Photo by Con Chronis/Getty Images

When Worlds came to town: How Wollongong locals feel about ‘UCI week’

Wollongong is no Flanders, but locals seem to be warming to the fact elite athletes are in town.

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WOLLONGONG, Australia (CT) – It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate location for the Road World Championships than Flanders. In 2021, the cycling-mad region of Belgium played host to Worlds and a million people turned up to watch, cheering for the best riders on the planet as only the Flemish know how.

One year on, Road Worlds finds itself in a decidedly different locale: on the other side of the planet, in the Australian steel town of Wollongong. While cycling is almost a religion in Flanders, it is a mere minnow in the Australian sporting landscape. Where Flanders is regarded as one of cycling’s true heartlands, Wollongong is barely associated with cycling at all

So how do those living in Wollongong feel about Worlds coming to town? What has the reception been like so far? CyclingTips reached out to a bunch of Wollongong residents to find out, not least via an illuminating forum thread on the Wollongong community page on Reddit. Here’s what we found.

Wandering around central Wollongong on the opening days of the 2022 Worlds, there’s a sense of subdued enthusiasm for the event. While crowd numbers have been modest so far, residents of all ages have been wandering the event village, attending podium presentations, and standing by the roadside, cheering on athletes fast and slow.

But do even the most fleeting search for online commentary around Wollongong 2022 and you’re sure to come across a host of disgruntled locals.

They are frustrated with Worlds coming to town for a bunch of reasons, most of which seem to stem from the closing down of streets in central Wollongong for several weeks (many streets are used for both the time trials and road races).

Those road closures have made it difficult for some residents to get around the city. “A five minute bus ride to work has turned into a 30-minute walk because none of the buses running get me where I need to be in [Wollongong suburb] Fairy Meadow,” wrote Redditor rainy-day_cloudy-sky.

Closing down part of Wollongong has been particularly tricky for some local businesses who rely not only on foot traffic, but on clients being able to park close by.

“The interruption to normal business (especially in the CBD) is painful,” wrote LoosingInterest on Reddit. “My wife has to close her practice for the whole event … which impacts her business and patients significantly. Her practice is less than 100 m from the finish line. All the parking is closed in the surrounding streets and the road closures make running the practice impossible. It’s not ideal.”

Road closures have made things tricky for some local businesses and residents. (Photo by Con Chronis/Getty Images)

Among the businesses that are able to remain open, many have found their patronage slashed, given getting around is trickier than normal.

“I work for one of the leading distributors in the area that deals mainly with cafes (if you drink a coffee in Wollongong 9/10 [chance] the milk was delivered by me),” wrote Bogan2527 in CyclingTips’s Reddit thread. “Today and tomorrow have been the quietest Monday/Tuesday I’ve seen in months. Today was about 70% of a normal Monday run stock wise, and tomorrow is one of the quietest days in Wollongong I’ve seen since COVID – only 11 orders put through, some of which are standard/office buildings. A normal Tuesday will have anywhere between 30-45 deliveries.

“Cafes are certainly hurting from the lack of regular traffic that is for sure.”

Closing down parts of Wollongong for the race has also had an impact on local schools. On the final week of term before school holidays, a total of seven schools have been forced to close, meaning a return to home-schooling for some students, much to the frustration of their parents.

Also frustrating for some has been a perceived lack of communication from event organisers about the impact of Worlds, and how to manage those impacts.

“We were told we would have lots of information prior to the event and be kept informed,” wrote Facebook user Maria Coutas. “We’ve had our roads closed, lost access to our cars, had to find alternative ways to work, etc. Anyone who called council to ask for information was told that it was not council’s responsibility, and we should refer to the UCI.” 

There have been plenty of changes for local residents to get their heads around.

While many locals have been measured when sharing their frustration, the same can’t be said of everyone. Any time the local newspaper – the Illawarra Mercury – publishes a story about Worlds, the comments take on a particularly troubling tone on the paper’s Facebook page. 

“Can’t wait to throw rocks at push bike riders,” writes Harri Phillips. “I love getting in front of the idiots on bikes, blowing as much soot out of my diesel [4×4] then putting my hazard lights on and stopping in the middle of the road,” writes Grant Man. “How many points for taking out an international road toad” asks Brian Smith

But such vitriol about Worlds coming to Wollongong seems to be as much about cyclists in general as it is about the event itself. Worlds simply provides a focal point for that anger.

“As a Wollongong local of 10+ years I would say that the attitude you’ve seen on [Illawarra Mercury] comments is more about people’s opposition to cycling and to the efforts which council has taken to make the city more cycling and walking friendly in recent years,” Reddit user cycnkjzo told CyclingTips. “Australian car culture is strong here and the car-minded citizenry have been very much opposed to cycling infrastructure.

“For the most part though I would say Worlds has gotten caught up in the same vitriolic discourse about cyclists/cycling. It’s not really a reflection on the event or the general community vibe.” 

Some choice comments on the Illawarra Mercury Facebook page.

But for each concern that some residents seem to have about Worlds, there seems to be a more measured response not far behind, explaining that many concerns are overblown. Like that oft-quoted issue about a lack of communication from event organisers.

“I live a block or two off the [course] and we started getting newsletter drop-offs in the mail in around February so I can’t understand how people complain about the communication,” wrote bee2551 on Reddit. “I’ve seen communication semi-regularly since the beginning of the year across a huge range of media about the event and road closures – billboards, mail drops, newspapers, council social media, emails to work etc etc. I haven’t sought any of this out and it’s been very easy to find out.”

Others have even been positive about the event despite being directly inconvenienced.

“As a local resident impacted by the road closures (the track runs past my letterbox) and a non-cyclist it’s been really cool,” wrote slu9. “Loved the buzz and atmosphere over the weekend throughout town. Hoping that it translates to healthy amounts of visitors and meaningful investment into our region once the event is over.”

Good crowds turned up for the elite time trials on Sunday. (Photo by Con Chronis/Getty Images)

In one sense, it’s not too surprising Worlds has received a mixed reception from Wollongong locals so far. Beyond the disruptions to everyday life – and turning over the city to cyclists in a place not exactly enamoured with cycling – there’s also an issue of messaging. For many people, there’s been no sense of just how significant the event is.

Curiously, many locals refer to Worlds as “UCI Week”, the “UCI Race” or, weirder still, just “the UCI”. 

Local radio has referred to Wollongong Worlds as “UCI”, Illawarra Mercury headlines have called it “UCI race week”, local entities like the Wollongong Conservatorium of Music and the Wollongong Botanic Gardens are referring to Worlds as “UCI”. Roadside signage referring to road closures has called the event “UCI 2022” or warned of “UCI Traffic”. Even the Wollongong City Council has called it “UCI”.

It’s the cycling equivalent of the Olympics coming to town and locals calling it “the IOC”.

The community has picked up on this strange naming convention. You often see the event referred to as “UCI” in Reddit and Facebook comments. 

It’s hard to know how this first came about. Reporters at the Illawarra Mercury have been told to refer to the event by its full name – the UCI Road World Championships – so perhaps that was simply shortened to “UCI” at some point, with that name ultimately sticking. 

And the fact it’s stuck means some residents have little context about the scale of the event. They have no idea that this is, in fact, the World Championships and that the best riders on the planet are in town. Could the reception to the event have been a little warmer had that context been clear?

A sign spotted outside a school on the lower slopes of the Mt. Keira climb.

Still, there are plenty of locals who are thrilled to have Worlds in town.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the region,” wrote bee2551 in CyclingTips’s Reddit thread. “I’m not into cycling but I love a bit of a buzz and some culture, so I’ll take it!”

“It’s awesome we have a world-class event in our city,” added spicynicho. “I don’t know anything about cycling or why people like it, but I have a lot of civic pride for Wollongong and the racing has been fun so far.”

Crowds have been modest so far, but that will surely change on the weekend. (Photo by Con Chronis/Getty Images)

Chatting to locals there’s a feeling that the prevailing mood towards Worlds is starting to shift, too. As Illawarra Mercury sports reporter Agron Latifi explained to CyclingTips, what started as a mixed response seems to be turning towards something more positive.

“Sure a number of business owners and residents have complained,” he told CyclingTips, “but especially in the last week or so, as cyclists from all around the world have started descending on Wollongong, the mood has changed and there is a real buzz in the community.”

That attitude is reflected by Reddit user braxxytaxi.

“As a CBD resident initially I had the shits with what I thought would be a major disruption,” they wrote. “After being exposed to it a bit more (and dragged along to watch the races with mates), I’m really enjoying it! For us so far there’s been minimal disruption and it’s nice to see heaps of people out and about. There’s a great atmosphere around town and in the fan zones and I can’t get enough!”

Some local businesses have reflected the change in mood, making an effort to adapt to what would otherwise be difficult conditions. Like the Fraternity Club, a hospitality venue in Fairy Meadow. Affected by road closures for much of the week, the venue has decided to embrace the event, creating an “Italian Corner” in its carpark with a big screen, food vans, and an outside bar.

It’s no surprise Wollongong 2022 has been cause for consternation among some locals. Any big event that lobs into town, disrupting people’s everyday lives – even momentarily – is going to cause some amount of friction. 

And for those who already hate cycling and cyclists, shutting down the city for a week of bike racing – and dropping thousands more cyclists onto the roads – is always going to be a lightning rod for negativity.

But for the local council, any negativity so far has been a minor sideshow. Worlds is hoped to be a significant money-earner for the region and the feeling from city hall is that most locals are well on board.

“The vast majority of Wollongong residents have come along for the ride and see this event as a positive opportunity for the city and region,” Wollongong City Lord Mayor Councillor Gordon Bradbery AM told CyclingTips. “We appreciate having an event like this come to the city isn’t without its challenges, and some of our residents within the city are more heavily impacted by road closures and other changes to their day-to-day than others. We’re grateful to those who are making changes to allow for the disruptions and inconvenience over the nine days.

“I’m really keen for our local community to join those visitors to our city and see what this event is all about.”

Wollongong is no Flanders. Many locals will continue to be frustrated by “UCI” regardless of how good the racing might be. But there’s a sense that, overall, Wollongong is starting to embrace Worlds.

And those modest crowds so far? They will surely grow on the weekend as the biggest names in the sport take to the roads and the elite road races begin. It’s then that we’ll see exactly how much local support there is for the biggest sporting event the region has ever seen.

CyclingTips would like to thank VeloClub member Joel Lidden and Ride Media publisher Rob Arnold for their time and insight. Thank you too to the Wollongong Reddit community for taking the time to share their thoughts.

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