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Some 28 months after first announcing it would undertake a comprehensive review of the National Road Series (NRS), Cycling Australia has revealed how it plans to reshape the country’s highest domestic road cycling competition.
At the heart of Cycling Australia’s plans is a segmentation of the existing NRS into three separate series, each of which will occupy a distinct section on the calendar.
The first segment, a one-day Classics period of sorts, will run through April and May and will feature the Melbourne to Warrnambool (but not until 2019) and the Grafton to Inverell — and possibly other, similar races in future. The second segment will run from August to November and will comprise the stage races that currently make up the bulk of the NRS. The third component is a criterium series that will run from November through February, and will include the Bay Crits series in Geelong and Melbourne, as well as new criterium races in other capital cities.
The idea is to group similar races together at the same time of year, to make it easier for riders and teams to prepare for those events. To fully understand the changes to the NRS, though, it’s worth considering each of the three segments in more detail.
At present, the men’s NRS’s features two one-day races: Grafton to Inverell and the Melbourne to Warrnambool. Both are more than 200km in length, both are among Australia’s oldest and most prestigious races, and both require a different training regime compared to other NRS events. With the two one-day races currently split by five months, with a bunch of stage races in between, it’s currently difficult for riders that want to train up for both events. Having both at the same time of year will make it easier on the riders.
Unfortunately, in the shuffle from an October to April timeslot, the Melbourne to Warrnambool won’t be run in 2018 — the first time the 122-year-old race hasn’t run in some form since 1928. This postponement is due to the limitations of state government funding.
“Government have provisions where they can only fund an event once in a financial year,” Cycling Australia’s general manager of sport, Kipp Kaufmann, told CyclingTips. “As such the event couldn’t be funded in both October and April, as they are both in the same financial year.
“The event is already a tough event to financially sustain — this would make it even harder. Additionally, running it would not fit with the new structure of the series.”
Under Cycling Australia’s new plan, the NRS’ stage races won’t be spread from February through to November. Rather they’ll be clustered between August and November, again providing some consistency for teams and riders who wish to prepare for such events.
As Kipp Kaufmann explains, Cycling Australia hopes to move towards a model where tour stages are contested on circuits of 10-15km, in regional cities. The bigger the crowds, the better the value for sponsors.
“We’re looking at structures of the events where they’re more circuit-based, where we can try and bring them more to population centers,” Kaufmann said. “But that takes time and big commercial changes and some organisers have put on fantastic events that are really well regarded.
“We don’t want to change their business model overnight. So with those we’ll look to change one or two stages or work with them over time … to make sure that there’s subtle changes so that they can implement that into the business and they see the benefits of that as they go forward, rather than a sudden change which may lose organisers as a result.”
Cycling Australia will also look to standardise the length of tours to between two and four days, for a few reasons.
“When considering this area the critical part is one, sustainability of events; two, the desire of teams; and three, investment interest from commercial and government [partners],” Kaufmann said. “When working with any race oragniser we will look to ensure we meet the critical elements above. In doing so, the series will grow.”
The longer tours, including the Tour of the Great South Coast and the Tour of Tasmania, will stay at their current length due to “strong local support for the longer event length”. Both of these events are also looking to add women’s events in the next few years.
“These would be slightly shorter due to event logistic and smaller team budgets,” Kaufmann said of the women’s races. “In the case of these longer events (and all events) we are working with organisers to develop travel support for teams to ensure they are able to participate.”
The new criterium series, which will run through the summer, will feature a combination of old and new races. Existing events, such as the Mitchelton Bay Cycling Classic (Bay Crits) and the St. Kilda Super Crit, will likely be part of this series, while other, new events — such as potential criteriums in Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide — would also be added to the calendar.
The exact make-up of the criterium series will be announced in the new year. Kaufmann is keen to ensure that Cycling Australia doesn’t get ahead of itself.
“We don’t want to make it too big with that series — we want to focus on quality and making sure that the riders can make it,” he said. “We keep having to ensure that that’s going to happen because people get excited about a new concept but we need to make sure that there’s high-quality content, not just putting something together for the sake of putting it together.”
At first glance, the November to February timeframe seems problematic — many riders change teams on January 1, while teams themselves often change sponsors or cease to exist entirely. Cycling Australia isn’t hugely worried by these factors.
“You are correct the series going across the calendar year could cause trouble due to the UCI setup,” Kaufmann said. “However the structure of this will be much more flexible then the NRS and will be standalone. This will allow teams to start their new form early and allow riders back from overseas to participate.
“Total Rush Women, who have Lauretta Hanson racing, as an example, or the new MAAP team who has launched early through the crits, are good examples.”
Beyond a revised structure for the NRS, Cycling Australia has also announced an incentives scheme to reward the competition’s strongest teams. As revealed last month the top teams in both the men’s and women’s NRS will now receive invites to the UCI-categorised (i.e. higher-level) races over the Australian summer of racing. And unlike other measures in Cycing Australia’s reworking of the NRS, this aspect will come into effect immediately.
The top four teams in the women’s NRS this year1 will get automatic entry to the three UCI-classified women’s events in January (the Santos Women’s Tour, Cadel’s Race and the inaugural women’s Herald Sun Tour). Likewise the top four men’s teams2 will get an invite to the men’s Herald Sun Tour. It gets a little trickier in the case of the Santos Tour Down Under and men’s Cadel’s Race, both of which are WorldTour races.
“Those events obviously can’t take in anything below Pro Continental,” Kaufmann explained. “However, the top teams [in the NRS] are being recognised directly into the WorldTour events through participation in the national team and recognition of their sponsor.”
The top NRS team from 2017 (IsoWhey Swiss Wellness) will be able to field five riders in the National team at the 2018 Santos Tour Down Under, while the second-ranked team (NSWIS) will have five riders in the national team for the 2018 Cadel’s Race.
The NRS calendar now, and into the future
So what will the NRS calendar look like in 2018? With the changes Cycling Australia has made, will it be a healthier-looking season than in years gone by?
At this stage it’s not entirely clear — Cycling Australia plans to release the full calendar sometime before Christmas. Again, the Melbourne to Warrnambool won’t run in 2018, but at this stage there’s no indication that any other existing events won’t be held in 2018. There’s also the possibility of additions to the calendar but no announcements have been made as yet.
Perhaps the most interesting point is not what the NRS looks like in the short term, but where Cycling Australia sees it going in the years ahead. The national body is working towards a vision for 2021 which would see NRS racing in the Northern Territory and even beyond Australian shores.
“Certainly we’ve been engaged with the Northern Territory about events there into the future,” Kaufmann confirmed. “We’ve been engaged with other national federations about moving to those countries into the future and certainly we’re already establishing relationships with events overseas, not only to bring teams here but also to allow participation by our riders.
“So that’s a reciprocal [arrangement] — that will help build our teams’ invites but also riders coming here. And we’re also engaged with various governments in regards to how we can take some of our top events up to UCI status.”
Under this vision, several NRS races would move to UCI 2.2 (for tours) or UCI 1.2 (for one-day races) status. Doing so would allow internationally registered teams to take part, while also ensuring that NRS teams are still able to compete.
It’s been nearly two-and-a-half years since Cycling Australia first flagged the need for a comprehensive review of the NRS and we’re only now starting to see the results of that process. And even then, it’s not clear exactly what the revised NRS will look like — the 2018 calendar is still a little while away from being released. Details of a TV broadcast deal for the 2018 NRS, too, is yet to be unveiled, but is expected in the new year.
But for Cycling Australia, the process, while long and arduous, has been a positive one, not least due to the ability to work closely with the NRS’ key stakeholders.
“Through this process we’ve really focused on engagement — engagement of the teams and engagement of the events to ensure that there’s an alignment with them so that [the revised series] meets everyone’s [needs],” Kaufmann said. “I think the good news is the teams have really been engaged and bought-in, and the events have been engaged and bought in, and we’re really trying to move together in a collaborative fashion that works for the sport.
“I see this as not the change that’s going to change everything but it’s a stepped approach, that we’re starting to move in the right direction. I think we’ll continue to make progress now and we’re engaged in dialogue and negotiations around marketing and commercial and different things that are equally or more important to the series.
“It’s not all going to happen in one year. Now we’re really focused on the improvements [that] are going to be made.”
1. In order: Holden Women’s Cycling Team, High5 Dream Team, TIS Racing Team and Specialized Women’s Racing.
2. In order: Isowhey Sports Swiss Wellness, NSWIS Cycling Team, Oliver’s Real Food Racing and Drapac Pat’s Veg Cycling.