Cycling's back on the streets of Sydney, and the locals are smiling

After a six-year hiatus, a pair of local St George riders took out the major races on offer at the...

News feature, December 18, 2006

After a six-year hiatus, a pair of local St George riders took out the major races on offer at the Cronulla International Cycle Grand Prix, as elite-level racing returned to the streets of Sydney on Sunday, December 17. But what took so long?, muses Gerard Knapp.

Cronulla resident and Rabobank professional (and St George club member), Graeme Brown won the elite men's race, while fellow St George club member and AIS scholarship holder, Kate Nichols, took out the elite women's race, going two better than her father, Kevin (a gold medalist in the team pursuit at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics) who took third in the hotly contested masters category.

The locals were keen impress, as for many it was the first time they had actually raced in front of their friends and family in their neighbourhood. Despite being home to some of the world's top pro cyclists, Sydney cycling fans have been starved of opportunities to watch their local heroes race almost anywhere in the harbour city, apart from some club-level criteriums and rounds of the track cycling World Cup held at Dunc Gray Velodrome.

"It was no procession or pre-arranged outcome, either" - The racing at Cronulla on Sunday was no post-Tour criterium, with local riders making life difficult for 'out-of-towners' like Robbie McEwen and Nick Gates

The last time Sydney hosted a major road cycling event was the 2000 Olympic Games, but since those glory days, a combination of political factors - such as prohibitively-high police-support costs - had kept serious, elite-level racing off the streets of the harbour city.

The irony was not lost on many of the competitors, as almost all of the Sydney-based professionals made comments about how they were delighted to be able to race at home. "Yes, it's about time, eh?" said Discovery Channel's Matt White, who grew up and still lives two kilometres from the Cronulla beach race circuit in Sydney's Sutherland Shire.

White said that until yesterday's race, he had never raced in his home city; he only trained there in the southern hemisphere summer, along with other professionals like Rabobank's dual Athens gold medalist Brown, who resides in Cronulla when not racing in Europe for Holland's top pro squad.

Held under blue skies in warm temperatures, with a cooling south-easterly sea-breeze blowing in off the Pacific Ocean, an enthusiastic crowd of several thousand were able to watch riders such as White, Brown and triple Tour de France green jersey champion Robbie McEwen, as well as some of Australia's leading female riders like Athens road race gold medalist, Sara Carrigan, competing for the $10,000 prize money on offer.

It was no procession or pre-arranged outcome, either, as the men's and women's races were both won by hard-fought break-away groups who attacked the main field.

The racing, weather and location didn't disappoint, which is fortunate because promoter Phil Bates had arranged something of a last-minute coup: a live outside broadcast that went to air on the Nine Network, the country's highest rating TV broadcaster. The bike races acted as a curtain-raiser to Nine's main event for its Sunday schedule, its coverage of the Australia versus England 'Ashes' cricket test. (To the uninitiated, cricket tests are followed with an almost religious fervour in Australia.)

Why so long?

Prior to the Sydney Olympics, the only other major races to be held on the city's streets were criterium stages of the Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic, a pro-am stage race that ran for 18 years until the cost of logistics forced race promoter to stop the popular event that had kick-started the careers of many leading professional riders.

Once again, it was Bates who organized the 'bank race' as it was known, and with his energy and contacts he seemingly pulled off another successful event in Cronulla that had all the local politicians out on stage to hand out the major prizes.

Still, there's some way to go. The home state of riders like White, Brown, Brad McGee, Credit Agricole's Mark Renshaw and many others, does not yet host a UCI-level road race or tour. The support for the bigger and costlier stage races has been undertaken by interstate rivals Victoria (with its long-running Herald Sun Tour) and South Australia, with the Tour Down Under.

The financial reality is that both of those well-established stage races enjoy healthy levels of support from their respective State governments, and that was a point Bates made when asked about going through the sometimes thankless task of organising bike races.

"We needed the support of the (State) government," he said of holding the race in Cronulla, "and it's great we've now got it."

Bates had put on the event with the assistance of the NSW Department of Health, which used the criteriums to launch its "Live Life Well" campaign. Speaking at the presentation, the NSW Minister for Health, John Hatzistergos, said he "hoped this race will become an annual event" and indicated the government wanted to maintain its association going forward.

Apart from the somewhat predictable comments about the natural beauty of the beachside location, the Minister also drew comparisons to the scenes in Cronulla almost one year earlier, when ugly confrontations broke out among white Australians and youths of Middle Eastern origin. The television pictures of those scenes that were played out around the world, but one year later, the only TV coverage of Cronulla was of elite-level cycling.

It's unlikely the cycling coverage will be shown as widely as those 'riot' scenes, which is a shame, because for Australian cyclists at least, there is no better 'good news' story than to see a delighted Kate Nichols, broadly grinning and looking very happy after taking out her first major race win since coming back from the horrifying injuries she sustained in the AIS women's road tragedy in Germany last July. Meanwhile, only metres away and working as a television commentator was her former AIS team-mate, Katie Brown, who's also making good progress in her recovery.

On hand to watch the racing and taking a keen interest in proceedings was rugby league legend and now coach of the all-conquering Kangaroos national team, Ricky Stuart, who puts his beefcake players through cycling work-outs early in their early-season training. Interviewed on television, Stuart said of pro cycling and the racers, "it's a tough sport, and they're tough, courageous people".

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