Nation's best riders look to the Tour de FranceSo reads the headline in this morning's national daily, The Australian (7/12/96) by Rupert Guinness. He asks the question: What do Italy, the Czech Republic and our cycling fortunes have in common? They just might combine to put Australia on the world map.
The dream of an Australian team one day participating in the world's greatest cycle race, the Tour de France, is on the cusp of reality. At least it will be if Australian cycling officials agree next week to a proposal that would see the Australian Giant/AIS trade team merge with two other foreign backers.
National road coach Heiko Saldzwedel has relentlessly pushed for the past three years for an Australian team in the Tour. Whether it is given the nod hinges on confirmation from the Australian Sport's Commission board on funding and approval for coaching and racing programmes of all Olympic sports for 1997.
Under the plan, it is proposed that the Giant-AIS team merges with the Husqvarna team from the Czech Republic (which raced in this year's Commonwealth Bank Classic) and an as yet unnannounced third sponsor from Italy.
It is the arrival of this Italian backer which has boosted hopes of an imminent start in the Tour de France. Having reportedly offered to invest $A3 million a year in the team, the combined funds from Australia and the Czech Republic would be enough for it to recruit the star riders needed for the Tour. While the 25 rider team would be Australian, foreign riders would also be signed to satisfy European investors and race organisers, who would give greater consideration for the Australian team's participation if local stars are included.
According to Salzwedel, the Italian offer was sent to Australian Institute of Sport director John Boultbee by a Spanish sports marketing firm acting on behalf of the Italian backer last week.
"What we are talking about is having a major-league cycling team that would take part in all the major races around the world", Salzwedel said. "The team would be an Australian team, but it would also include some real top-level foreign riders who wages would be paid by the foreign investors."
Salzwedel estimated that this would enable Australians to compete in the Tour de France "in two or three years. But as soon as next year we could probably get into the Tour of Italy and Tour of Spain." he said. "This is a real opportunity which we can't miss. The Italian sponsor wants to broaden its international links and has seen what Australian riders can do. The sponsors we have from Australia are ready to go. And my Czech colleague is ready. We just need the support from within Australian cycling."
The proposal for the Giant-AIS merger is just one of two major road-cycling blueprints under review. A variety of coaching positions, such as the nomination of track maestro, Charlie Walsh as head coach of the entire cycling programme, is also under consideration. The road-cycling plan, aimed at bolstering Australian depth for the Sydney 2000 Olympics, is for an under-23 development squad of 14 riders to be based in Italy throughout the year for racing and training.
To be run under the guidance of South Australian coach Shane Bannon, the squad will also be affiliated with the under-23 team of the powerful Italian trade outfit, Saeco. Australian Cycling Federation spokesman Darren Elder said Bannon had "a vast amount of experience in Italy. By taking this group to Italy, our young riders will be getting experience of the Italian system of training and racing" Elder said. "It's rated as one of the best in the world. At this year's world junior titles, the Italians finished first, second and fourth in the road race, and first and second in the time trial with only two riders entered. And, hopefully, by our young guys going there, we can learn a lot from what makes them so good. But this squad is a development squad, made up of our younger under-23 riders who are aged about 18, 19 or 20."
In theory, Salzwedel's and Bannon's programmes can work together. The injection of foreign funds and support will eliminate the extra drain on funds and support would occur if Australia tried to tackle both programmes independently. And, most importantly, at the end of the day they will see Australian road cycling develop on every front. Come the year, 2000, not only may we have a team in the Tour, but a bevy of talent for the Olympic Games road race.
Many Australian riders have been sought by European head-hunters in recent months. Olympic Games pursuit bronze medallist Brad McGee, of NSW, has been lured to the French team, Les Francaise des Jeux. South Australian Jay Sweet has also been approached by the team. Sweet, one of Salzwedel's key riders, has also been a target of the French Cofidis team the the Spanish Banesto team of five-times Tour de France champion Miguel Indurain. Another rider, Matthew Hamon, will also head to Europe in 1997 to join the under-23 squad of the Dutch Rabobank team.
On top of that, as many as six other Australians will be racing for top-level European teams in 1997. They are:
Scott Sunderland Gan Henk Vogels Gan Neil Stephens Festina Robbie McEwan Rabobank Stuart O'Grady Gan Patrick Jonker Rabobank