Team Belgium’s fresh arrivals on an easy spin a couple of hours after arrival. Photo: ©kramon

Wollongong is Australia’s only UCI Bike City. What does that actually mean?

How a sleepy steel town became one of just 20 Bike Cities in the world.

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WOLLONGONG, Australia (CT) – The eyes of the cycling world are on Australia’s 11th biggest city, Wollongong, which is currently hosting the 2022 Road World Championships. Throughout the event, there’s been a surprising fact that keeps coming up during lulls in commentary, in event brochures, and on bus stop advertising.

It is as follows: Wollongong is Australia’s only UCI Bike City – in fact, it’s the only one in the entire southern hemisphere. 

So how did the industrial city of Wollongong set itself apart from more fancied domestic cycling destinations including Melbourne, Adelaide, and Canberra? 

The answer is a bit of a circular one. It starts with the Road World Championships themselves – not awarded to Wollongong because it is an internationally renowned cycling city, but because of investment from local and state government. And then, it got a UCI Bike City label because it is hosting the Road World Championships. 

Photo: Matt de Neef

That commendation comes via a program that was, after a hiatus, reintroduced by the UCI in 2016, sitting under the organisation’s ‘Cycling For All’ pillar – effectively its advocacy arm, with a stated goal of “tackling climate change, air pollution, urban congestion or obesity and physical apathy”. 

Since 2016, 20 cities or regions have been awarded as Bike Cities – some of which seem like no-brainers from cycling-mad countries (like Copenhagen in Denmark, and several locations in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands). 

Some other UCI Bike Cities are a little more surprising. Among the 2021 crop of inductees – along with Wollongong – were such unlikely destinations as the Turkish province of Sakarya and the second biggest city in the UAE, Abu Dhabi

Cyclists at the Abu Dhabi Tour. (Photo LB/RB/Cor Vos)

The common thread running through all of these Bike Cities is the fact that they have paid for hosting rights for an array of UCI events. Sometimes the correlation seems fairly brazen – the Abu Dhabi announcement arrived on the exact same day as that city’s confirmation as the host venue of the 2022 and 2024 UCI Urban Cycling World Championships, as well as the 2028 UCI Gran Fondo World Championships. 

That’s not to say there’s a great cover-up underway – the UCI is fairly transparent about it. Take, for example, a document pitching the Bike City program to prospective suitors, which states:

“The UCI Bike City label supports and rewards cities and regions which not only host major UCI cycling events but also invest in developing community cycling and related infrastructures.”

To be eligible, there are two criteria to meet: 

  • 1. Hosting major UCI cycling events [ “at least one UCI World Championship in +/- 4 years, with at least one other major UCI event (a UCI World Championship or UCI World Cup or UCI Gran Fondo World Series event)”.]; and
  • 2. Investing in Cycling for All.

Although the entire program is pay-to-play by design, there’s not necessarily a problem with that. It could give a city the nudge to invest more heavily in cycling; even the presence of a World Championship could build a more welcoming environment for future cyclists. But it can also provide an opportunity for greenwashing, as in the case of Abu Dhabi, or feel more like a participation award than an accurate reflection of the way things actually are.

Remco Evenepoel in training ahead of the Wollongong Road World Championships. (Photo by DIRK WAEM/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

For Wollongong, there are moves toward improved cycling infrastructure. Lord Mayor Gordon Bradbery told CyclingTips that the announcement of his city as a UCI Bike City “recognised our ongoing efforts to support cycling opportunities for all. We’ve invested heavily in a range of cycling infrastructure including pop-up cycleways, the ongoing expansion of our shared path network, the Cringila Hills Mountain Bike Park, a new Criterium Track, and local bike tracks for community”. 

As recently as last year, however, the city’s plans to becoming a cycling city were described as an “uphill battle”, facing opposition from state government. According to one local councillor, there was “trepidation at being named a bike-friendly city”, and “there is still a long way to go”. Ambitious targets for increases in participation are in place, but Wollongong is no Copenhagen Down Under – bike infrastructure tends to be painted lines on footpaths, haphazardly starting and stopping, often spitting riders onto roads dominated by trucks, or darting across three-lane arterials.

That nuance can get lost in the quick soundgrab, however. An international World Championships viewer will hear commentators say that Wollongong is the only Bike City in the Southern Hemisphere, and expect a world-leading cycling destination.

They are unlikely to realise that label comes with a hosting fee exceeding €8 million ($8 million USD/ AU$12 million), amplified by “a communication plan built on the UCI’s various channels” – highlighting an aspirational view of what this beautiful but bike-agnostic city might become for cyclists.

Matt de Neef contributed reporting.

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