitive tension. Road racing is about having lots of unknown factors and dealing with changing circumstances. The terrain is a big factor in the way tactics play out and I think that’s an exciting part of road racing.”

Variations have been made to the elite men’s road race over the decade it has been hosted in Ballarat, both under former race director John Craven, who supported a fixed arrangement, and now new auspices. However, they have been minor, not wholesale, changes and mainly related to distance with the race fluctuating between 163km and 196km within that period.

Kevin Tabotta says there are enough variables to impact on the dynamics of the race without changing the staple circuit and refers to the honour roll as evidence. That list includes a pure sprinter in McEwen (2002), a climber in Matt Lloyd (2008), one-day specialist Simon Gerrans (2012, 2014), versatile sprinter Heinrich Haussler (2015) and all-rounders like Jack Bobridge, who won gold after a 90km solo breakaway this month.

“I don’t know if you need more evidence than that. The best of the best are winning that race,” he says. “From an athletes’ perspective, I can understand the attraction of potentially having a variable course each year for a national championship just like we do for the world championships. However, the facts show [the course] has been very fair to the athletes over the years.”

The weather, team sizes, tactics and nature of championship events can be considered among the variables also responsible for this year’s attrition rate.

In the 2016 elite men’s race the mercury surpassed 30ºC, there was a tailwind on pivotal sections – which Bobridge noted on the start line – Richie Porte (BMC) was doing intervals on the climb to disrupt the pace, and bigger squads, like Orica-GreenEdge, were ultimately too slow to respond to the winning move.

“History has shown, even in world titles, athletes don’t ride around to record a top 50 result. When you’re out of contention in a championship race you inevitably say, ‘okay, I’m out of contention, that’s the end of my day,’” Tabotta says of the attrition rate.

“There are a lot of guys there that aren’t going to ride on to finish 10 or 12 minutes down, particularly if they have got the Tour Down Under coming up or big races to attend for the rest of the season.

“But even in saying that, you might have noticed in the race that the guy who ran second on the day, Cameron Meyer, was actually detached from the peloton, or what was left of it, rode back into it and rode through it to claim a silver medal.”

Tabotta believes preparation is key and the course is not beyond any type of rider if they do the training. In other words, you have to target it.

“That’s probably the most significant impact is athletes have to be ready very early in January to hit the race in really good condition,” Tabotta says.

“I can understand people’s opinions in saying it’s a tough course and ‘is there ever going to be sprinters’ course?’ but the facts show if sprinters prepare they can win on that course. True national champions are going to be found on that course.”

The timing of the event – the first big race of the season – would arguably become less pertinent if the circuit did change annually and allow riders and one-day specialists to rely on their natural strengths as much as form.

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An informal social media poll showed a majority would like to see the national road championships course change annually. However, the issue is not as simple as asking a closed question.

The sporting element of the debate is driving the discussion though to the business component. And it’s the ultimately the business component that seems to drive the decision-making. But Gaudry offers a happy compromise in maintaining the location while changing the terrain over time, which, in broader terms, could serve Australian cycling even more abroad.

“What I’ve observed in Australia in the last decade is the importance of the national championships and that’s why we’re talking about it so much,” says Gaudry.

“The jersey is so highly sought and it carries standing and status. We didn’t, in decades gone by, have the jersey worn in the international peloton, so now that it’s so highly recognised you can see that every rider naturally wants at some stage in their career, with their relevant and relative strengths, to be in a position to be in the hunt for it.

“That’s also why I support changes in terrain and course … it provides riders with varying degrees of opportunity, notwithstanding it comes down to tactics and all the other factors.”

You can follow Sophie on Twitter: @SophieSmith86.

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