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Shayne Bannan meets the people

Where next for Australian cycling?

Australian head coach Shayne Bannan has been touring visiting different regional centres to bring people up to date on just what is happening within the National Programme. Bannan's talks have given people the rare opportunity to ask questions directly of one of the sport's top administrators and to receive an insight into the future direction of our sport. Cyclingnews correspondent Matthew Conn sat in on last Sunday's Tasmanian talk in the North West cycling heartland of Latrobe.

Earlier this year at the TDU
Photo: © Tom balks
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Shayne Bannan had big shoes to fill when he took up the job of Australian cycling's head coach at the end of 2000. The departure of the sometimes controversial, but undeniably successful, Charlie Walsh, left a gap that many were unsure could be filled effectively in the short term. Bannan has risen to that challenge, and as part of his belief in openness and accountability, took the time to address groups of coaches, parents, administrators and athletes on his whirlwind national tour.

Programme background

Cycling at the AIS been a fully funded programme since 1987 after being identified as a sport with potential for long term success on the back of the outstanding results achieved by the 4000m pursuit team at the LA Olympics.

(As it happens, Michael Grenda, a member of that gold medal winning team in '84, took part in the Latrobe 40 bike race held prior to Bannan's talk. For the record, he punctured after 15km and failed to rejoin the bunch.)

The main focus of the Australian government, through the Australian Sports Commission (ASC), was the elite arm of the sport, and the first year of the programme allocated $350,000 to elite cycling. The contribution of the ASC has grown to $1.8 million in 2002 and includes 212 athletes in 20 different programmes across all states and territories, plus mechanics, masseurs, physiologists and coaches.

Despite all of the changes in the cycling programme over the past fifteen years, the primary performance indicator remains the same: Success at world and Olympic championships. In 2002 Australia has its best numerical chance ever of achieving success at the elite level, with no fewer than 35 contracted professionals racing overseas.

The role of the clubs

One of the problems Bannan sees as a result of the development of the AIS and state programmes is the evolution of a "class division" within the sport. Riders and particularly local clubs are looking to intensive training centre (ITC) coaches and asking, "Well, you are being paid to coach, why aren't you coaching the riders in our club?"

Wherever he goes Bannan hears this cry of "What are you doing for the clubs?" and he makes no bones about the fact that the clubs that should be asking themselves "What are WE doing for our riders?" The role of the ASC is not to fund club development, but Cycling Australia (CA) and Bannan himself, realise that club development is the most crucial part of developing the sport in Australia.

Within these statements seem to lay a contradiction of sorts. Not so, says the coach. Bannan believes that the role of the clubs is not to ask for their slice of money from the national programme, but rather, to use the facilities (and riders) that are part of the funded programme for mutual gains. Here the administrators within our sport must take on some responsibility. Through the co-ordination of national programmes and events, we are able to make sure that our elite riders are available for our top domestic events.

This has already happened with events such as the Women's World Cup races, the Tour Down Under and the National Open Road Championships. But, in a 'two steps forward, one step back' way of moving, our elite track riders now have the problem of compulsory participation in World Cup events. Track racing has been one of the Summer showcase events in a number of Australian states, and with the changes to the World Cup schedule by the UCI, the idea of having as many of our elite riders as possible competing in Australia seems to have been dealt a blow.

Bannan also urged the clubs to take a co-ordinated approach to coaching clinics and visits by elite riders so that costs and benefits can be shared between a number of regional centres. The suggestion of a state or region (with several clubs involved) organising a clinic by an elite rider while they are at home in Australia is a more effective use of available resources than asking the ASC to hand over an amount of money to be spent on "club development".

One of the roles that the AIS programme is happy to do is to support the efforts of the clubs as they pursue their development goals.

Nationally funded development programmes

While no dates have been set, funding from the AIS has already been identified to provide junior cyclists with access to coaching and development next year. The coaching clinics or camps will be held in each state for under 17 riders and it is hoped that these will become an annual event that will stimulate interest in the national programme. It is likely that a Tasmanian event will run in February/March 2003.

A major part of the visits that Shayne Bannan made was to give people involved in the grassroots of the sport the opportunity to ask questions. While in Tasmania, Bannan gave his views on a number of diverse issues that were raised.

Road cycling as a summer sport in Australia

Bannan agrees that to assist in keeping people in the sport, we may need to move away from the idea of turning up to race on a cold Sunday morning in July. We must, however also be mindful of not encroaching on the established track events that are held throughout the Australian Summer.

People would enjoy their participation more if the events were scheduled in warmer weather, and a co-ordinated approach from promoters and clubs at both a state and national level would enable this goal to be achieved without detriment to the current track programme.

Keeping our juniors in the sport

This is a problem at all levels of the sport. Bannan spoke of the large number of junior world champions that Australia has had over the last 10 years, however less than 20 percent of these athletes are still involved in the sport. If you extend this to Australian representatives, the retention rate is even lower.

One recommendation that has come out of Australia is for the removal of junior events at World Championship level, to be replaced with an under-21 category. This shift would hopefully allow for a more development-based programme rather than a performance-based programme. Bannan believes that if the junior riders can't see a clear pathway, they won't stay in the sport.

At lower levels (non-representative) the onus comes back to the clubs, who must take an active role improving junior athletes' interest and participation in the sport for the long term.

Separate national championships

An issue that was raised at each of Bannan's talks was the question of separating the junior and senior National Track Championships. Given the emphasis that has been placed on clubs utilising elite riders to promote cycling, it seems contradictory to remove one of the main chances that our junior riders have to interact with seniors, many of whom are looked up to as role models buy those starting out in the sport. While changing the format of the championships was not within his brief, Bannan did indicate that he would communicate this issue back to the officials at CA.

Australian Cycling's selection policy

In the past 10 years, Australian cycling has received (rightly or wrongly) more than it's fair share of bad press on the issue of who gets selected and why to our international representative teams. Bannan believes that the current system provides a good balance that will enable the strongest possible team to represent Australia at Championships (and thus help to satisfy the criteria for continued funding as set down by the ASC).

At the recent Australian track championships, National Champions were automatically selected to the National Squad. Championship and World Cup teams are selected from this squad. Automatic selection to the team is not a way that Bannan would like to see the sport progress. He believes that there needs to be allowances made so that injury or absence from championships (through things such as trade team commitments) does not preclude Australia from fielding the best team possible.

Allowances for these situations are made in the selection criteria, but those criteria nevertheless give significant weight to winning a national championship.

Promotion of track racing

One of the issues that Australia was pursuing with the world governing body was the idea of allocating UCI points to particular track events throughout the world. If this notion is successful, it is hoped that trade teams would be encouraged to employ track riders to help them in their quest for division one status, while promoters would be able to attract the world's top cyclists to their events as they chase these precious points. This would have tremendous implications in Australia where track racing is an integral part of the cycling culture.

What about mountain biking?

In the run-up to the 2000 Sydney Olympics, mountain biking fell under the funding of the Olympic Athlete Programme (OAP). After the games, money was allocated from other areas to allow Damien Grundy to set up a high performance programme. This allowed the identification of talented mountain bike riders in different states.

While Bannan confessed to know little of the current political climate within the sport (there are two different governing bodies running races), he did reinforce that the primary function of the programme was talent identification. Mountain biking will evolve into a full programme next year, including down hill, which has also been given minor support in previous seasons.

Matthew Conn is the cycling columnist for The Examiner Newspaper in Tasmania and a regular contributor on local and international races to Cyclingnews.

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