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News feature, January 19, 2007

Aussie Pro-Continental team upset at Tour Down Under exclusion

Drapac-Porsche demands enquiry as Australian cycling grapples with increased investment

Australian cycling is developing so quickly that it now has a special problem - too many ambitious new pro teams and too few slots in its premier stage race. Mark Zalewski of Cyclingnews reports from Adelaide.

Drapac-Porsche rider Darren Lapthorne
Photo ©: Shane Goss
(Click for larger image)

The ninth edition of the Tour Down Under (TDU) is currently on the road in and around the South Australian capital of Adelaide, with fourteen teams invited to take the start in the country's premier international stage race. Eight of those teams are from Europe, with four ProTour level teams among them, the maximum allowed by UCI regulations. There are four professional continental squads from Europe, as well as one from the USA and a 'composite' team invited from New Zealand. There are two Australian teams in the race, the South Australian-based 'composite' team Australia-UniSA, as well as the UCI-registered Continental squad, South, the country's national U23 development squad that has raced in Europe for many seasons in its previous identity as the Mapei-AIS team. However, the lack of more Australian teams, specifically privately-funded UCI trade teams, has ruffled some feathers.

The Drapac-Porsche team, which is Australia's first ever UCI Professional Continental team (see feature on the team), issued a press release on Monday, January 15, in the wake of its success that previous weekend, where it scored an impressive one-two in the country's major one-day road race. The release revealed its frustration with the organisers of the Tour Down Under for not inviting the team to participate, and Drapac-Porsche also pointed to the exclusion of two other UCI-registered Australian professional teams; the Continental status Savings & Loans squad, also based in South Australia, as well as the FRF Couriers-NSWIS team, based in NSW).

"The race is neglecting the professional teams of Australia which is hindering the development of the teams in here," team manager Scott McGory, a gold medallist in the Madison in the Sydney Olympics, told Cyclingnews. "The last year to 18 months there have been many developments in Australian cycling, including our team taking an upgraded UCI registration, which shows we are taking more than a few steps."

The press release, titled "Australian Champion not good enough for Tour Down Under," cited the team's recent one-two finish by Darren Lapthorne and Robert McLachlan, respectively, at the Australian Open Road Championships (AORC) as one of many indications to garner an invitation.

"For us it is proof that there is a rider and a team that is taking the next step - we have a huge following in Australia, which was evident at the national champs," said McGrory. "So I think we should have been invited, regardless if we had won the national championships."

The situation has escalated recently with the Drapac-Porsche team sending a letter to the organisers asking for an investigation into the team invitation process. "We have asked for an investigation since this is a government-funded event," said McGrory. "Looking at the selection criteria is one of those matters. There are a lot of people disappointed by what happened so they have asked for an investigation to make sure everything has been done in due process. The only Australian teams in the race are government funded teams, so questions need to be asked."

Leeanne Grantham, general manager for Events South Australia, which owns the event, said that she was aware of the letter but could not comment on its contents. "We have received a letter from Drapac and it has had to be handed on to our legal people."

Grantham said that the timeline for invitations, plus the goal of inviting the best possible teams to the event, resulted in the decision. "We had already secured our fourteen teams when I spoke with Drapac, and I explained that to them personally. I also invited the owner (Melbourne businessman Michael Drapac) to come to Adelaide to have a meeting with me to speak about the future, but he rejected that offer."

The race is largely underwritten by the state government and in keeping with its desire to put on an "international" sporting event in the state; it invites a wide range of teams with high-profile professionals. In the past, big-name riders such as Tom Boonen and Gilberto Simoni have competed in the TDU.

"We look for the best possible teams to bring to Adelaide," Grantham continued. "We have a tour director who is an expert in cycling, as well as a European person, to select the best teams at the time of selection. The government puts significant money into the event and they look for a lot of international tourism which comes from inviting international teams. We are only allowed a number of ProTour teams which is our priority. And our national team, which is selected by the AIS. We also have the opportunity to invite teams like which are made up of many U23 riders. But under UCI rules we can only have two Australian teams."

Almost as a compromise, the 'composite' Australian-UniSA team – whose jersey features the nation's green-and-gold stripes – is made up of riders from these Australian professional teams. Drapac-Porsche has two riders in the TDU; last weekend's silver medallist in the AORC, McLachlan, and promising young rider, Mitchell Docker. Further, three riders from the Savings & Loans team (Brett Aitken, Chris Jongewaard and Russell Van Hout), as well as top Australian professionals such as Matt White (Discovery), Allan Davis and Karl Menzies (Health Net), make up the rest of the UniSA team.

Cyclingnews tried to speak with race director Mike Turtur about the situation, but he declined to comment specifically citing the legal possibilities. "I cannot make any comment on Drapac-Porsche right now because of legal reasons." On Drapac-Porsche upset that they are not included in the race even with the national champion," Turtur said, "That's their opinion on it. One individual winning a race is not enough to warrant inclusion in the Tour Down Under."

McGrory said he is mostly upset by what he thinks is a missed opportunity for Australian cycling to develop. "The event itself has built so much credibility they are in a position to boost the development of cycling in Australia in a big way. It was built on European racing so they had to bring those teams out in the past. But things have changed here, so to shun the teams here is a hindrance to development in cycling in Australia. To bring teams from Australia into the race will help make it a year round sport in Australia. The level of professionalism here will increase."

McGrory is also worried that this will hurt in terms of sponsorship. "Savings and Loans, FRF Couriers as well as Drapac-Porsche - these teams have tried to show development but have been shown a lack of respect. It's hard to explain it to your sponsors, to not be in the biggest race in Australia. They obviously want to be in there. Porsche, an iconic brand, feel they have been shunned ... [The race] has done a fantastic job to this point but they need to make changes to the selection criteria.

Chocolade-Jacques at the TDU.
Photo ©: Mark Gunter
(Click for larger image)

"The week before that in the Bay Crits and we had a different rider on the podium four times, so our riders are more than capable. We would treat the Tour Down Under as our own Tour de France, with the national champion!"

It has to be said that the race organizers receive requests from many other teams – some from America and some from Europe. Its reputation for being a well-organised race, plus the warm weather and hospitality, makes it a desirable race for many teams to kick off their road seasons.

Grantham said, "We do think [Drapac-Porsche] have done remarkably well over the past couple of days but there are a lot of teams that want to come to the Tour Down Under and it doesn't happen overnight. "At the end of the day, the decision for the teams to be invited is left up to our experts. We have met with Savings & Loans to talk about the future. And we will look at all sorts of teams for the future. We feel this event supports cycling in Australia as well as Oceania."

The European teams at this year's TDU regularly compete in many ProTour events in Europe and at this year's TDU, two Chocolade-Jacques riders pulled off a brilliant one-two result in stage 2 of the 2007 race. Further, team selections is always a contentious issue in almost every premier 'national' stage race, with domestic teams always pressuring race organizers, even those of the Tour de France, to ensure they receive an entry.

Moving forward

Michael Drapac with members of the Drapac-Porsche development squad
Photo ©: Mal Sawford
(Click for larger image)

The owner of the Drapac-Porsche team is a successful businessman, Michael Drapac, who heads up a property development firm which is said to own or manage $250 million of property. The co-sponsor is the iconic German motor car manufacturer and this year the team plans a six to eight week block of racing in Europe.

Last weekend, perhaps with a point to prove, its riders dominated the Australian Open, a tough one-day event that saw some of the country's leading professionals either skip it, or not finish.

"This (AORC) result proves that we are worthy of a start in the Tour Down Under," said Drapac in the press release. "It's frustrating to be told you're not good enough and then have two of your riders chosen for the Australian national team and riding in UniSA colours. Mitch Docker and Robert McLachlan will be riding for UniSA and we're glad they get a chance to ride."

It should be pointed out that most of the riders in the Australia-UniSA squad are wearing the shorts of their pro teams, with only Allan Davis still wearing plain black shorts as the cycling world awaits news of this talented rider's new professional team for 2007. (Davis is riding a Discovery-badged Trek bicycle, adding further fuel to reports that he is to join the USA's ProTour squad.)

However, Drapac maintains his Australian team is the equal of the European pro-continental teams invited to the TDU. "But to have our team overlooked in favour of foreign Professional Continental teams like Chocolade Jacques (Bel) and Agritubel (Fra) shows the lack of faith the race organisers have in our local talent."

"With two of our riders in the UniSA team, another having just won the Australian title, over 15 wins on the international circuit and Phil Thuaux likely to represent Australia at the world championships in the individual pursuit, the Tour Down Under organisers can hardly argue our team isn't good enough.

"Last year we won the season long National Road Series with Robert McLachlan and took out the team category as well. We can only hope the race organisers give us a chance next year."

Drapac's involvement is indicative of the new investment coming into the sport in Australia, in this case from a successful businessman who is prepared to lobby hard to get what he wants for his team. Another big supporter of cycling is transportation industry executive, Frank Fortuna, whose company has been funding the FRF Couriers team that is now working with the NSW Institute of Sport (NSWIS), another State-government funded sports institute with a strong cycling program, headed by the respected and experienced coach, Gary Sutton. However, Fortuna has not made any public comments about team selections in the TDU.

Such are the new levels of investment coming into Australian cycling that it's been said the country is in need of more races, and there is talk of a vastly upgraded national road series and even network television interest. Some believe that the Australian road cycling scene has the potential to develop a healthy domestic competition, similar to that of North America, and it's understood that the senior power-brokers of Australian cycling are working towards that goal.

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