What does the growth of Australia’s Continental scene mean for the NRS?

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With the future of Australia’s fragile National Road Series (NRS) still uncertain, several teams appear to have taken matters into their own hands. CyclingTips understands that there could be as many as nine Australian-registered UCI Continental teams in 2018, a stark increase on the four that currently represent the country on the international stage.

So what does this mean exactly? Will Australian cycling be in a stronger position in 2018? Could it mean the end of the NRS? Or could the NRS actually be stronger if more teams “go Conti”?

Continental teams

There are three tiers that make up the ranks of professional men’s road cycling: WorldTour teams, Professional Continental teams and Continental teams. WorldTour and Pro Continental teams are managed by the UCI and are eligible for the biggest races on the calendar. Continental teams are governed by national federations and can participate in races with UCI .HC or lower classification, upon invitation. Teams without any of these licenses are restricted to racing in only the smallest UCI races.

To this end, the main reason a team would register for a Continental license in Australia — as opposed to just racing in the NRS — is to gain invitations to higher-ranked UCI races.

Why step up?

If the main reason for applying for a Continental license in Australia is bigger races, why have so many teams considered making the step up in 2018?

At present, Australia has just three UCI-level men’s races: The Santos Tour Down Under, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, and the Jayco Herald Sun Tour. The first two of those are part of the WorldTour calendar, meaning Continental teams are almost certainly ineligible to complete. This leaves just the Jayco Herald Sun Tour as the only option for Australian-registered Continental teams to compete at UCI level in their sponsors’ homeland.

In the past two editions of the Herald Sun Tour, just four spots have been allocated to Australian Continental teams. This hasn’t posed too much of a problem, given there have been so few Australian Continental teams, but organisers will be forced to make a decision about who makes the cut for the 2018 edition.

CyclingTips understands that the four spots for 2018 are likely to go to the top four ranked NRS teams. Currently Isowhey SwissWellness Sports Team has a commanding lead and is all but guaranteed a Sun Tour spot. Meanwhile, there’s a tight four-way battle between NSWIS, Oliver’s Real Food Racing, Drapac Pat’s Veg and Mobius Future Racing for the remaining three spots.

Adding to the drama is the fact the NSWIS team is changing shape in 2018 and will become the new Australian Cycling Academy team. Even if they qualify in the top four teams this year, they will be a different team next year, meaning they won’t necessarily be guaranteed a spot.

How the Continental scene stands in 2018

Confirmed teams:

– Isowhey SwissWellness Sports
– St George Continental Team
– Drapac-Pats Veg
– Brisbane Continental Team

Likely teams:

– Australian Cycling Academy (Run by Ben Kersten of NSWIS)
– Oliver’s Real Food Racing
– Attaque Team Gusto (Currently Slovenian Registered)

Potential teams:

– Mobius Future Racing
– Team Ultra Racing

Team manager of Oliver’s Real Food racing, Sam Layzell, told CyclingTips that while his team’s promotion wasn’t yet confirmed, it’s the possibility of a Herald Sun Tour spot that’s the greatest reason for stepping up.

“For our current title sponsor, Oliver’s, it a huge thing. I would say it’s the driving force behind it,” Layzell said of the Sun Tour. “Anything we sort of do secondary in the Asian Tour is good for our riders but at the end of the day, for our Australian-based sponsors, it’s the Herald Sun Tour that’s driving it.

“There is a proposal in place [to become Continental] and currently we are trying to generate enough cash because we feel like it’s the right time after racing NRS for five years.”

Racing in Asia

As hinted at by Layzell, the Herald Sun Tour isn’t the only motivating factor behind the increasing number of teams seeking Continental licenses. Over the past few years there has been a growing interest in sport in Asia and cycling is no exception. Australian teams have noticed this growth and are making the most of the massive prize pools available at many Asian races.

Oliver’s Real Food Racing, even without a Continental license, has participated in a number of Asian races in recent years, giving riders international experience which, Layzell says, helps with development.

“You take them out of their comfort zone in a race in Asia and it’s a different experience and it’s invaluable,” he said. “We do it for the riders but we also do because it’s low cost. When you go to these Asia Tour races, 99% of the time you are only paying for an airfare and everything is covered once you get over there.”

Oliver’s had an impressive run at the recent Jelajah Malaysia (UCI 2.2) with Brendon Davids winning a stage and the overall — the team’s first UCI-level success.

The low cost of Asian racing is something that appeals to the St George Continental team as well, a team that has stepped away from the NRS to focus primarily on the Asia Tour. The team has had a packed Asian racing calendar in 2017 and recently had its first UCI-level success — a stage and the overall at the UCI 2.2 Tour de Moluccas through Marcus Culey.

St George Continental also regularly competes in smaller Asian races such as the Tour of Poyang Lake, which doesn’t have a UCI classification but still offers in excess of $320,000 in prize money. Compare that to the recent Sam Miranda Tour of the King Valley, one of the more established and wealthier NRS races, which had $20,000 of prize value and you can see why some teams opt to race in Asia over the NRS.

National Road Series

With Asia becoming an increasingly appealing option for a lot of Australian teams, and with a widespread lack of confidence in the NRS, what does this all mean for the future of the NRS? Could the NRS suffer further as a result of increased interest in the Asia Tour?

Local NRS team InForm Tineli is another team expanding its calendar into Asia in 2018, albeit without a Continental licence. The team’s manager, Cameron McKimm, told CyclingTips that Asian racing wouldn’t be on the table if the NRS was a more compelling prospect. “If the NRS was stronger and had better publicity, we wouldn’t need to do it [race in Asia].”

But while some teams have turned their attention to Asia because of the issues plaguing Australia’s NRS, Cycling Australia’s general manager of sport, Kipp Kaufmann, believes the NRS and an increase in Asian racing will work well alongside each other.

“We’ve been talking to teams for months about this and we see them as having a firm commitment (to the NRS),” he told CyclingTips. “The way that we are building the NRS is that it will have incentives to qualify into events, so we see it as complementary [to Asian racing] and our understanding is that a lot of teams see it as complementary as well.”

Joshua Prete is the manager of a new Continental outfit for 2018, the Brisbane Continental Cycling Team. Prete believes it will be difficult to combine the NRS with Asian racing, given the team’s roster size.

“We’ll try to get to as much as we can in Asia primarily, but we still want to give the NRS what it’s worth and always try and get to the race,” he said. “If we get an opportunity at one of the bigger Asian races I think it would be a tough decision if it clashed with an NRS race.”

With a mid-season break seeming likely again in the 2018 NRS, Prete explained that part of the appeal of Asian racing is to “pack out the calendar” while the NRS is on hold.

Cycling Australia is yet to confirm the NRS calendar for 2018 — those details will be released after the Tour of Tasmania in November. However, Kaufmann did tell CyclingTips that Cycling Australia will be “eventually shifting the calendar [of the NRS] which will allow that break [to be] a little bit more clearer and that timeframe will be carved out for international race participation.”

So it would seem that an increase in the number of Continental teams isn’t likely to have an immediate impact on the running of the NRS. And, if the top four Continental NRS teams each year are to get a Herald Sun Spot, it could perhaps make the series even more competitive and tactical as teams battle for those elusive but important spots. Cycling Australia is supporting the new Continental teams in the hope that their competing overseas will strengthen the NRS.

“The increase in the number of Continental teams is a great sign for the NRS because it shows that teams are really committing to becoming higher-level teams,” Kaufmann said.

While it remains to be seen exactly how many teams will fulfil the requirements for and receive a Continental license for 2018, at this stage it seems to be a promising development for Australian cycling. Racing under a Continental license presents young riders with more development opportunities through Asia and, at the same time, will hopefully make the National Road Series stronger.

About the author

Matt de Vroet joined CyclingTips as an editorial intern in April 2017. He is a third-year journalism student at Monash University in Melbourne and currently races for Van D’am Racing in Australia’s National Road Series.

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