Opinion: Why AusCycling’s landmark reform affects you

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I remember moving to Australia nearly 15 years ago and not wanting anything to do with cycling anymore. I bought myself a kiteboard and hung out at St Kilda Beach living the good life. I was now using the wind to propel me instead of battling against it, cross-eyed in the gutter as I tried to hang on to the wheel in front of me.

But cycling drew me back again with its irresistible magnetic pull. Part of cycling’s backwards charm is that it’s rough around the edges. It’s disorganised, it’s fragmented, and we’re marginalised users of the road, which, in an odd way, helps create such a strong community built around our shared passion.

I clearly remember trying to figure out how to buy a license, how to join a club, which races to go to, what they meant, etc. and even though I was an experienced road racer from another country, it was an excruciating process trying to get into cycling here in Australia. If I had a hard time figuring this out, what chance did newcomers to the sport have?

Fifteen years later I’m in a different stage of life and I’m no longer a Cycling Australia (CA) member. I still identify as a road cyclist, but I have a revived enthusiasm for mountain bike racing and I forego road races all the time simply because I don’t want to spend another $300 on a separate license. As a member, this is absurd and holds me back from enjoying my cycling completely.

I’m currently going through the same confusion with MTBA as I once did with Cycling Victoria and CA. I’m looking at getting my son into BMX racing (BMX Australia has some wonderful programs and info that is very easy to find) and I’ll likely get involved with this as well. But probably not if I have to buy a completely separate license.

There is a better alternative, and it’s on the table right now.

Initially I looked at the AusCycling initiative with the same passing interest as most members who don’t feel like this affects them. But the more I dug into it, the more I realised that this absolutely affects me as a cyclist, a member of the community, as someone in the cycling industry, and as a father who wants his son to experience the same pleasures and opportunities that the bicycle has brought to my life.

A seismic shift is coming

There’s a seismic shift coming to the sport’s administration here in Australia. Why would ‘administration’ make cycling better you might ask? Well, I don’t need to go very far to point out the obvious: sporting organisations that have their shit together get all the participation and funding (which leads to better programs, infrastructure, facilities, and more participation, which provides a healthy ecosystem). No, cycling won’t die no matter how catastrophic a job the sport’s administrators do, but it most certainly will not thrive and we’ll be left with a bunch of individuals posting Instagram selfies as our ‘community’.

When CA asked me for my endorsement without even asking about my position on the initiative, this immediately got my back up. Sorry folks, but you might want to think about better tactics to garner support, and I’m not the only who says that. I made a point of speaking to as many people as I could who opposed the initiative to form my opinion first, because while the advantages are obvious, the downsides and any ulterior motives are not.

After over a dozen conversations I’ve had this week with AusCycling opponents it seems that everyone agrees that bringing the three NSOs (national sporting organisations: MTBA, BMXA and CA) together is absolutely the right thing to do, but the quick pace at which it’s being implemented instead of via stepping stones, and the lack of implementation detail are proving to be sticking points. At the same time, CA has a chicken and egg scenario they’re dealing with: Too much planning will make the state federations feel like they’re no room for negotiation. Too little planning and it appears that they haven’t thought it through.

Some individuals, clubs and organisations think that this has been handled all a bit too ‘corporately’, and you’re probably right to feel that way. State bodies who oppose AusCycling feel like they are not being listened to or even having their experience and knowledge considered by CA. By various accounts, endorsement ‘influencers’ have been given more time by CA than Cycling NSW and WestCycle have. The approach is at odds with the current state of play — the hundreds of volunteers and staff who work in these organisations do so out of passion rather than profit. But there is a good reason why successful businesses have good organisational structures. Strong sporting bodies can run as businesses with the same passion and community involvement that was there from the beginning.

No one I’ve spoken to doesn’t want a stronger voice for advocacy, more kids on bikes, more people cycling, better races and event formats, cheaper membership fees, better infrastructure and programs, and for cycling to have the chance of being the sport it deserves to be. However, these things are not happening now with the way the organisations are structured, and things aren’t progressing in the right direction.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the activity and sport of cycling in Australia is heading in a downwards trajectory. Most cycling organisations (not just racing) are declining in numbers, not growing. Fewer kids are riding their bikes to school. There are fewer races than there were only a few years ago, and most gran fondos are seeing a decline in participation numbers. The industry is selling fewer bikes. Again, cycling is not going to die, but our current institutions are failing us on a macro level. It’s not for a lack of trying or talent – it’s for a lack of organisational capabilities.

Why organisation matters

On a very small scale, I deal with the positive and negative effects of organisational structure issues within my own business. When I create more logical functional groups or clearer lines of reporting I can see direct impact to how we perform.

Now zoom out and look at the dysfunctional structure of cycling in Australia with its 19 governing organisations and 550 clubs. There’s a much greater need for this to be as efficient and clean as possible for cycling to run as effectively as it can. We are currently stuck with something that ‘kinda’ works, but don’t we care more about this than to simply ‘leave well enough alone’?

Because there’s no capacity in the current system for anyone to advocate for nationwide programs, pathways, facilities, infrastructure projects, we rarely get them. Compare that to other sports who have dedicated and specialised city, state and national lobbyists, they get these things done. Basketball Australia received $126 million in funding last year from the Victorian state government. Cycling federations received nothing. It’s not because we have something nobody wants, but because we have no organisational capabilities to get access to funds like these with the way things stand now.

Here’s an example that’s close to home for me. My club, St Kilda Cycling Club, has been fighting for the past 10 years for a new criterium venue. It is the largest club in Australia and this summer season it will only have six races, rather than the weekly festive atmosphere it used to have at Sunday crits. The days of Tuesday night Sandown crits are numbered as well. What happens when the same fate hits Heffron Park in Sydney?

It doesn’t have to be this way. A better model has been proposed, one that’s backed by the Australian Sports Commission. With proper club support systems in place, dedicated lobbyists, and the power of numbers, this could be a fixable problem. Right now, it’s all left to club volunteers to sort out in their spare time and that’s not fair.

If a program is going well in one state, the current organisational structure of state-run organisations does not promote or incentivise sharing of information, knowledge, programs and more across borders. Sure it can happen, but it’s not built into the system.

Each state organisation is basically its own small business with no leverage, no economies of scale and no continuity, and is effectively competing against each equivalent body for things like sponsorship dollars. Even if we did have a major national sponsorship opportunity, the structure makes it exceedingly difficult and ineffective for any potential sponsor to work with cycling as a sport.

The benefits are obvious and potentially enormous, but most will be seen over years of persistent effort, not months.

Half steps – a hybrid federated model is just delaying the process

If the common ground between all organisations in Australia is bringing together NSOs under one license and entity, while keeping the state federations to cater to its unique needs, why don’t we simply try that model? After all, One Sailing and OneGolf adopted this model and still have state boards.

Ag Giramondo, longtime community member and president of Brunswick Cycling Club, was an opponent of AusCycling and proposed a hybrid model as mentioned above. Ag self-proclaims his obsessiveness over trying to be a part of the solution and after taking it upon himself to investigate and model various structures to find a solution in cycling’s current state, Ag’s mind has been changed through the process. He said, “I’ve always been in favour of getting rid of inefficiencies. Autonomy within states causes lots of grief. There’s never an aligned direction.

“I’ve given it a lot of effort and thought and have come to the conclusion that there is no better model than the one that’s being proposed. It’s either the status quo, or AusCycling. Anything else is just a stepping stone to the unitary model.”

This could certainly be done in small steps like OneGolf or One Sailing, but this isn’t an option on the table and really that would prolong the decision that will inevitably come to.

Why I support AusCycling

I came into this initiative being skeptical, but after many hours of speaking with people and the organisations affected, plus sports management experts, and after thinking it through, I support the AusCycling initiative … with some caveats. The devil is in the detail and there are many nuances.

Expectations and goals around the transition period needs to be defined and met. The state bodies need to be listened to, consulted, and they need to have their unique circumstances taken into consideration, despite the communication breakdowns that have taken place. The right checks and balances need to be put in place, and most of all everyone needs to come into this new organisation with the right mindset and positive attitude to work together for an outcome far greater than the sum of its parts. Otherwise we’ll be as dysfunctional as the United Nations, and we’ll have a Brexit on our hands.

Let’s face it – the sporting and participation side of cycling in most of Australia can’t get much worse than it is right now, other than the inevitable path of decline we’re on. If nothing changes, nothing changes. Memberships are dropping, not rising, and the number of kids coming into the sport is at an all time low, which is deeply worrying. We now have good people with the right intentions at CA trying to make change happen, so let’s help make it happen and give the sport of cycling the chance it deserves.

Many have said that the abrupt transition to the AusCycling model is a leap of faith; too much of a leap of faith with an organisation that is still paying for its misdeeds of the past. I hear you on that, but my concerns have been alleviated by the current people within CA and the proposed governance and constitution (for the most part). They’re competent people who are selflessly trying to do good things for cycling. Remember, this is not a CA takeover. CA will be dissolved if this goes ahead and there will be an equal board representation across NSOs.

Personally, I do have faith. There are many talented and hardworking people in the state organisations and NSO’s, but most are under-resourced and over-tasked with the current system compared to what’s possible. AusCycling will be an exciting opportunity for new leadership to come in and implement this new structure, which will attract talent and give current employees more opportunities to move in a larger organisation.

I urge you to educate yourself and consume all the information that’s out there and make an informed decision. If there’s one thing I’m hearing time and time again, it’s misinformation and misunderstanding of what AusCycling’s trying to do. We have the opportunity to have a clean slate for a new sporting foundation that’s debt-free, well capitalised, and offers to unify all the cycling disciplines under one membership. The alternative is the status quo.

Speak to your club presidents and fellow cyclists, and if you decide that the AusCycling initiative will make things better for you and the greater good of cycling, please vote when your club asks for your choice. This is something you need to care about.

TL;DR?

What happens if you vote YES and AusCycling goes ahead?

A clean slate for a new sporting organisation that’s debt free, well capitalised, and offers to unifying all the cycling disciplines under one membership. We have the potential for a voice of 100,000 people if all groups come together. The potential for better infrastructure, programs, facilities, funding, sponsorship. Potential for cycling to grow rather than shrink and be the sport it deserves to be.

What happens if you vote NO and AusCycling doesn’t go ahead?

We end up with a status quo worse than it was before. There is no third option on the table. The Australian Sports Commission who has given this lifeline will walk away. The NSOs walk away and continue do their own thing. The state federations walk away and keep doing their own thing. The well-meaning and capable CA executives who have put their careers at stake will walk away. There will be no more opportunity than we already have, and things will keep heading in the wrong direction. If you read the writing on the wall, cycling in this country will be more fragmented and dysfunctional than ever if AusCycling does not go ahead.

Note: WA’s state body, WestCycle has done a terrific job at creating an organisation that has brought all of WA’s cycling bodies together. They’ve effectively created AusCycling in WA and have a lot of experience and expertise to bring to the table. The are a unique case in Australia for many more reasons than geography alone, and I sincerely hope that the lines of communication open up and that they are able to find common ground with AusCycling that benefits its cyclists in WA.

Disclosure: Cycling Australia as been an advertising partner with CyclingTips in the past and future but they’ve had no influence over this piece of editorial except for being interviewed.

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