Why the Aussie Road Nationals are staying in Ballarat for another three years

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On Friday the Ballarat City Council announced that it had secured the rights to the Australian Road Nationals for another three years. By the time that contract ends, in 2023, Ballarat will have hosted the Nationals for 17 years in a row, and 20 years in the past 22.

Every year when Nationals rolls around — and certainly when a contract extension is announced — social media lights up with the same criticisms: “Why Ballarat again?” “Why not move the event around the country?” And more recently “Why not move Nationals to Wollongong as a test event for the 2020 Road Worlds?”

To answer these questions and more CyclingTips caught up Cycling Australia CEO Steve Drake in Buninyong during the U23 men’s road race at the 2020 Road Nationals.

CyclingTips: What was involved in the process of finding a host for the 2021-2023 Road Nationals and when did that process start?

Steve Drake: Obviously we knew that the contract in Ballarat … this was the last year. So we started talking to government some months ago. The previous contract had a right of first refusal for the government. And so we had to go to them first. And it took a little while for them to come up with an offer but it was one that we thought was reasonable so we went ahead with it.

So did other regions get a chance to put in a bid? Or did it not get to that point?

Because they had the first right [of refusal], that’s why we didn’t run a process. I mean, if they had come back and said “we can’t do anything” or “all we’re gonna do is match the same offer”, then we might have broadened it out.

But I think the important thing to understand here is that there is a cost to moving. One of the things that we get out of being in Ballarat all the time is that we know how to deliver the event well in Ballarat. Effectively, that makes it cheaper to deliver. So to move it somewhere else — we’ve got to add an amount for the cost of moving, learning, dealing with a new set of stakeholders.

We’re down to one person on the Buninyong course who objects to us being here. One. And, you know, any time you move you’re back to square one. So there’s definitely a cost to moving and at this time, we didn’t think we would get a better offer and we didn’t look for one because the offer from Ballarat and from Victoria was attractive.

You said before that if Ballarat offered the same amount of money for this contract things might have been different. So they paid more this time around?

They’ve increased a certain amount. I’m not going to go into the detail, but the new agreement means that we’ll be able to continue to deliver improvements in the championships in the coming years. And I think over the last three years we’ve been ramping up what we’ve been doing — more para events, more club events, all sorts of different things. So we’re hoping that over the next few years we’ll be able to introduce a few more innovations too.

What sort of innovations?

Nothing is set in stone yet. We have said publicly that we will at some point look at whether we do a different course — we changed the time trial course this year. At some point we might even look at a different road race course, but we would only move if we found something we thought is better or at least as good as this.

First you’ve got to find a place, and then you’ve got to make sure it works with all the stakeholders and all the residents and things like that. There’s a few ideas that have been thrown around in the evenings, but a bit more work needs to be done before we talk publicly about those.

What about the same course, but finishing up the top of the hill? Is that possible?

It’s possible. I think we would just need to work out the logistics for having a whole bunch of people up the hill. The farmer who owns the paddock up there is very accommodating and lets the food trucks and stuff in there on the weekend but if we had the finish up there, there’d probably be a few more thousand people up there.

I think it would be good, and maybe it would entice people like Richie [Porte] to ride it, because I think the downside here is a pure climber doesn’t think they can win. And that’s interesting because a lot of the complaining is more about “oh, a sprinter can’t win”, but probably more sprinters have won it than pure climbers. So I think Richie thinks it’s too far from the top of the hill to the finish line.

It feels like in the last few years there’s been a bit less frustration about Nationals staying here. But there are still people that obviously want to see it move. What would you say to those people that are frustrated about the fact that it’s been in Ballarat so long and will stay here?

I guess the first thing I’d ask them is how often those those keyboard warriors have been to Buninyong and experienced the week. It is a great week. We had a lot of interstate visitors, particularly in the club criterium and the club time trial. So get a band of friends together, come down to Ballarat, and then if you think it should move, then get on the keyboard.

Because it’s not nearly as simple as “oh, it would be great to have it in, Wollongong or Bathurst or whatever” is it? There’s so much more to it.

Yeah. Look, I sort of understand where people are coming from when they say we should move it to Wollongong and use it as a test race. But again, when I come back to the cost of delivery … I’m not going to need to disclose anything about the Wollongong course — people will obviously work out that the finish line is going to be somewhere in the middle of Wollongong. So if you’re going to use the same finish, that means you’re going to have a race in the middle of Wollongong outside of the Worlds. And so that means more closure costs.

This course [Buninyong] is not a super expensive course to close; if you talked about moving to Wollongong, you’ve obviously got those frictional costs that I talked about earlier, plus additional closure costs to do a city-centre type race. So again, that just means the cost of delivery of the race goes up and you have to push it up higher.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve had a lot of discussions with government. [We’ve] worked well with Tourism and Events Queensland and Brisbane Marketing to deliver the Brisbane Cycling Festival. We’ve dealt with the same people around the [Track] World Cup. We’ve obviously had a lot to do with the New South Wales government around the Road Worlds. We’ve delivered a BMX World Cup in Bathurst and another one in Shepparton that are coming up in the next few weeks. Obviously, a lot of discussions with Victoria around this. South Australia puts tons of money into Tour Down Under.

We’ve had a lot of discussions with government around running cycling events. And our view was that we weren’t going to get a better deal than what we were offered here. And basically what I said before is unless we get a better deal, it’s not worth moving.

Do you get a sense that there are other regions that would have been keen to host Nationals and that would have had the money, had they been given the opportunity?

Not really. We didn’t have a solid enough sense that was the case to make it worth risking moving from here. Because from our perspective, and I think from most competitors’ and fans’ perspective, Ballarat gets better every year. And so we’re just focused on trying to make it better.

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