Oppy record breakers to be disqualified for breaking the rules?

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Last week, Craig Fry previewed Team Brevet’s chances at breaking the Audax Australia Oppy 24hr TTT record on 19-20 March. This follow-up piece reports on surprise allegations that Team Brevet and the women’s team Five Abreast were observed breaching event rules and may be disqualified by Audax Australia.

On the weekend of March 19 and 20, teams across Australia participated in the Audax Australia Flèche Opperman 24hr TTT. It is one of Audax’s oldest cycling events, running annually since 1989. This year two teams were attempting the distance records for this event.

Team Brevet from Melbourne was riding to break the Australian record for an event of this kind – 770km set way back in 1993. In the team was multiple Olympic and World rowing champion Drew Ginn, and multiple Brunswick Cycling Club champion Dylan Newell.

A women’s team, Five Abreast, was attempting to ride over 550km and beat the current record for an all female TTT group in the Oppy. The team included the well-known riders Sarah Hammond, and Jessica Douglas (three time World 24hr solo MTB champion).

Both teams had started in Victoria on Saturday March 19, and were heading for the NSW Oppy finish town of Wagga Wagga. Come 9:00am on Sunday morning, the news for both teams was very positive. Team Brevet had got four of their five riders home to the finish line with 800km reached – from Warrnambool to Wagga Wagga. This stunning effort was both a new Australian and World record in a 24hr TTT event of this type.

The Five Abreast team also triumphed in their record attempt by starting in Horsham and arriving successfully in Wagga Wagga, setting a new record distance of some 617km.

Social media responded accordingly. There were congratulations all around for these remarkable efforts, with many supporters and some of the various team sponsors spreading the news and photos of the teams taken along the way.

But then, barely a day later, news started emerging that there may have been problems with the record rides.

Questions raised

On the afternoon of Monday March 21, a prominent ACT Audax member responding to a congratulatory post to Team Brevet for their new Australian and World records, raised doubts in a tweet about rule adherence:

A credible source has confirmed to me that Team Brevet were observed by Oppy officials to be receiving support outside of approved control points, and they were informed this was outside events rules. The exact nature of the alleged rule breach (i.e. the type of support received) has not yet been clarified.

Each year, Oppy organisers in participating states have the option of secret control point checks to ensure that teams are adhering to event rules. In the NSW Oppy this year, NSW Audax officials imposed secret control checks on four teams (including Team Brevet) en route to Wagga.

The all female Five Abreast team also became the focus of rule adherence queries on social media that same Monday. A video appeared on Facebook (posted by their support crew on March 19) showing the team receiving support from a moving car while riding – the 1m11sec footage which was taken by a support crew member (while driving the support car) shows food in a musette bag being handed to the team out of the front passenger window.

First feed for the crew. About 1 hour in average speed is well above target.

Posted by Norm Douglas on Friday, March 18, 2016

Comments about the incident made their way onto the Audax Australia Google Group chat list. But the discussion was soon shut down by the Audax National President (Russell Noble), who asked that any queries and information be forwarded to the NSW Oppy organiser Peter Makin.

Oppy 24-hr rules

The rules of the Audax Flèche Opperman 24-hr are simple. Teams of three to five ride for 24 hours on a course they design, which should include specified control points (named stopping places the team will pass through on their ride route). Team courses are submitted to organisers two weeks before the event.

The Oppy ride route must be a tour rather than a repeated circuit on the same roads, and at least three riders from each team must finish. The named control points are the only locations where support crews can assist teams – if a rider punctures, or has a mechanical issue, or needs food or drink in between control points they must take care of that themselves (they cannot call the support crew to assist).

The Audax Australia Flèche Opperman All Day Trial rules can be seen here in full. These also refer to general Audax ride rules 10 (controls and brevet card procedures) and 11 (support procedures, which are also found on the Audax website.

Rule 11 states the following about rider support:

(1) Each rider must be self-sufficient however nothing in this rule prevents a rider from obtaining assistance (including buying food and drink), from:

  • (a) another rider taking part in the ride or
  • (b) a shopkeeper, local resident, passer-by or other disinterested person.

(2) No personal support of any kind (including a follow car) is permitted on the course. Personal support is only allowed at controls if agreed by the organiser. Any rider deemed to have received personal support may be disqualified.

To be clear, the Oppy24hr is an event where personal support is allowed at named control points. The Audax Australia website confirms this in the page devoted to Oppy hints and tips for support crews.

The use of team support crews for food and hydration top-ups at control points has been a long-term practice in the Oppy, especially for the teams attempting the records – ‘The Endorphins’ team who set the 770km record in 1993 used a support crew at control points. My own team has done the same in our two previous Oppy record attempts in 2014 and 2015.

Such a close focus on the issue of where a team may or may not have received support over a 24-hour ride might seem overly pedantic. But these are the rules, and they apply to all teams. The nature and location of support that a team receives really does matter, especially in the case of a record attempt of this length and degree of difficulty.

Put simply, a team racing the clock in a 24-hr TTT record attempt will enjoy a significant advantage if they take support at any time they choose or if that is rolling support (e.g. food, drinks, mechanical aid, wheel swaps for punctures), rather than just at their control points. In a 24-hr record attempt every stop is using up precious time and slowing you down.

What an Oppy disqualification means

I have contacted members of both teams seeking confirmation on the allegations and what is happening. Unfortunately, they have declined to comment. Audax Australia officials have also declined my requests for comments about any process underway around allegations of rule breaches by Team Brevet and Five Abreast.

But Audax officials did refer me to their rules which state that any issues of rules compliance should be resolved within 28 days of the event in question – seven days for an appeal, and 21 days for the Audax National Committee to meet to make a determination (a meeting at which disqualified riders, support people, and the ride organiser imposing a disqualification can put their cases).

Reading between the lines, it looks like the teams in question have either been disqualified by Audax officials, or at the very least have been asked to respond to the Oppy rule breach allegations. So what to make of this?

It is possible the allegations made against Team Brevet and Five Abreast could be dismissed by the Audax Australia National Committee. That would be a great outcome for the teams, as their immense efforts in achieving the new Oppy 24-hr distance records would be officially recognised.

Alternatively, if Audax Australia officials decide that the rule breach allegations are proven, this leaves the question of how to explain such breaches. In that case it would seem the alleged incidents are either a case of confusion or lack of knowledge about the rules, or deliberate rule breaches to gain an advantage.

The latter possibility is difficult to entertain seriously given the profiles and reputations at stake in each team. Why would anyone risk reputational damage, negative sponsor blow back, and the hassle of a disqualification in an event like this? You just wouldn’t expect this story to emerge around teams with elite athletes who have succeeded at the highest levels of their sports. It doesn’t make sense.

Lack of awareness or confusion about the event rules is similarly hard to believe. If the teams cared enough about committing to the training required and getting a support crew together for a huge challenge like the Oppy24hr records, you’d think they’d also do their due diligence to ensure everyone understands the event rules.

Why all the fuss?

While the Oppy 24-hr TTT has a long tradition, it is certainly not a high profile cycling event in Australia. The Oppy has no prize money, no big shiny trophies, and there’s barely any publicity about the results each year besides the stories teams might write themselves about the event and their experiences.

That said, there is a wider public interest angle and potential implications of the alleged rules breaches here, given one team has a multiple Olympic and World rowing champion, and the other a three-time World 24hr solo MTB champion.

At the end of the day, the two teams themselves (and many of their supporters presumably) may not care at all if their recent oppy 24-hr rides are recognised officially as new records. Each team actually did ride the distances they recorded – Team Brevet got four of their original five riders to 800km, and Five Abreast got their riders to 617km.

Those are remarkable efforts it is true. But it is also true that, like all cycling events, the Audax Australia Oppy 24-hr TTT has rules. Regardless of what we might think about such rules, the suggestion of rule breaches in the 2016 Oppy raises more important questions about what is acceptable in the pursuit of such endurance cycling records, and who judges such things.

Whatever the explanation for the alleged rules breaches by Team Brevet and Five Abreast, unfortunately this episode has tarnished the reputation of the Oppy 24-hr event slightly. And depending on how Audax Australia responds here, it too may be damaged. The lack of official comment so far from Audax about an issue people are already discussing doesn’t look good.

The Audax National Committee should of course follow due process and it’s own regulations around cases of alleged rule breaches. But I also hope that Audax Australia will in due course issue an official statement about the 2016 Oppy 24-hr event, its deliberations and decisions, and the reasons for these.

Audax members and other participants of the annual Oppy 24-hr event (including aspirants to the distance records) deserve to know the truth about the manner in which new records are being set, and what implications there may be for interpretation of event rules and monitoring.

Such questions also have a wider interest and relevance as more high profile elite cyclists are finding their way into teams attempting to break these distance records. My prediction is that endurance cycling records like these will become even more popular over the coming years – questions about rules and what is allowable in record attempts will not go away.

Down the track, there may be additional questions about which body is the most appropriate to oversee and endorse future endurance cycling record attempts in Australia. If that is not Audax Australia should it be the US based UltraMarathon Cycling Association, or perhaps even the Guinness World Records organisation? What about Cycling Australia, or perhaps the UCI as the adjudicating body for such amateur records?

Only Team Brevet and Five Abreast and their support crews know the truth of what actually happened out on the road during their Oppy 24-hr rides. But there is some evidence that has led to allegations of event rule breaches.

It is a shame neither team is commenting about the matter for now. Hopefully, the questions that exist around the 2016 Oppy will be resolved soon, and we will then hear from Audax Australia, Team Brevet and Five Abreast. Until then unfortunately, the record rides remain in doubt.

Craig Fry writes occasional cycling articles here at Cycling Tips, at The Conversation and The Age. He was a member of Team Pane e Acqua who won the 2014 Oppy National Shield by riding 730km in 24-hours – the first team to break 700km in 21 years.

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