Uncertain future for Australian women’s road development teams

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The future of Australian cycling’s two key development pathways for women, the High5 Dream Team and the High5 Australian Women’s Road Development Team, is uncertain as Cycling Australia continues to sharpen its focus on Olympic medals.

Manager and financial contributor to both programmes, Rochelle Gilmore, said her commitment to the development of Australian riders and the support from High5 Nutrition hasn’t wavered. But without the resource backing of Cycling Australia – whom Gilmore has been working with since 2015 – both programmes’ days could well be numbered.

“As far as the High5 Dream Team and the Australian High5 National Development team goes, I am very very concerned about the future of those two programmes,” Gilmore told Ella CyclingTips. “I haven’t given up … but it has been made very clear that there will be no support from Cycling Australia of these two programmes, or any women’s road development programmes for Australian cycling.”

The High5 Dream Team is an Australian domestic cycling team, created with the aim of nurturing top-level cyclists of the future. The High5 Australian Women’s Road Development Team gives domestic riders the opportunity to go to Europe and experience some of the biggest races on the calendar. Riders like Jessica Allen and Jenelle Crooks, who are now racing with Orica-Scott, are among those who have benefitted from the development pathways.

When asked for a comment on the future of the programmes, Cycling Australia chief executive officer Nick Green told Ella CyclingTips: “Cycling Australia has a clear High Performance strategy which includes support for elite athletes, coaches and support staff, and which aims to deliver against our expectations of being the world’s leading cycling nation. This strategy will be outlined in the coming weeks, but Cycling Australia can confirm it will continue to focus on developing both female and male cyclists.”

Getting ready for the first race at the then newly formed High5 Dream Team.

Both women’s development teams began in 2015, after Gilmore and High5 Nutrition stepped into a partnership with Cycling Australia to fill the void left after the nation’s cycling governing body said it would cut its women’s European-based development programme. The move came at a time when Cycling Australia was struggling to recover from a significant financial deficit.

The price of Olympic medals?

While Cycling Australia is now working its way out of financial difficulty, a failure to deliver on performance expectations at the last Olympics has left it with another big issue to address and another reason to look hard at development spending.

Earlier this year Simon Jones was appointed as director of the High Performance unit in a bid to help return the nation’s cycling team to the Olympic powerhouse it once was. The Olympics is Cycling Australia’s key performance focus, with the biggest portion of Cycling Australia’s budget coming from the medal-focussed Australian Sports Commission.

Jones was quite clear about the Olympic drive this week, when explaining the controversial decision to leave two spots unfilled in the Australian women’s World Championships road race team.

“That’s our number one objective, to support the nation to Olympic medals,” Jones told Ella CyclingTips. “Any one year should be as part of a tactic towards the bigger goal which is the Olympic Games and if I wasn’t doing that I wouldn’t be doing my job,”

The question is: could the increased focus on the pursuit of Olympic medals – of which there are more available on the track than on the road – come at the cost of developing the top female road riders of the future?

“It’s a scary situation without the support of Cycling Australia — I’m not sure if I can manage,” said Gilmore, who is also the manager and owner of UCI Women’s Team Wiggle High5. “High5 nutrition have been pouring their money and their hearts into the development of women’s cycling in Australia and even with their support it might be impossible to continue these programs without support from Cycling Australia.”

Knowing how it feels

Gilmore is also firmly unconvinced that sending fewer riders to the World Championships will help on the path to medals at the next Olympics.

Firstly, she believes it’s not a move that’s giving the team the best chance on the day. Secondly, there are deserving world-class athletes that have been left out, a decision which could have lasting implications.

“These athletes who have missed out have done every single thing possible to be in their best condition,” said Gilmore. “We need to remember that this is people’s lives, people’s careers. It can make or break them. And they are in my opinion athletes who can contribute to an Olympic gold medal performance and we don’t want to break them by making a decision that’s not really justifiable in their mind.”

Gilmore can relate all too well to how non-selection feels — the Commonwealth Games gold medallist has been there. Knowing what it is like is also a big part of why she has invested her time, effort and money into the development projects. Quite simply, she knows first-hand how much they can mean.

“My family wasn’t in a financial position to send me to Europe and without the Cycling Australia program I never would have had that opportunity,” said Gilmore. “And my life would be completely different.”

Even with a strong personal drive, Gilmore estimates it would take a potential doubling of sponsorship investment to keep the programs running, were Cycling Australia to pull out. However, that doesn’t mean Gilmore isn’t considering other ways to support developing Australian athletes if the High5 Dream Team and development team can’t be saved.

“I would look at supporting individuals financially to come to Europe and have an opportunity,” said Gilmore, adding that this still poses significant difficulties without the European base and coaching support currently provided by Cycling Australia.

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