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Bendigo to become "Australia's international cycling headquarters"
By Karen Forman in Bendigo
Plans are afoot in country Victoria to turn the town of Bendigo into Australia's international cycling headquarters. The Apex Lions Bendigo Madison/5000 Committee Inc, which runs the 55-year-old Bendigo International Madison in March each year, wants to elevate the carnival - already known as Australia's biggest - to become a premiere event on the world track cycling calendar. It also wants to position Bendigo as a major training centre for local and overseas riders.
"People know about the Bendigo Madison around the world and the town is already being used as the training ground for the British under-23 squad who were here from November to the end of February. But the carnival still doesn't have TV coverage, big electronic scoreboards, and a majority of international competitors," president, Robert Cook says.
"We want to continue to bring world and Olympic athletes and cyclists from around the world to Bendigo and produce a sporting carnival that is full of action and excitement so that spectators and sponsors receive value for their investment."
Cook says Bendigo is already recognised as a home of cycling. The Madison carnival, which boasts a dynamic atmosphere that seems to be a bit of a cross between a small town track race, a running fixture, an agricultural show, a country fair and an international track carnival, dates back to 1947 when the Commonwealth Athletic Club started the Bendigo Thousand Gift meeting.
In 1972, the two service clubs formed a committee to restructure the event and in 2001 the carnival was recognised by the Australian Cycling Federation as the best run cycling carnival in that year. The City of Greater Bendigo also recognises it as one of its signature events.
Meanwhile, weekly club track nights attract up to 1500 spectators. "It's a tradition," says executive officer Rik McCaig. "People turn up and bring their dinner, their fish and chips or whatever. They come to watch the cycling."
While promoters in Australia's capital cities are lamenting the difficulties associated with getting bums on seats in major indoor velodromes, that is anything but the situation in Bendigo, where the track is outdoors, huge (413 metres) and has a grassy centre with an athletics track - and the crowds are huge. Every year, the Bendigo Madison carnival attracts around 10,000 people - and a large number of elite local, national and overseas riders.
With last year's carnival attracting riders from Germany, USA, New Zealand, Japan and Chile and this year from Germany and Japan, organisers are confident, with some new innovations, that they are on the verge of something really big, and they are prepared to work very hard to achieve it.
This year a street criterium was introduced for the first time, which attracted 54 riders and a big crowd. A local band, Dirty Old Buzzards, played during the tea break and running races shared the program with the cycling.
"What we are trying to do is link it in to the businesses of Bendigo so they will become part of the carnival too, and come down and support the track," treasurer Warren Sinnott said. "There would have been a crowd of around 4000 people watching it for the first time. This weekend is worth $1.6 million to the local community."
Sinnott said organisers decided to approach the State Government for financial help after a 10-year-old arrangement with VicHealth came to a close after a strategy change three years ago. That was when the Madison organisers decided a strategy change was in order for them as well.
"Any organisation needs to review its operations periodically so it can keep up," former longtime secretary now committee member Graham Macdonald said. "You go to any major event these days and they have big screens and TV coverage and entertainment. We have tinkered with this carnival a bit and are trying to make changes for the better. We are not prepared just to sit back and stagnate.
"The Golden Mile is a classic example. Three years ago for the first time we decided to run it in six graded scratch races to qualify for the handicapped final and it has working really well. There will be riders from every grade in the final."
The Gold and Opal Club was another "newie". Formed three years ago it is an exclusive corporate organisation offering members hospitality during the carnival and "opportunities" like a trip for two to the Tour de France.
In its bid to elevate the carnival even more this, the committee asked the State Government for $50,000 funding. "We wanted to get some seed capital to have the big screen in place which would bring in SBS TV coverage which then could be on-sold to Foxtel to beam into the UK," Sinnott said. "We didn't quite get that much this time. The State Government gave the City of Greater Bendigo $15,000 for marketing of the carnival, which meant no direct TV coverage but we were able to do some extra promotion.
Cook said he was extremely disappointed. "After three presentations in which we presented business plans, strategies on how the carnival could be of international standard, the government could only find $15,000, which was used for advertising," he said. "When you consider the support that is given to the Formula One, the proposed Paul McCartney concert and the $60,000 they gave to the Stawell Gift when they threatened to take it to the Telstra Dome, it seems that they don't believe the potential of this event."
The committee brought in some top names for the title event - German Erik Weispfennig, Tasmanians Darren Young and Mark Jamison, Victorians Sean Finning, Michael Ford, Nick Sanderson, Tood Wilksch and Tim Decker, New South Wales riders Steve Woolridge and Rod McGee and Chris Sutton and Steve Fitzpatrick and Japanese riders Go Ogasawar and Masanari Yoshida.
Another invited German rider Stefan Steinweg was quickly dealt with when he turned up at Melbourne airport with banned substances (for which he was subsequently fined in a Melbourne court). "We told him we couldn't use him," McCaig said. "Cycling gets enough bad publicity and we wanted to do the right thing by the sport."
The committee members say they will continue to work with all levels of government and cycling and athletics bodies nationally and internationally. "We know what we have here is unique and we want to show it to the world," Macdonald said. "Bendigo International Madison has a local community flavour; we have a lot of support from a wide range of sponsors and the local people."
The committee says a balance of the old and the new is the key to continuing success. "We are not afraid of change but nor will we sacrifice the traditional elements that people love us for, the things that keep people coming back. It's a real family event and it's unique to Bendigo and Australia. That's the attraction."
Images by Bendigo Advertiser