Commentary: Why moving the Australian Road Nationals from Ballarat isn’t quite that simple

by Matt de Neef


The Wednesday evening criteriums on Sturt St. The Thursday time trials starting and finishing in Buninyong. The weekend road races around Mt. Buninyong. These locations in and around the Victorian city of Ballarat have become synonymous with the Australian Road National Championships.

And that’s no great surprise — the Nationals have been held in Ballarat for the past 11 years and 14 times in the past 16 years. With this week’s 2017 edition, the Road Nationals bids farewell to Ballarat. For the time being. Maybe.

This year’s Nationals is the final on a contract between Cycling Australia and the City of Ballarat but, as yet, it’s not clear where the event will be held in 2018. And it’s not just that the public hasn’t been informed — Cycling Australia is still working with state governments and local councils to determine a suitable location.

Moving the nationals

For years now there have been calls to move the Nationals away from Ballarat. Riders, fans, the media — a significant cross-section of the Australian road cycling community is ready for a change. The main argument is that the current road race course only favours a certain percentage of the field — climbers with a fast finish, or very strong time-trialists — and that keeping the event on one course for well over a decade doesn’t give others the chance of wearing the green and gold.

There’s some merit to that argument, just as there’s merit to the idea that, as a national championship, the event should be shared among the nation’s states and territories. Indeed, in a perfect world, the Nationals might well move each year, from city to city, state to state, alternating between hilly and flatter courses. Such is the way with many other countries’ national championships.

But as is ever the case, it’s not quite that simple. It’s not as easy as picking up the Aussie Nationals and moving to a new city every year. And even though 2018 would be the perfect time to move the event from Ballarat, with the contract now up, there’s also an argument to say it should stay. And that’s because the sporting aspect is only one part of the equation.

What the Nationals needs

Running bike races is an expensive business; more so than most onlookers would realise. And given Cycling Australia’s much publicised financial difficulties in recent years, the national body is in no position to foot the bill.

Sponsors such as Mars and Subaru contribute a certain amount, but the bulk of the cost in recent years has been borne by the City of Ballarat. And that cost is significant — several hundred thousand dollars per year.

So, if the Nationals is to move from Ballarat, another city with suitably deep pockets will be required to take its place. And then there are the logistics to consider.

“It needs to be an area that has got experience in hosting major events,” Cycling Australia CEO Nick Green told CyclingTips. “Because a lot of the road closures and infrastructure and support you need locally, as well as the capacity to accommodate the people who come in.”

To this end, the Nationals needs to be held in a city of similar size to (if not bigger than) Ballarat with its 100,000 residents. And if the host city isn’t a major population centre or state capital, it needs to be easily accessible from one (Ballarat is 90 minutes drive from Melbourne).

“It’s got to be easy to get in and out from a transport logistics point of view because people are coming from all over the country,” Nick Green said.

Securing road closures and other traffic management measures is also trickier in some regions than others. It’s notoriously difficult in New South Wales, for example, to get approval from state police and the roads authority to close roads for bike races, as organisers of the now defunct Goulburn to Sydney will attest.*

It’s also necessary to consider the local community and its attitude towards cycling.

“You ideally want to go somewhere that’s got quite a cycling DNA in their body,” Green said. “We do take over the town for four days and close their roads and sometimes lock people into their houses because they’ve got barriers and they can’t get in and out.

“That’s part of the appetite of going to towns that are used to hosting major events because their community get it. And then when it comes here, they come out in support.”

And it’s about supporting the local region too. While Cycling Australia needs money from local and state governments to put on the event, those governments are looking for a return on their investment. In the case of Ballarat, the gran fondo held on the road race course a day before the elite road races is a prime example.

The gran fondo was created in the hope that riders will visit Ballarat for that event, stay overnight in the region — bringing in tourism dollars — then stick around the following day to watch the pros race on the same circuit.

As Nick Green says, it’s a case of give and take.

“While we want certain things from governments and particularly investment we also, when we come, we need to give back as well,” Green said. “So we just can’t come and take over and come and leave. We actually go ‘Well how do we really embed ourselves in the community? What can we do with the local schools? What can we do with the local community? Work with local hospitals?’, whatever it might be.”

So what now?

With all that in mind, where are things at now? Cycling Australia won’t say which regions it is considering for the 2018 Road Nats and which governments it’s in talks with. But Nick Green tells CyclingTips there are several candidates, including from outside Victoria.

“We are in negotiations and we have had strong interest from other areas outside of Ballarat for hosting it,” he said. “We’re now in the final processes of sort of working through who is the preferred host.”

Speak to those on the periphery and you’ll hear various suggestions about regions that might be suitable and those that are being considered. There’s been some talk of Bathurst, NSW being a possible location, while Canberra has also been mentioned. Were it not for the demise of the Tour of Toowoomba (due to the withdrawal of government funding), that particular Queensland city might have been an option. In Victoria, towns such as Geelong and Bendigo have also been mooted.

And then there’s the talk of the event remaining in Ballarat. The city’s new mayor, Samantha McIntosh, is the mother of National Road Series cyclist Chloe McIntosh, and is keen for the championships to remain in the region. For that to become a reality, the Victorian government would likely need to make a greater contribution; to reduce the amount the City of Ballarat has to pay.

Nick Green, too, hints at the need for the Victorian government to contribute more.

“We believe this national championships is a major event — we drive strong economic benefits, particularly into regional parts of a part of a state, in this case Victoria,” Green said. “And so in an ideal sense, the major events divisions of the state governments [would be] providing financial support to secure it.”

Given the Victorian government’s investment in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and other cycling events, finding additional budget for the Road Nationals might be challenging.

But assuming the appropriate funding can be secured, it does make some sense for the Nationals to remain in Ballarat. The city has served the Nationals very well, building it up from a poorly attended event in the early 2000s to the most well-attended event on the Australian cycling calendar outside the Tour Down Under. The town and its people embrace the event, generally speaking, and the region has shown its ability to stage and deliver the event to the appropriate standard.

One option might be to keep the Nationals in Ballarat, but to change up the road race course significantly to give other riders a chance. It’s worth noting that this option would likely come with its own downside — losing the terrific, party-like atmosphere of Mt. Buninyong that’s taken more than a decade to build.

When asked if the Nationals could indeed remain in Ballarat next year, Nick Green preferred not to answer.

“I think we’ll wait to see how the next month or so folds out,” he said. “As I said, we’re in good negotiations but we’re not there yet.”

Onward

Cycling Australia’s initial plan had been to announce the location of the 2018 Road Nationals this week, during the 2017 edition. But negotiations have been slow — in Nick Green’s words “when you’re dealing with governments it takes some time to get approval.”

For now, the governing body is working towards revealing the location towards the end of January or, perhaps more realistically, in early February. And according to Green, that’s “assuming governments move in the timeframe we want them to move in …”

So while we await the announcement of the Road Nationals’ new (or perhaps same) home for 2018, it’s worth remembering this: it’s easy to say that the Nationals should move from Ballarat but in reality it’s not nearly that simple.

*Cycling Australia has signalled its intention to resurrect the Goulburn to Sydney as the Camden to Goulburn, a National Road Series race that would be run in the opposite direction. Getting that race off the ground will mean securing the closure of a 6km section of the Hume Fwy — the major arterial between Melbourne and Sydney. It won’t be a trivial task.

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