Why Wollongong? How New South Wales got the 2022 Road World Championships

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The announcement caught many people off-guard. Not just because it arrived at 3am on a Saturday morning, and not just because there were no rumours or leaks in the lead-up — a rarity with such big news. It was mainly a surprise because, if the Road World Championships were going to come back to Australia, everyone expected they’d be held in South Australia, or Victoria, or maybe Tasmania. Anywhere but New South Wales, really.

It’s hardly controversial to say that road cycling has faced its fair share of challenges in New South Wales in recent years. Given that, holding the world’s second-biggest cycling event (after the Tour de France) there is somewhat puzzling.

And yet here we are. In late 2022, the world’s best road cyclists will converge on Wollongong, a city of 300,000 roughly 70km south of Sydney. The announcement prompts many questions: Why Wollongong? Why hold the Road Worlds in Australia’s least cycling-friendly state? What goes into bidding for Worlds? What will the courses look like? And what happens from here?

Genesis

It’s been a little over a year since Cycling Australia started putting together its bid for the 2022 Road Worlds. Spearheaded by its general manager of sport, Kipp Kaufmann, and new CEO, Steve Drake, the organisation set to work after its last Worlds concluded — the 2017 MTB World Championships, held in Cairns last September.

“The Road World Championships have been on Cycling Australia’s radar for a couple of years now and it seemed like the right time, certainly with the success of the 2017 MTB Worlds,” Kaufmann told CyclingTips. “That was really probably the time to position it as an opportunity. The MTB Worlds went so well [and] it would have been 12 years by that time since Geelong [the 2010 Worlds] had been on and it was really an opportunity to come back to Australia.”

Drake describes bidding for Worlds as a two-sided process. On the one hand you’re trying to find a suitable host that can fund the event; on the other you’re busy courting the UCI.

“You’ve gotta start warming up the UCI and say ‘You need to have it outside Europe again — the last time would have been Richmond 2015. By the time we get to 2022 it will be seven years since it was outside of Europe,’” Drake told CyclingTips. “And then in Australia you’ve got to find the money. And that’s definitely a lobbying effort with various state governments because it tends to be the state governments who invest in those kind of events, rather than the federal government.”

Courting the states

Cycling Australia approached various state governments to gauge their interest, delivering a pitch that was focused on the tourism opportunities Worlds would offer. Some 200 million international viewers will be watching, they said. What better way to get international eyeballs on the state and, hopefully, encourage visitation from around the world?

“We cast the net reasonably wide,” Drake said. “I don’t think we should name all the states but there was broad interest in having it* — it’s a pretty big event. But you are then subject to the political process as well. You have to catch the right state, right government, right time. We’re very grateful to the New South Wales government that [they] have shown such strong interest.”

Once a deal had been struck with New South Wales, the next step was deciding on a host city.

“Once you get a state, I suppose you are driven by some of the constraints around the event,” Drake explained. “You need to have a place that is big enough to support an influx that could be 300,000 people on the days of the men’s and women’s elite events. So that might drive you away from certain places where you might have a terrific bike race but you just can’t deal with that number of people or it’s not convenient to do it.

“Then you need to kind of think about: what are the transport links like? How much accommodation is there? What are the UCI’s requirements? Because it’s probably their biggest event from a logistics and conference perspective — every day seems to be another conference that they have at the Worlds. So you need a place that’s got conference facilities that can deal with 250 delegates or something like that. And again that means you can’t have it in the middle of nowhere.

“It’s really a question of at what point do the sporting and other requirements of the UCI overlap with the tourism and other objectives of the supporting government, and who’s motivated the most?” Drake said. “So that drove us towards Wollongong. The scenery is pretty awesome and again from a New South Wales and Destination New South Wales perspective, being able to show some of those iconic pictures during the bike race will get people overseas saying ‘Wow, that looks pretty awesome — I’d like to go there.”

The stunning Sea Cliff Bridge. (Image: Rodney Campbell)

As Drake suggests, Wollongong does have a lot to offer. It’s close to Sydney, which means good transport links (Australia’s biggest airport is accessible from Wollongong via train). And when combined with Sydney, Wollongong has plenty of accommodation and conference facilities available. It has stunning scenery, including beautiful coastlines and a lush, leafy hinterland. It has all the ingredients necessary for an engaging bike race.

Perhaps most importantly, with state backing, it has the capacity to fund the event.

CyclingTips understands that the 2022 Road World Championships are set to cost in excess of $20 million with the New South Wales government expected to be a significant contributor. At least part of the cost includes a rights fee that’s paid to the UCI — and money’s just one of the things the governing body is looking for when selecting a Worlds host.

“Firstly I think they want somebody who can deliver the bike race and I think Australia has a pretty good track record there,” Drake said. “We’ve done world cups, we’ve had the Track Worlds, we’ve had the Road Worlds, we’ve had the MTB Worlds a few times now. So we’ve got a good track record there.

“They do want to broaden the appeal of the sport outside of Europe. They’re talking about Africa in 2025, presumably they’ll take it back to Asia again at some point after that. I guess the last one there would have been Utsunomiya and I think that’s 1990. And then they charge a fairly chunky rights fee. I won’t tell you exactly how much but it’s certainly not chump change. So they look for somebody who can pay that.”

Police problems?

When news of the Wollongong Worlds broke last week, it did so to a largely positive reaction here in Australia. But as mentioned, there’s also been no shortage of consternation that such an important cycling event will be held in the country’s least cycling-friendly state. The question usually goes: Why not host it in Victoria again, or South Australia — states that have a proven track record with major cycling events and that are considerably more supportive of cycling than NSW?

After all, new laws introduced in recent years have left many riders in New South Wales feeling demonised by police and race organisers have long been at the mercy of a police force that’s largely unsupportive of local bike racing.

Cycling Australia is more than aware of these criticisms and the potential issues involved in organising bike races in New South Wales. And yet they’re openly optimistic about how things will unfold for the Wollongong Worlds.

“People comment about the police in New South Wales and the trouble there [but] they’ve already been a partner and been across the bid since the start,” Kaufmann said. “So they’re completely in. So we’ve been able to not only contain it [potential issues with police] but partner with them.

“Essentially when we started talking about regions we started talking about how the event might look and what they [police] would need to put into it. They had to be comfortable from the start and they were. They’ve been fantastic.”

On some level, it’s unsurprising that NSW police has come to the party, and done so early in the piece. After all, there’s a big difference between organising a local club race (or even a National Road Series race) and one of the biggest cycling events in the world.

“I think when you’ve got the buy-in from the premier down, maybe it’s easier to get the police support,” Drake said. “But we don’t want this just to be about the Worlds and elite cycling — we want this to be an opportunity to kind of reboot cycling in New South Wales if you like.

“There will be a lot of police involvement in running the Worlds and so maybe this can be a bit of a catalyst to make life easier to run bike races in New South Wales. I don’t want to make any promises there but it’s a great opportunity for that.”

Just as the 2010 Geelong Worlds paved the way for the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race — races which feature a similar finishing circuit in Geelong — Cycling Australia hopes to spin a legacy event out of Wollongong 2022. And again, should everything go well at Worlds, Cycling Australia hopes that organising races in New South Wales should only start to get easier.

“The police in Victoria here are exceptional, and … that’s why there’s so many races here,” Kaufmann said. “The police work well with the organisers, they deliver. That’s one thing you never have to worry about in Victoria — it’s world-class. South Australia has done the same over the last few years and built up their police to quite an exceptional level.

“And so now this is the opportunity we have [in New South Wales]. Again, like Steve said, it’s not something we can promise but we now have the opportunity to take advantage of that and leave that legacy for cycling in New South Wales.”

Course conjecture

Of course, the bulk of the discussion around any Road World Championships announcement focuses on the nature of the courses, particularly the road race courses. Wollongong is no exception. Where will the races start? Where in Wollongong will they finish? How hard will they be? How much climbing will be involved? What sort of riders will the courses suit?

It could be up to three years until we have answers to those questions — the courses haven’t even been designed yet, let alone released to the public. A UCI delegation has visited Wollongong to ensure the potential “elements of a course” are available. According to Cycling Australia, the feedback from the UCI was positive. And with good reason.

The Illawarra Range to the west of Wollongong provides plenty of potential climbs and rolling hills for the riders to tackle. A finishing circuit around Wollongong could be anywhere from mostly flat to punishingly hilly.

Just as Geelong 2010 started in Melbourne some 80km away, it seems likely that a start in Sydney will be considered, at least for the elite men’s road race. If tourism opportunities are front of mind, which they are, what better way to start the race than with the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background?

The coastal approach to Wollongong, too, would provide great scenic shots for TV, especially the Sea Cliff Bridge, some 25km north of Wollongong. Indeed, shots of that bridge were included in the UCI’s announcement tweet. The rolling roads of the Royal National Park would offer both great views and challenging racing, while also following a route used annually by the Sydney to Wollongong Gong Ride — a familiar logistical exercise for local police.

Could there be a better backdrop for the start of a bike race? (Image: Mariano Mantel)

Kaufmann explained to CyclingTips that the UCI doesn’t place restrictive requirements on Worlds hosts when it comes to course design. There are some guidelines that need to be adhered to, such as minimum and maximum distances, but the UCI doesn’t dictate what sort of course should be designed or how much climbing should be involved. Rather it’s an ongoing discussion between the organising committee and the UCI, as various elements are balanced.

“[We need to consider] how you can see the beach, how you can see all the beautiful areas around and show that off on television, but also have a tough race that professional elite cyclists can be part of and the spectators will love,” Kaufmann said. “So what are the elements of that that could potentially make up of course, and how do you piece those together?

“And then there’s operations. So what roads can be shut down? Which ones can you go under? Which ones can you go over? So there might be a train line, so you can go under — that’s OK that’s easy to close.

“That’s why it’s hard to say ‘This is exactly what it [the course] will be’ until there’s a community consultation process that we go through. But I guess the key part that we’ve had feedback from the UCI [on] is all of the elements are there. How we set that up will be worked through in partnership with the UCI over the next few years.

“The exciting part is your imagination can go in so many different ways and you could probably find a course for every type of rider to win.”

The road ahead

While time is on the organising committee’s side — at nearly four years, they have twice as long as the Geelong 2010 organising committee had — there’s much work to be done between now and 2022. Designing the courses, while a significant challenge, is only part of the equation. And the initial tasks will be far less sexy.

“I think the first part is about setting up the corporate structure of the organisation, getting the right people involved and then setting the project forward to be as successful as possible” Kaufmann said. “So bringing on partners and making sure we deliver the greatest legacy we possibly can for the sport.”

While the Australian cycling community might have some misgivings about the choice of Wollongong as a host for the 2022 Worlds, it’s clear that Cycling Australia does not. And it’s easy to see why. With impressive scenery, its considerable size, great course options and its proximity to Sydney, Wollongong has a lot to offer. Crucially, the New South Wales government and its tourism arm have the ability to pay for it.

And, if the NSW Police are as invested as Cycling Australia suggest, then a lot of the early concerns could well be mitigated. We can only hope that the Wollongong Worlds is the catalyst for great change that cycling in New South Wales so desperately needs.

Footnotes

*At the last two editions of the Tour Down Under, the South Australian government declared its interest in hosting the Road World Championships.

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