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Bayern Rundfahrt
Photo ©: Schaaf

News feature, August 2, 2006

No way out

With the third consecutive Grand Tour winner falling under a cloud of suspicion, it's unsurprising to see sponsors and fans steer away from cycling. However, for some, whose lives revolve around the sport, it's not so easy to pull the pin. Nor do they want to, as Anthony Tan finds with South team manager Brian Stephens.

These bright young faces of the South Team aren't so naive about doping in cycling; regardless, it's a subject being brought up much too often nowadays, says their manager Brian Stephens
Photo ©: Mark Gunter
(Click for larger image) Awww, ain't it pretty... the South team check out the new jersey

"Hopefully, this is a sign that the sport is cleaning itself [up], but I've been proven wrong before."

- Brian Stephens isn't so sure if the recent spate of doping infractions is a sign of the sport cleansing itself

Even a month before, South Institute of Sport team manager Brian Stephens wasn't sure whether to confirm their trip to the Baby Giro in early June. One of the most important races of the season for aspiring under 23 and under 26 riders, Stephens, brother of former professional Neil, saw his plans come to nought last year when the race was cancelled at the eleventh hour due to financial problems.

"This year, I had a few other options, because I wanted to make sure the boys had some racing to go to," Stephens said. "As it turned out, the race went ahead, it was well organised, the presentations were good, and it was a great race."

However, four days from the conclusion of the race, organisers Egidio Event issued a dire plea: "Il Giro Under 26 e Giro Donne rischiano di morire" (the Giro d'Italia U26 and Women's Giro risks dying).

"We cannot hide our will to supply a [greater financial] contribution to cycling, yet we are in a 'bloodbath' financially," said Mario Poli, executive general manager. "It is true, the technicalities did not allow a [potential] title sponsor after the budgets were closed, but it is equally true the media, and that of television in particular, should have offered greater [financial] consideration."

Matts making waves in Europe

Unlike most before him, Matthew Lloyd only started cycling racing a little over three years ago. On his bio, the 24 year-old lists his most memorable sporting achievement as 'Winning the Australian Ice Hockey Championships 1996'.

After brief flirtations with rowing and triathlon, the Victorian from Brighton decided to give cycling a serious nudge in 2004, and ever since the day he shocked the field to win the queen stage of the that year's Herald Sun Tour, he hasn't looked back. In 2005, he won four races, including the Australian U23 criterium championships and a stage of the Tour of Japan, also finishing fifth overall. This year, he backed up the win and same GC place in Japan, before finding his feet at the amateur Giro d'Italia.

Lloyd's namesake, Matthew Goss, is the complete opposite. The 19 year-old from Launceston, Tasmania, began cycling at 11, and was already a dual national champion (criterium and road) in 2002. His prowess extends to the boards of the velodrome as a past junior Madison and team pursuit world champion, and along with Peter Dawson, Mark Jamieson and Stephen Wooldridge, he's also the reigning teams pursuit world champion.

On the road this year, Goss won the prestigious GP Liberazione classic held on the outskirts of Rome, a race that attracts a number of the world's best amateurs. His win followed directly in the footsteps of last year's winner Chris Sutton - who now rides for Cofidis, with his victory considered largely responsible for his contract offer - and in its 61-year history, Sutton and Goss are the only two Australians to have won the event, with Goss the fourth native English speaking rider after Britons William Nickson and Bob Downs took back-to-back wins in 1976 and '77.

Interest in Goss only increased after his stage win on the third day of the Baby Giro, and his team manager Brian Stephens admits he'll have a tough time keeping him next year. "There's been plenty of interest shown in Gossy, and ideally it be good to have him learn the ropes for another year, but it's tough to hold back a guy if there's an offer from a ProTour team on the table.

"He also wants to continue riding on the track because of the Beijing Olympics, so that's another thing to consider," said Stephens, adding that no firm offer has yet been presented to Goss. "He'll just have to sit down and evaluate his options at the of the season, and decide what's best for him. Though it's important [for Goss] to pick a team that has a good development program, and won't race him to the ground and put him in the biggest races in his first year."

And despite his relative newness to the sport, Stephens believes Lloyd is ready to make the jump to the highest level. "The more I see him race, the more I speak with him, I'm certain he can do well in those races. He's got a really good head on him."

It would have been a minor catastrophe if the race did not continue, for the penultimate day saw some spectacular racing. After a week in the lead, Italian Dario Cataldo attacked the maglia rosa of Ukrainian Dmitro Grabovskyy on one of the most difficult sections of the famed Alpe Di Pampeago, cancelling his sixteen second deficit and taking the stage and race by just five seconds.

However, the third place on the final podium was perhaps the biggest surprise of all, as Australian Matthew Lloyd, who rode brilliantly the day before to claim second place, moved from tenth to third overall. "If he had a little more confidence in himself and attacked earlier, he might have been fighting for the win," said Stephens. "Still, he continues to amaze me."

With Lloyd's podium place and two other Australians, Matthew Goss and Ashley Humbert (a former A.I.S. scholarship holder, riding for an Italian amateur team this year), notching a stage win apiece, one would think the future's looking very bright for this fledgling Continental team that was borne out of the old Australian Institute of Sport program. Though regardless of the results, says Stephens, it's hard convincing sponsors to stay in a sport that continues to make headlines for the wrong reasons.

"The Pro Continental and Continental teams were already having a tough time [attracting sponsors] with the ProTour. Sure, I understand there needs to be a top level, and a level the everyday person understands as the top and [riders that] set the example of a professional [athlete], but so far that hasn't been the case," he said, rebuking the fact that the past three Grand Tour winners have either been guilty or accused of doping.

"It's not easy for us as coaches, either, trying to motivate ourselves and the young riders in a sport we're passionate about and have spent most of our lives doing. Hopefully, this is a sign that the sport is cleaning itself [up], but I've been proven wrong before."

Stephens said his recruits aren't so naive to know substance abuse doesn't go on at all levels of cycling; they're not asking questions as to what products are been used or how it's been done. More, the questions revolve around the question why, and that is something far more difficult to answer.

Brian Stephens says all he can do is teach his pupils 'the right way', and be hopeful about the future
Photo ©: Rachel Burke
(Click for larger image) Brian Stephens will be responsible for leading  the newly formed - AIS Cycling Team, acting as Team Director.

For now, one of Australian cycling's key nurturers will focus on getting the most out of his athletes for the upcoming under 23 world championships, held at the same place and time as the elite riders in Salzburg, Austria, at the end of September. According to Stephens, Shaun Higgerson and Mark Jamieson are good prospects for the time trial, while the road race course has Matthew Goss' name written all over it.

"I'm an expert on the course, I know every corner!" Stephens joked. "I haven't selected the riders yet, but Shaun Higgerson won the [2006] national [time trial] championships on a tough, rolling course like this one, and Jamo's also a specialist. In the road race, the two hills are quite hard, but it's a long way from the top of the second hill to the finish, so I'm expecting a group of 20 or 30 riders. I think it's perfect for someone like Matthew Goss."

"All we can do is to continue teaching them the right way, and that is through persistence, dedication and hard work," he said.

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