AusCycling explained: Australian cycling’s future or well-meaning pipe-dream?
Australian cycling is in the midst of its biggest change in recent memory. After years of division between the various cycling disciplines, there’s a concerted push to unify Australian cycling in a way it’s never been before.
- The “AusCycling” project seeks to combine all disciplines of cycling in Australia.
- Cycling Australia, MTBA and BMXA would all be disbanded, so too their state/territory subsidiaries.
- There’s considerable support for unifying the disciplines, but dissolving the state organisations is proving contentious.
- Some states are concerned about Cycling Australia’s past financial woes and how that might affect the new project.
- Right now, it’s not clear what the future holds for AusCycling.
Initially dubbed “One Cycling” and now known as “AusCycling”, the project seeks to dissolve Cycling Australia (responsible for road and track cycling), Mountain Bike Australia, and BMX Australia, so too the state organisations that sit under Cycling Australia and BMX Australia. In the place of these 19 organisations would be a single, newly formed national body that would govern all of cycling in Australia.
The goal of the project? To consolidate and professionalise Australian cycling, to create a sport more appealing to would-be commercial partners, and to make cycling “the largest participation and Olympic sport in Australia”.
At present, there’s widespread support for unifying the cycling codes, for bringing the sport together. The idea of dissolving state organisations, however, is proving considerably more contentious.
So what is AusCycling all about? Is it simply a Cycling Australia-led cash grab, as some suspect? Why is there so much resistance to restructuring the sport? And is the project even likely to go ahead?
A mammoth task
To say that the AusCycling project is complex and involved would be to undersell the magnitude entirely. At its core, it involves amalgamating 16 state and territory bodies plus three national sporting bodies, all of which have their own history, their own strengths and weaknesses, plus their own view of how the sport should be governed. Each discipline of the sport, too, has its own unique customs, culture, and community. It’s far from simple to bring all of these disparate elements together in a cohesive way.
While AusCycling is still months from coming to fruition — if indeed it does — it’s taken a long time to get as far as it has. CyclingTips was told of a memorandum of understanding signed between disciplines as far back as 2004, seeking to unify cycling codes in Australia. Nothing came of it — in fact, recent years have been marked by conflict between Cycling Australia (CA) and MTB Australia (MTBA) / BMX Australia (BMXA), largely due to funding issues1.
In December 2016, though, things started to change. As MTBA CEO Shane Coppin told CyclingTips, it was at that time that MTBA and BMXA approached Sport Australia — the agency responsible for guiding and funding much of Australian sport — disgruntled about the state of play in Australian cycling.
“Never did we feel that we could actually access significant funding and significant voice or actually do the things that we wanted to do within our organisations,” Coppin said. “I think we all felt we were probably in a bit of conflict with each other at different points … but I think it was more that we just felt like instead of working together … we just weren’t capitalising on the capacity of small organisations being one. I think that was reflected in how Sport Australia in essence really treated mountain bikes.”
CA, MTBA and BMXA are working much more closely together now. Since April 2018, counterparts at the three organisations have been meeting regularly and working towards a vision of Australian cycling’s unification. That vision was solidified by a December 2018 Ernst & Young report which helped pave the way for AusCycling.
At the core of the AusCycling model is a belief that Australian cycling is suffering as a result of its fragmentation. The hope of the steering committee is that by unifying the disciplines, the sport will benefit in many ways:
As a collection of disparate organisations within the one sport, cycling appears fragmented to would-be commercial partners — a direct contrast to other, more professional sports, such as cricket.
“I think historically we’ve almost made it hard to deal with cycling,” Cycling Australia CEO Steve Drake told CyclingTips. “Let’s say you were a consumer products company and you want to sponsor every women’s riding group in Australia. To do that at the moment we’d have to have a conference call with 19 people on it to decide whether that was something that we wanted to do and it’d probably take us a month to get those 19 people on the same call …
“And then the potential sponsor would probably want some data about the different programs that are all run. Some organisations would have that data and some wouldn’t and it would be in all different formats. By the time we’ve collected that data maybe it’s another month or two months [that] have gone by.
“So let’s then assume three months after the initial approach that we’ve agreed a deal. Then we have a big fight about how we carve up that money amongst 19 organisations. So what that means from a sponsor perspective is that they just go ‘Oh, that’s too hard — I’ll go deal with the AFL or cricket or whatever.’”
The hope is that a single entity, responsible for all cycling disciplines across Australia, will have greater commercial success.
As things currently stand, riders who want to ride in several disciplines are forced to take out multiple licenses, at significant cost (e.g. $335 for a road racing license + $135 for a MTB racing license).
Under the AusCycling model, rider licensing will be simplified considerably. There’ll be one website where riders can purchase whatever license they need (single- or multi-discipline) rather than having to visit a different website for each discipline.
“We have done a lot of work in trying to knit together the mishmash of different memberships that currently exist,” said CA’s Steve Drake. “As you know, in the federated model we have different pricing [for road cycling licenses] in every state. BMX is the same, so I can’t even really tell you how many different membership offers there are at the moment across the 19 bodies. It would be a couple of hundred probably.
“What we’re thinking … is for an U19 rider to ride every discipline: $120. For an adult to ride every discipline, $250,” said Drake. “For those people who do ride multi disciplines that’ll be quite a big saving. And you can’t do that unless you consolidate the system because part of paying for that is … we are to a certain extent factoring in the greater capacity of that combined entity [AusCycling]: one, to be efficient and two, to just win more [commercially].”
AusCycling hopes to become an advocacy body for Australian cycling, not just a racing administrator. There’s a desire to get more people on bikes, to get more kids riding to school, to promote cycling as an activity and a way of life, not just a sport.
“We need to be more active in bike-ed and getting more kids on bikes and this is where it’s absolutely bonkers to be divided between the disciplines,” said Drake. “How many kids get onto a road bike first? None. They get on a BMX or they get on a little mountain bike and off they go and have fun and that’s what they should be doing.
“Our job as a unified cycling organisation first of all should be to get more people on bikes more often. And the racing part will look after itself.”
Part of that advocacy role will be about cycling infrastructure, lobbying governments to ensure cyclists have safe places to ride (and race) wherever they may be.
“Certainly on the road and track side we haven’t done a great job in terms of infrastructure advocacy,” Drake said. “Compare us to cricket: [Cricket Australia] has like a dozen people who are basically full-time political lobbyists who go around and hassle politicians at local, state and federal level, for facilities to enable people to play cricket. Whether that’s another ground or some lights or female change facilities or whatever.
“How many people are doing that kind of role in any of the 19 [cycling] organisations at the moment? The answer is zero. And that’s why we get poor outcomes.”
Efficiency and resourcing
Almost all of the sport’s 19 governing organisations are underfunded and under-resourced, leaving them unable to service their members as effectively as they would like. Not only that, but various roles and administrative processes are replicated across multiple organisations — streamlining such roles into one organisation will hopefully lead to greater efficiency across the board.
The cost of CA’s insurance increased by 46% back in July, “primarily due to increased claims”. AusCycling believes that “under one powerful structure we have better negotiating power.” The intent is to use this negotiating power to “provide better cover for all our clubs and members”.
Despite widespread support for unifying cycling disciplines in Australia, the specifics of the AusCycling project have attracted significant criticism from certain camps.
One of the project’s most vocal critics is Glenn Vigar, president of Cycling NSW. Vigar describes himself as “very optimistic” about the amalgamation of cycling disciplines in Australia — indeed he regards it as a “no-brainer” — but he’s far less supportive of dissolving state and territory bodies in favour of an overarching national body.
In a strongly worded open letter to Senator Richard Colbeck, Federal Minister for Youth and Sport2, Vigar wrote that AusCycling was “designed to assist the existing national organisation, Cycling Australia, overcome its poor financial standing and performance.
“This transfer of assets, authorities and responsibilities to a financially weak and administratively inept centralised organisation, from solvent volunteer-based State organisations, is unprecedented.”
Speaking to CyclingTips, Vigar described AusCycling as a “hostile takeover”.
“They are saying to us, on this date, some date in early 2020, provided everybody votes yes, this new company will annexe everybody’s assets, and all those legal identities must then close down,” he said. “Well, ours has been around for 136 years, we’re the most financial of everybody including CA.
“We propped them up. They still owe us money. We loaned them $240,000 in 2014 on the understanding it’d be paid back over three years. It’s now 2019 and they’ve paid back half. And of course if this goes ahead they don’t pay back the other half.
“We have $1.2 million dollars in the bank and I’d be a very poor president as the custodian of all that just to blindly hand it over to an unknown. And I see this new business, this new identity, as an unknown. We think the amalgamation of the three sports at both a national and a state level is very achievable and would do wonders to our business. But we will not defederate.”
CA CEO Steve Drake understands Vigar’s concern, but believes he is being short-sighted.
“I think that they’re sort of focussing too much on the past and not enough on the future,” Drake said. “Yes they’re a big state and they will get a big share of the benefits that accrue from One Cycling. To just focus on the cash number … yes it’s important, but they also have a large number of members, so on a per-member basis the cash is actually not that much.
“But the more important thing is the benefit that we can gain as a system from making this change. I come back to this point: it doesn’t really matter whether you talk about CA or BMX NT, they’re all small organisations and there’s a whole bunch of white space that we just haven’t had the capacity to fulfil.”
Shane Coppin from MTBA offers a similar perspective.
“I always look at the [states’] contributions as an investment, and it’s an investment in the future of cycling in your area,” Coppin said. “Some will be able to contribute more but that’s predicated too on the size of the area. It’s very unlikely that Northern Territory is ever going to have the capacity to have the same sort of money in the bank.
“I guess the challenge becomes, for New South Wales, if you’re not going to invest this into the potential of One Cycling what are you going to invest in to improve cycling in New South Wales? Not just for road and track but actually for all cycling? Where will their [$1.2 million] realistically go and what difference will it make, as opposed to investing it into an organisation with upwards of 85-90 staff on day one and significant voice, more so than anyone has today?”
Cycling NSW isn’t alone in opposing defederation. Matt Fulton, CEO of WestCycle — Western Australia’s state body — told CyclingTips that his organisation has similar concerns.
“WestCycle are supportive of reform to align the three NSOs [national sporting organisations] into a single organisation,” he said. “However, we are strongly against a model that removes our sovereignty, autonomy, assets and leadership to a centralised organisation with no track record of servicing our members or managing financials appropriately. There is no model that sees the unification at a state level that we support.
“Australian democracy is built upon a federated structure. There is no reason why this should change. What is happening now is akin to the Prime Minister waking up one day and deciding he no longer wants state parliaments, going out to the local councils with a package of information that doesn’t inform them of the risks or the full story, and pushing his way to implement his plan.”
Like WestCycle, Cycling NSW has concerns about the governance of AusCycling.
“[Of concern is] the unknown identity of not only the board but more particularly who the staff will be that eventually will run the proposed organisation, the unknown senior executives that may be part of that,” said Glenn Vigar. “We fear that they may be predominantly the current Cycling Australia staff because they are guaranteeing all current staff jobs at all levels3. And that concerns us on a lot of levels …”
While Vigar, Fulton and others see AusCycling as a case of Cycling Australia pushing its own agenda, speaking to MTBA CEO Shane Coppin and BMXA CEO Martin Shaw offers a different perspective. Both speak passionately about the project and both seem to genuinely believe that AusCycling will greatly benefit their respective disciplines.
Part of that is down to the fact that all three disciplines will have equal representation on the AusCycling board — a big step forward for MTBA and BMXA.
To go ahead
While the AusCycling steering committee is proceeding as if the project is going ahead, there’s no guarantee that it will, at least not in the proposed form. The project ultimately needs to be voted in by the 19 governing bodies and their constituents.
Glenn Vigar certainly believes Cycling NSW will return a “no” vote, but admits that, ultimately, the decision isn’t up to him.
“I don’t believe in my wildest dreams that 75% of our 64 clubs will say ‘yes’,” he said. “If you go back to basics, for this to happen, 75% of every state’s clubs have to say ‘yes’ and then 75% of those states have to say ‘yes’.
“Well, currently Western Australia will never be a yes — they are already a One Cycling model. Eighteen months ago they joined the three disciplines together and they will not defederate. [Cycling] Tasmania and ourselves are both on the very same line of ‘we will not defederate but we’re happy to join an amalgamated system.’
“I don’t think it’s going to happen unless they change but they’re not looking like changing at the moment.”
So what happens if the clubs of Cycling NSW, WestCycle and Cycling Tasmania (and therefore the state bodies) do indeed vote ‘no’, as Vigar suggests? What if there isn’t a 75% majority vote (six of eight states/territories) from within CA’s state constituents?
Well, it’s possible that AusCycling still goes ahead, but things get even messier.
“BMX state [organisations] support the proposal and mountain bike members support the proposal, and that consists of roughly 31,000 members and the reality is that the proposal might get up on the back to those two organisations,” said Coppin. “It’s not just that one or two states from CA can potentially stop this entire process …
“There’s real potential that two of three disciplines could come through and have a ‘yes’ vote and they would look to continue forward. There is that reality that one of the three could vote ‘no’ and find themselves a little bit on the outer … And then there might be some scrambling to try and see how that can be rectified.”
Steve Drake has a similar view.
“Having had us go to them and say ‘we think this is the right thing to do’, Sport Australia are in agreement and they would much prefer to see one NSO,” he said. “As Shane said it is possible that in 2020 there is an [organisation] with a new name and it doesn’t involve road and track cycling.”
CyclingTips understands that AusCycling could also exist with only a handful of CA’s state/territory organisations; that the states that voted “yes” would be rolled into the new organisation, while states that voted “no” would live outside it, cut off from any funding and other benefits AusCycling might offer.
Optimism and the future
Despite resistance from certain quarters, the CEOs of CA, MTBA and BMXA are all excited about the project and its potential. Speaking to Drake, Coppin and Shaw there’s a sense the three are relishing the chance to work towards something positive; something that’s in the common good.
“I’m feeling really optimistic,” said Coppin. “I know that there’s issues particularly for the Glenns of the world. I hope they don’t miss this opportunity and that they find a way to get involved because we’re only stronger together and I hope that they can appreciate that.
“I’m not looking at what it looks like on day one. I’m thinking [about] what this could mean in five, 10, 15, 25 years’ time. I would love to see this be the catalyst to see cycling have the opportunities cricket [and] some other professional sports do by coming together and really maximising on our participation base, our workforces, and the future opportunities and engagement and memberships.”
Martin Shaw offers a similar view.
“From BMX’s point of view we’re really heartened by what’s happened,” he said. “There’s probably been 15 years of discussions going on and the fact is that over that time period the sport never even got to the stage of the NSOs agreeing on a model. So here we are today, we’ve got the NSOs agreeing, working harmoniously, we’ve taken it out to state associations — in mountain bike’s case, clubs — we’ve had really positive feedback about it, we’re really beginning to see the benefits, understanding what it’s about.
“And yes there are some people out there that have their reservations about it. But across the board at state and national level there’s been really good engagement, really good understanding of what there can be. And that’s a really positive step forward.”
Starting this week, the three NSO CEOs will take part in a two-week-long roadshow designed to explain AusCycling to interested parties around the country. A three-hour Q&A session is scheduled for each state and territory capital, allowing those in attendance to ask anything they like about the new system.
This will be a crucial period for the project — an opportunity for the AusCycling steering committee to reassure those who have concerns, and to address some of the existing unknowns. The 19 governing organisations will then put AusCycling to a vote in meetings held throughout October and November.
Assuming AusCycling goes ahead in some form, the work is only just beginning. The new organisation will officially be formed in December 2019 and will start work as early as quarter two, 2020. The hope is that AusCycling will be fully operational come December 2020, “with all business and administrative systems in place to enable us to deliver world-class services to our clubs and members across the country.”
Bringing together all of Australia’s cycling disciplines under one roof seems like an obvious step; a move that’s as logical as it is well supported. But as is so often the case, the devil is in the detail, and there’s plenty of detail to wade through with AusCycling.
Even those involved in the project aren’t clear exactly how it’s going to look, and the uncertainty only increases as you step further away from the project.
At its heart, AusCycling is built on a strong premise, and those involved appear to have the best interests of Australian cycling at heart. But they face considerable challenges in turning the idea into reality. The resistance offered by certain CA states shouldn’t be underestimated — their positions have the potential to meaningfully disrupt AusCycling.
The next few months will be crucial. The steering committee will need to spend considerable time educating members on what the new paradigm looks like, who will govern it, and why it will be a positive for Australian cycling. Before the year is out we’ll know whether they’ve been successful.
At this stage, though, it’s anyone’s guess how it will all shake out.
1. While MTBA and BMXA are national bodies in their own right, they aren’t officially recognised as such, meaning they can’t receive funding or support from Sport Australia (formerly the Australian Sports Commission). As a result, CA, as an acknowledged “National Sporting Organisation”, has had influence over the other organisations’ funding.
2. CyclingTips has seen copies of another two letters to Senator Colbeck, both from Cycling Australia chairman Duncan Murray, arguing in favour of the AusCycling project. One of them was written in rebuttal to Glenn Vigar’s open letter. Murray’s letters demonstrate support from MTBA, BMXA, BMX Tasmania, BMX ACT, BMX NSW, BMX SA, Cycling South Australia, Cycling Victoria, Cycling Northern Territory, Cycling Queensland and Canberra Off Road Cyclists.
3. Staff from all 19 organisations have indeed been assured of jobs in the new organisation and its state/territory offices, with the exception of the NSO CEOs. As BMXA CEO Martin Shaw explained “We need the CEO of the [new] company to be able to come in and really put their own mark on it, and probably not have three CEOs looking over his shoulder and tut-tutting if he wants to do something different.”