When races go wrong: Inside the chaos of the Kelly Country Road Race

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Organising bike races is a mostly thankless task. All those hours of planning, the careful logistics management, the syncing of multiple moving parts — it all happens behind the scenes, away from the public gaze. Get everything right and your hard work will go largely unnoticed. Get it wrong, though, and it’s a different story entirely.

Just ask Cycling Victoria.

More than a fortnight after the chaos of the Kelly Country Road Race, the dust is just now starting to settle. Held on the same day and roads as the final stage of the Sam Miranda Tour of the King Valley — a three-day, four stage National Road Series (NRS) race — the Kelly Country Road Race was part of the state-level Victorian Road Series (VRS). In previous years it went smoothly. This year, it was clear there’d be problems before the race even began.

As they stood on the startline at the Sam Miranda Winery in north east Victoria, riders in some grades were warned by commissaires that they were in for a disrupted day’s racing. Social media reports show those fears were well-founded.

Instagram posts show riders waiting by the roadside a few hours later, racing brought to a halt after multiple neutralisations. Racing in most grades was abandoned just 4km from the end of the race, after officials decided that conditions were too unsafe to continue.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BnUiNFdB9XW/

Reports from riders across various VRS grades tell the story of a stop-start day of chaotic racing. A breakaway in Masters B grade was neutralised twice, both times allowing the bunch behind to catch up. Women’s C grade was left waiting for cars to let them in while making a right turn onto a main road, without traffic management.

Women’s B grade was stopped three times to give way to a splintered NRS field and by the time the race was abandoned at 4km to go, three riders from that grade had already passed through. At least one grade was given the option of racing those final 4km, in amongst heavy traffic, without traffic management.

By all accounts, it was a mess. Riders took to social media to lambast Cycling Victoria, with many calling for refunds, not just for their event entry, but for the cost of accommodation and travel to regional Victoria.

So where did it all go wrong? As Cycling Victoria CEO Paul Jane tells it, the drama began with an undetected change to the event’s technical regulations, or “tech regs” — a detailed document outlining the logistical particulars of the event.

“The tech regs essentially changed between … previous years’ events and this year’s event by 30 minutes, in terms of the start,” Jane told CyclingTips. “Because the NRS does … an extra arm [which] loops back around on the course, what that has done, because of that 30 minutes, is it’s run a whole lot of other groups into the back of the NRS [women’s race].”

As per the tech regs, the NRS women’s race was first to start, with riders leaving the startline at 9:30am compared to 9am in previous years. Seven VRS grades followed from 9:50am, running from slowest to fastest1 (Women’s C through Masters A), most with just five minutes in between.

In Paul Jane’s words, the NRS women “weren’t riding particularly fast”. Given that many of the VRS groups behind were, and they were riding a shorter course, it was a matter of time before the NRS riders would be caught from behind.

It’s not uncommon for grades to come together at VRS and club races, and normally it’s easily dealt with.

“The standard protocol is to neutralise that [front] bunch until the other bunch passes,” Jane said. “But in this case, because we had the NRS, which roll under … a different traffic management scenario, that couldn’t occur.”

Left: The NRS course. Right: The shorter VRS course.

The NRS race was controlled by a rolling road closure in which police pulled cars off the road to allow the bunch to come through. Once the race envelope has passed, cars were allowed to continue on their way. The VRS grades, meanwhile, didn’t have rolling road closures. Instead racing took place on open roads, albeit within in an envelope bounded by lead and follow vehicles. At key intersections, where riders wouldn’t normally have right of way, traffic managers altered the flow of traffic to ensure safe passage for the VRS riders.

You can see the issue. Police pulled public vehicles off the road to allow the NRS race to pass. Once the race had gone through, those vehicles got back on the road, many of them sitting behind the NRS envelope. Behind and in between those vehicles were multiple VRS grades, now caught behind the NRS race and a long line of traffic.

And that’s not all.

“It was Father’s Day and a bumper ski season meaning that what are normally really calm roads were just excessively busy on that weekend as well,” Jane said. “And so we had a lot more traffic than anticipated.”

Add to that a lack of experience from the traffic management company engaged for the race and the chaos was compounded.

“The race promoters had to use a different traffic management company to what they normally do,” Jane said, “because all the traffic management companies that have been there and had worked on those events were engaged in putting up the new barriers along all the highways.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BnPq1omBaow/

Traffic managers with years of experience in handling bike races would have struggled in the conditions presented by the Kelly Country Road Race. Inexperienced managers were doomed from the start.

It all came to a head with 4km to go when a traffic manager who was meant to be manning the course, wasn’t.

“They had left their post; that’s our understanding,” Jane said. “So they had assumed that with the NRS going through … they weren’t prepared for the next races to come through and because they [the VRS riders] were intertwined with traffic on the road, they didn’t pick that up. That’s inexperienced traffic controllers with road racing.

“So we had traffic management that weren’t skilled in this type of event, we had massive amounts of traffic that we hadn’t anticipated due to the ski season, and Father’s Day, but at the end of the day the primary issue was that that 30 minutes in the tech regs had shifted.”

An obvious question follows: If everything went well in previous years with a 9am start time, why push the start time of the women’s NRS race back by half an hour?

“No one can explain [it],” Jane said. “The tech regs we’d been working on were … running under the assumption that they were the same timing [as previous years]. We can’t get to the bottom of where that changed or why it did.

“We’ve had a conversation with the promoter [ed. Who wrote the tech regs] to discuss how that happened and he’s at a bit of a loss why that was changed. I think we had assumed when reviewing those tech regs out from the event, that that roll-out that had worked for a number of years was the continued roll-out, but certainly didn’t pick that up.”

The latest statement from Cycling Victoria.

It’s easy to lump blame at the feet of Cycling Victoria — it is, after all, the organisation that oversees and manages the Victorian Road Series. And, indeed, that’s where most affected riders have directed their frustration. But where does Paul Jane think blame lies?

“The traffic controllers certainly had briefings around when to expect bunches through — they had some timing, so projected speeds, bunches through at certain times,” he said. “So they had all of that information. But I think as a consequence of the system falling down some way out from those particular intersections — particularly the roundabout coming into the end — that was the failure.

“Ultimately everything surrounded this 30-minute time slot and the cascade of effects of that with the amount of traffic on the road [and] traffic unable to clear once it had been stopped from the NRS race. So it really just had a trail of traffic after that which other riders were coming up behind.

“The systems failed that would have been in place to catch some of it and give the commissaire the opportunity to make those calls around abandoning the race or pulling the race over to the side while traffic and those issues cleared.”

Nothing can be done about it now, of course, but Cycling Victoria has committed to learning from the dramas of the Kelly Country Road Race; to preventing the same from happening again.

“We’re reviewing, right at the moment, our tech commission and how we work with our commissaires to make sure they’re trained and educated in what to do in these set of circumstances,” Jane said. “We’re looking at our event agreements that we have with the various promoters to make sure that we mandate the delivery of tech regs and components to ensure that there’s time to review those and that multiple eyes have had the opportunity to look over it.

“Rather than the delivery of them the week of [the event] — that just doesn’t give enough time for the thought.”

In the meantime, plenty of riders have been calling for refunds. In an initial press release Cycling Victoria said that, “As the neutralisation and abandonment occurred in-race no refunds will be offered.” That stance only served to heighten many riders’ frustration. But after an internal review of the Kelly Country Road Race, the state body decided to offer refunds after all.

“Obviously we want to make sure that people are delivered a good experience,” Jane explained to CyclingTips. “If their experience of that race has been poor as a consequence of what’s gone on then they’ll obviously receive a refund.”

To many, this is where the story ends. The race didn’t run as it should have, Cycling Victoria was responsible, and now they must make amends. In some sense it is that simple. But there’s a bigger story here, too. One about the challenges of running bike races and the impact that an issue like this can have, even when, arguably, you’re not entirely to blame.

State-level races aren’t run with the budgets of the big WorldTour events. No one is making huge swathes of cash — indeed, many race promoters lose money in trying to provide opportunities for amateurs to race their bikes. Having to offer refunds to a significant portion of the startlist? That has a real financial impact.

“Cycling events are underfunded and no one makes money from cycling events,” Jane said. “We saw the Tour of the South West [ed. another VRS race] this year probably posted a significant loss. The future of cycling in the state … and the cost to run events on the road needs to be considered very closely.

“Our costs are going through the roof in terms of professional traffic management and delivering those events. So it’s a real concern. We’ve spoken to government about that. Because cycling shares the road, we actually don’t get any support. We’re a full-cost sport — there’s not too many sports that are full-cost sports and the cost of managing roads, or particularly traffic, has just gone through the roof in recent years.”

To be clear, this isn’t Paul Jane asking for sympathy nor offering an excuse. He’s not arguing that refunds shouldn’t be provided. He does believe, though, that the very future of local road racing is at risk in Victoria and beyond.

“Oh absolutely. The sport full stop,” he says. “We’re also chatting to the government around a metro strategy because it’s incredibly difficult to get permits within metro regions.

“We have one local government that’s saying to the same three clubs that they can only race once a month. If you went to a local football club and told them you could play one game a month and share that between the three football clubs, there’d be hell to pay. But because we’re treated as a road user, and probably a problematic road user, we just don’t get that level of support.

“There’s been some great developments of recent times in other states and some councils are pushing forward with criterium developments, or [have] got them on the books to build, but we need to support that because if we don’t have places for people to ride at a club level we don’t necessarily have a sport.”

https://www.instagram.com/p/BnP2HvUBRdN/?hl=en&taken-by=ekfer

Most riders affected by the chaos of the Kelly Country Road Race will happily take the refund offered by Cycling Victoria, and well they might. As Paul Jane says, “their experience of that race has been poor”. But Masters B racer (and VeloClub member) Sean Vintin has an alternate view.

“[I] understand that CV does not organise these events to make a profit and at the end of the day traffic control still needs to be paid for their work, other contractors too,” he told CyclingTips. “I acknowledge that a lot of the people and CV staff who were there on Saturday and Sunday may have selflessly given up their time and / or volunteered to be there. I don’t think there deserves to be a witch hunt, nobody died, and it’s not that serious when you put things into perspective.

“I don’t think there should be a refund and I don’t want the profitability or funds available to CV to be eroded in any way or to make them think ‘Is it really worth it”, because where else can I race at this level, this close to home? I don’t want to discourage CV from future events or for the great work they do for cyclists of all ages at all levels, 98% of the time.

“I think some of us just want some clearer answers regarding what happened this weekend. Some transparency, some empathy and some humility.”

Cycling Victoria has since shown that humility. In an email to the affected racers Paul Jane wrote the following:

“Firstly, I want to apologise. We’re extremely disappointed with how the race unfolded. As riders ourselves, we would’ve been very frustrated if we were in that same position. We’re sorry we let you down.”

Whether those affected will be happy with Cycling Victoria’s apology is a matter for each individual. Unfortunately, the fact that two of the last three rounds of the VRS have also been cancelled2 isn’t helping to foster a sense of understanding from riders.

While Cycling Victoria was ultimately responsible for the chaos that befell the Kelly Country Road Race, others would appear to bear some responsibility too. Clearly, the traffic manager shouldn’t have left their post 4km from the finish, with races still in progress. The race promoter probably should have provided more time when submitting the tech regs, and perhaps even flagged the change of NRS start time.

Ultimately, as Sean Vintin notes, the chaos of the Kelly Country Road Race matters little in the grand scheme of things, as undeniably frustrating as it was for all riders involved. It won’t be the last time a local bike race devolves into a chaotic mess — the reality is that race organisers and promoters sometimes get things wrong.

But the vast majority of the time they get it right. And because they do — against the odds, at significant cost, and often without government support — us amateurs have the opportunity to race our bikes. And for that we should perhaps be more grateful.

Footnotes

1. This in itself is somewhat odd. With such small gaps between grades, and faster grades going last, bunches catching each other is near unavoidable. As one commenter noted on social media:
 
“It doesn’t take a mathematical genius with the amount of previous data available from these races to work out that running grades from slowest to fastest with 5 minute gaps will result in grades catching one another.” By contrast, in the previous day’s one-day VRS race — the Strade Nero Road Race — and indeed in many other VRS races, the grades were sent off from fastest to slowest.
 
2. Speaking to CyclingTips, Paul Jane said the following of the two cancelled events, the Tour of Eildon and the Twin City Tour:
 
“Unfortunately, the promoters have advised us that they are unable to deliver the events. Cycling Victoria runs a limited number of events itself (i.e. Tour of the South West, the Tour of East Gippsland and the Melbourne to Warrnambool). We then work with a group of dedicated promoters and clubs to deliver the remaining events in the Victorian Road Series. This requires commitment from all parties, however, sometimes the best intentions don’t make a race viable.
 
“And, unfortunately, the cost of delivering on road events is escalating rapidly, as an example the Tour of the South West posted a loss this year largely due to the traffic management costs incurred. We need to consider what shape the Series will take next year to ensure its sustainability into the future.”

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