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On Tuesday, Cycling Australia announced its teams selection for the UCI Road World Championships and there was a surprise in store. It wasn’t so much the riders named, just that there weren’t more of them for the elite women’s road race.
As the third-ranked women’s cycling nation in the world Australia had the right to send a team of seven for the women’s road race. However the list of riders was Gracie Elvin, Shara Gillow, Sarah Roy, Amanda Spratt and then Katrin Garfoot, the last of those riding both the road race and the time trial. A total of just five riders.
It wasn’t just the women that missed out on a place that were disappointed by the decision not to field a full team.
The men filled their quota of nine for the road race in a team designed to back the nation’s top-ranked rider Michael Matthews on a course that suits him. They also added Rohan Dennis into the mix purely for the time trial.
Looking back over the last five years, Cycling Australia has always named a full team for the elite men’s and women’s road races. So what’s different this year and why was the decision made to fill the elite men’s road race quota and not the women’s?
We talked to Cycling Australia’s High Performance director Simon Jones to find out:
(The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Ella CyclingTips: The very obvious question is why, when we have seven spots qualified, are we only selecting five riders?
Simon Jones: I always start off at performance and work backwards … we’ve had many selection meetings about this and some rigorous and robust conversation. Right from the outset I challenged all the coaches not to tell me about the team size but to tell me how we are going to win.
I quoted stats from the last ten years in the elite men … in the last 10 years, 50% of the winning teams had teams of three or less because what’s important to win a World Championship is a quality athlete. On that basis we’ve worked backwards and then supported that athlete with the team, with specific roles, responsibilities to achieve the outcome.
With the women they’ve done well this year, but from what I can see looking at the events in the single road races or the big races we don’t have a clear athlete that we can back 100% with a full team. And on that basis – and on the only basis that I think which is performance first – we felt that was best. But also we need to raise the standard in Australia. When it comes to Olympic Games in particular we take big teams and we are not converting and therefore we need to put the focus on quality not quantity and work back for performance … its not about back filling quotas.
But surely having two extra riders to do things like fetch bottles and chase down breaks gives you a better opportunity to get that performance?
Well, everyone’s got a different opinion on how to ride road races. I think with a road race course you can collect bottles every lap and on some courses twice a lap. Chase down breaks … well potentially. But I think the way that we are going to win this race is being in the final split on that final climb or with two laps to go, or to be in the mix. And again if we were to be chasing down breaks we would be chasing down breaks for high quality athletes so its not really for us to be doing. It would be for those people who have demonstrated their capability to win at the highest level and I don’t think that’s been our team at that moment.
I think our role should be to really sit and duck and dive and be opportunistic toward the end of the bike race because if we face down we’re not going to beat another nation in the sprint. So we’ll be doing the work of somebody else so I wouldn’t actually agree with that tactic, not for the team we’ve got. Had it been a sprinter’s race and the flat race, then absolutely, our model would be to back the sprinter 100% and to chase down and to control the bike race. But that’s not the situation.
Is this a missed opportunity to send younger riders that would be valuable supporting the team to give them more experience?
Not unless we’ve got a clear goal of winning the bike race. I don’t think World Championships is actually for experience. I think they’ve got … preceding races to gain that experience. When you put that jersey on its special. You should look around the team and go right, we are actually here to win.
So I’ve come in off the back of declining Olympic results where were we’d get given our funding and the priority is to win Olympic medals and if people check those results we are not doing so good. And so there are a number of tweaks we need to make and one of those is making sure that when we put our jersey on the national team it’s special and we know that we’re there and we’re there to win and people need to earn their right to get into the team. It’s a special experience. So I don’t think you are there for experience. You get experience elsewhere.
The way this appears, it’s really difficult … the Australian women have done a fantastic job in terms of performance overall this year. They are third in the nation rankings yet we can’t justify sending a full team at a time when women’s cycling in Australia has really stepped it up a level.
I don’t know how people see this. All I can share consistently is the approach that we’ve taken and people will see this in different ways. But the way that I’ve approached this and the only way I can think about these things is performance first. And that’s what I’m going to continue to do. We need to raise the bar, we’ve got to make it challenging to get into teams.
It can’t be easy and we have to pick people on merit. Filling teams isn’t the right message and I really welcome these conversations because we have all got to step up. I’ve got to step up as high performance director and I think it’s great we are having this conversation because we have got to keep striving and we have got to move forward.
But as a nation our women’s riders have stepped up and shown that they are performing and delivering results yet they are not getting the money put into them to field a full team, which surely then doesn’t then give them the best opportunity to perform?
It’s not about the money, it’s about performance. It’s about a stake in the ground. They are doing well, they have had some great results this year but the facts are we’re not winning the biggest single races. I don’t think that’s anybody’s fault. I think Australia has done very well historically and the road is the most variable which makes it so great to watch and the course has such a big bearing.
Everyone will see their certain perspective. I try not to think other than quite simply around what will it take to win and keep the standards high. And I pushed really really hard in the men’s team as well. I didn’t see the reason to take a full team in the men. I would have preferred a smaller team, a crack unit. An eight-man team didn’t stop Chris Froome winning the Tour de France this year, a three-man team didn’t stop Peter Sagan winning the world road race twice. It comes down to quality not quantity for me.
I think the message I’d like everybody to reflect on if they didn’t get selected is, I know it’s difficult, but this isn’t about a bias. Everybody’s got to step up. We all have to, because the whole world does that. It’s that continuous improvement. We’ve all got to look at ourselves and others about how we could improve and that’s really the message.
I am finding it a little hard to balance in my mind what you are saying about this not being about bias when you are using examples of male riders that have won without a full team … yet there is a full men’s team and not a full women’s team.
With the tactics and the conversations we had with Michael [Matthews] and his support and his team and the selection panel, we felt those roles were required. I’m part of the selection panel, I’ve got the final say but I do listen as well. I think for Michael with his clearly demonstrated performances for this year, I was listening because again that was part of that performance belief and the mindset required to win the race.
So basically you are saying it’s a decision about the most effective use of resources?
Generally speaking the Road Worlds this year it is not about the money … if I can reflect on that approach we are taking with the track programme for next year. We’re not going to send a full team for the Track World Championships. And that’s a bit of resources, but it’s also about trying to pace ourselves through the cycle because Australia has got this issue now I think where we are taking big teams but we are not always converting.
We don’t convert always in Olympic events so therefore we can take our foot off the gas a little bit in the next few months and we can use that time to prepare, we can think and we can allocate those resources elsewhere, because we’ve got to peak for the Olympic Games. That’s our number one objective to support the nation to Olympic medals. Any one year should be as part of a tactic towards towards the bigger goal which is the Olympic Games and if I wasn’t doing that I wouldn’t be doing my job.
I really do appreciate you making the time to talk about this.
I welcome the conversation … these decisions were made strategically and as a nation we’re trying to get better outcomes at Olympic Games and I want everybody to know that that is the ultimate objective.