Leaving Michael Freiberg off the TDU team isn’t popular but it does makes sense

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There are plenty of people who believe Michael Freiberg should be racing the Tour Down Under. That’s pretty clear from the 2,500+ signatures on the petition started by Freiberg’s fellow racer, Guy Kalma. And the support for Freiberg is understandable: he absolutely earned his spot.

His ride to win the 2019 Australian road title was something special. After being dropped in the closing laps, Freiberg fought back to rejoin the leaders then dashed to an impressive victory. It was a win for the underdogs and one that showed the sort of fight UniSA-Australia riders need when facing a peloton full of WorldTour pros at the Tour Down Under.

More than that, it doesn’t feel right for the Nationals winner to miss Tour Down Under. There’s something romantic about seeing the national champion in action at Australia’s biggest race, and given Cycling Australia (CA) had the opportunity to make that happen, it’s hard not to feel like they should have.

But it’s not quite as simple as that. While many people have expressed incredulity at Freiberg’s omission, CA’s decision does make sense.

Last December, Cycling Australia sent out a press release outlining its plans for National teams at the Aussie summer races. It included the following quote from performance director Simon Jones: “These teams support the ongoing development of athletes who are on an upward trajectory within the Cycling Australia performance pathway.”

That press release was light on detail but an email sent to state body CEOs, state institutes, and National Road Series teams on December 3 had more info, saying that “Riders have to be on an upward trajectory and U23” (emphasis added).

It’s clear from this email that Cycling Australia wanted to prioritise the selection of U23 riders when it came to the TDU. Unfortunately, that U23 stipulation wasn’t made clear to the public until this week, at which point many felt like Cycling Australia had altered its selection policy to exclude Freiberg.

As a quick side note, it’s worth highlighting that most people’s frustrations about the Freiberg decision aren’t the result of one selection for one race. They’re built upon frustrations about last year’s Tour Down Under team selection, including the fact that Freiberg missed out because of a mistake at CA’s end. They’re built upon frustrations about how Simon Jones has approached high performance since joining.

They’re built on frustrations about the seemingly exorbitant cost of race licenses. And, for those with longer memories, they’re built on frustrations about how Freiberg was passed over by CA for 2012 Worlds and Olympic selection despite winning a track world title in 2011.

In essence, many members of the Australian cycling community harbour a latent frustration towards Cycling Australia and this latest controversy only flares that up. And the organisation knew full well that there would be a public backlash following Freiberg’s non-selection, but it decided to stick to its guns.

Giving Freiberg the UniSA-Australia spot would probably have been the easier option. It would have been a real feel-good story and earned CA some much-needed positive PR. And here’s where it gets interesting.

CA did have the opportunity to do that; to acknowledge that while developing U23 riders is important, so too is rewarding rides like Freiberg’s.

A quote from Simon Jones in CA’s December 11 press release reads “it’s possible that a winner of the under 23 or elite road race at the FedUni Road Nationals may not be able to be selected unless they are already in this testing pool …” As Freiberg pointed out to CyclingTips, this suggests it’s at least possible for an elite road race winner to be part of the UniSA-Australia squad, so long as they’re part of the Whereabouts system, which Freiberg is.

CA’s December 3 email to stakeholders also suggests that the U23 policy could have been set aside. While it notes that all National team riders “have to be on an upward trajectory and U23” it also says that “these selections will be made with absolute discretion”. The same email also suggests that the selection criteria (including the U23 stipulation) “may” be enforced.

And then there’s the fact that Freiberg was selected in the National team for Cadel’s Race, which uses the same selection criteria as Tour Down Under. Ultimately, it’s up to the selectors who will represent Australia and who won’t.

In Freiberg’s words, “Simon Jones has absolutely no faith in my ability to make it to the WorldTour level.” Which is what this whole controversy really seems to boil down to. Simon Jones believes Freiberg won’t make it to the pro ranks and so the spot is better spent on someone younger; someone with a great chance of “making it”.

It’s hard not to sympathise with Freiberg. He did absolutely everything he could and everything that was asked of him. He fought to get himself back on the Whereabouts program as required (even when CA wouldn’t give him a spot) and he worked hard for many years to get back to a level where he could compete (and win) at Nationals.

It’s unclear how much he knew about CA’s preference for U23 riders and whether the December 3 email got through to him. Either way, in Freiberg’s mind, he went to Nationals with a chance of making the TDU squad if he performed well. And perform well he certainly did.

In short, he ticked all the boxes. There’s nothing more he could have done. But if it’s a choice between 28-year-old Freiberg and 21-year-old Michael Potter, and the stated goal is to nurture up-and-coming riders, then it’s logical to choose the younger rider.

That’s not to say that Freiberg can’t still make it to the WorldTour — while perhaps unlikely, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. It’s just that, all things being equal, Potter probably has a greater chance of doing so and that the Tour Down Under experience will likely be of greater value to him.

And let’s spare a thought for Michael Potter in all this. With third place in last year’s U23 road race at Nationals and second this year, he’s well and truly earned his place. He’s a rider with a bright future and it’s a shame that so much of the build-up to the biggest race of his young career has focused on how, by proxy, he shouldn’t be there.

You might be reading this and thinking that, regardless of CA’s focus on U23 riders, Freiberg should still be on the team. That despite CA’s best intentions when it comes to developing young talent, it’s a simple as this: the national champion should be racing Tour Down Under.

Again, it’s an argument that certainly feels good — there’s a certain romanticism to rewarding those who work hard and to having the national champion at TDU. But it’s not as simple as saying the national champion gets an automatic ride with UniSA-Australia. What if they’re not part of the Whereabouts pool, for example? There are only so many spots available and not every potential winner can be included.

Let’s remember, too, that it took an unlikely set of circumstances for this controversy to arise in the first place. The winner had to come from a non-WorldTour, non-BridgeLane team, which rules out the vast majority of potential winners. Of course, that’s one of the great things about our sport — that Continental riders can match it with, and sometimes beat, WorldTour riders.

Again, credit should go to Freiberg for his stellar ride and for ticking all the necessary boxes along the way. He absolutely deserves a chance to ride the Tour Down Under. Sadly for him, it’s also true that Michael Potter deserves that chance and given Cycling Australia’s focus on supporting the U23 riders, it’s easy to understand why they picked the younger rider.

Cycling Australia could have been more transparent about its selection policy — it could have explicitly stated in its December press release that spots in the national teams would go to U23 riders, rather than just sending that to stakeholders. Doing so would likely have helped temper some of the public frustration.

And if the policy was that its UniSA-Australia spots would only be filled by U23 riders, then CA could also have made that clearer in its email to stakeholders. Saying that selections are made with “absolute discretion” based on criteria that “may” be enforced gives selectors some wiggle room, but it only serves to muddy the waters for those who are invested in the process.

At the end of the day, CA has made its decision and it’s paying for that in the court of public opinion. Like many others, I’d love to see Freiberg racing at the TDU, but I can understand why he’s not.

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