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Wollongong Road Worlds a light at end of tunnel for Australian cycling

The pre-pandemic Santos Tour Down and Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in early 2020 are the last events where Australian road cycling fans gathered to watch an international race
The pre-pandemic Santos Tour Down and Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in early 2020 are the last events where Australian road cycling fans gathered to watch an international race (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

It’s hard to imagine two bigger contrasts in UCI Road World Championships destinations than the cycling heartland of Flanders, which hosted the event in 2021, and the coastal city of Wollongong in Australia which holds the mantle for 2022. One represents tradition and history, the other a newer face of an increasingly international sport.

The district of Illawarra, in which Wollongong sits, was once dominated by coal mining and does not boast a deep historical embrace of cycling akin to that seen in Flanders, but there are those things the locations in Belgium and Australia do have in common. Prior to their home World Championships, the area's cycling fans had been starved of the chance to get out and watch top level events in person.

The spectators turned out in droves for the Flanders World Championships after the COVID-19 pandemic had led to a crowd-free Belgian Spring Classics. The World Championships when it was held in Flanders seemed a re-entry celebration of sorts for the fans, who turned out in droves. And so too could Wollongong 2022 provide an analogous breaking of the drought for Australian cycling fans from September 18-25, 2022.

“Our job is to work with the local community as well as the rest of Australia to get them excited that we're hosting one of the world's biggest cycling events in our own backyard for the second time ever,” Stu Taggart, CEO of Wollongong Worlds, told Cyclingnews after returning from a crowd-filled World Championships in Flanders.

“It's different, absolutely. But we also have a great major events tradition and we're confident that the Australian public will come out and support it. And with the reality of our experiences over the last 18 months around COVID, people, I think, are craving that opportunity to get behind major events and enjoy them.”

LEUVEN BELGIUM SEPTEMBER 26 A general view of the Peloton passing through Moskesstraat hill while fans cheer during the 94th UCI Road World Championships 2021 Men Elite Road Race a 2683km race from Antwerp to Leuven flanders2021 on September 26 2021 in Leuven Belgium Photo by Alex Broadway PoolGetty Images

The crowd lined streets of the Flanders Road World Championships (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Australia hasn’t had the same journey through the COVID-19 pandemic as many European countries, as it has had strict border and quarantine requirements meaning the numbers of COVID-19 infections and deaths were low through much of the pandemic. However, to keep the numbers low there were regular lockdowns in some parts of the nation – with the city of Melbourne clocking up more than 260 days in lockdown since the pandemic started – and strict border controls and gathering restrictions. The combined impact of the measures have been enormous on events large and small.

The Tour Down Under and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race have been called off for both 2021 and 2022 because pandemic-related international border restrictions and quarantine rules created insurmountable complications. However, with the reality of rising case numbers, plus rapidly rising vaccination rates, the nation is in the process of opening both its domestic and international borders again as well as reducing quarantine requirements. Those moves are delivering an increased level of confidence that Wollongong Worlds, and its ability to host spectators at the event, won’t fall prey to the pandemic.

"We've often talked about it being the right event at the right place, at the right time in the context of the runway we have,” said Taggart. “We always felt like we were positioned well around Australia's COVID response plan and the timeline that was attached to it when it was released.

“There's still a way to go yet, but we're really confident and hopeful that as vaccination rates continue to rise, we will be in a really good position to host an amazing event and also welcome significant numbers of international visitors, as well as domestic visitors travelling across borders.”

After a period where cycling tourism has been severely constrained, the eight-day event, which should bring a thousand of the world's best cyclists to the area, is expected to deliver a welcome deluge of entertainment for Australian cycling fans and in turn a considerable economic benefit for the city with a population of nearly 220,000. It is an event that AusCycling CEO Marne Fechner recently said would be “huge for Wollongong”.

“It will be the biggest event that they have hosted,” Fechner said at the launch of a WeRide Australia report on the Australian Cycling Economy last month. “We are expecting 300,000 spectators to converge on Wollongong, 10,000 international visitors and an estimated impact of around AU$100 million on the economy.”

Gender equity, time trial and the missing women’s U23 category

Ellen van Dijk (Netherlands)

Ellen van Dijk (Netherlands) on her way to winning the 2021 Road World Championships elite women's time trial, which covered 30.3km compared to the 43.3km elite men's course (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

The event being located so far from the well-trodden race locations in Europe is a change that will undoubtedly deliver a different atmosphere, but there are also some other alterations ahead for the World Championships in 2022. There has been a focus around some of the continuing disparities that exist between men’s and women’s events at the UCI Road World Championships and a concrete shift has already been announced when it comes to the race against the clock.

“We are working closely with UCI to actively promote gender equality across the 2022 Road World Championships and we are pleased to advise today that the Men Elite and Women Elite Individual Time-Trials will be staged together on the opening day of the Championships and over the same distance for the first time in UCI Road World Championships history,” Taggart said in a speech to the UCI Congress in September.

“We want our event to place a spotlight on women, and we hope that having the world’s elite female cyclists competing in the individual time trial on the same day and over the same distance as the elite men for the first time will be a transformational moment for our sport.”

In 2021 the elite men opened competition on Sunday, September 19 with a 43.3km race against the clock while the elite women and Under-23 men rode a 30.3km course the next day. 

The time trial, however, is far from the only area where there are notable differences, with considerable discussion circulating before the Flanders World Championships over the lack of an U23 women’s category, while the U23 men get to vie for both a time trial and a road race rainbow jersey. 

UCI president David Lappartient indicated in September that the sport’s governing body is in a position to open up a new category and new rainbow jersey for the 2022 Road World Championships in Wollongong. However, this would be part of the existing elite women’s road race, with the first rider aged under-23 to cross the line to be crowned the first U23 world champion. 

There was also an indication that separate races could be brought in for the future, however, both UCI director of sports Peter Van den Abeele and Lappartient highlighted the logistics issues involved with adding an U23 women’s road race and time trial to the Worlds schedule. One issue raised was how the host city would respond to the potential addition of another day to the schedule, which could potentially be required to fit the events in and would mean closing down the host region for even longer.

Given Wollongong’s stated focus on promoting gender equity, it seems unlikely that the 2022 event would want to stand in the way of the introduction of an U23 women's category. It would also likely be a particularly welcome category for home nation fans too given Australia is home to a top U23 talent like Sarah Gigante.

When asked about the category, Taggart told Cyclingnews last month that it was ultimately a decision for the UCI, with the schedule as it currently stands not formally including an U23 women's event in the time trial or the road race. However, he said that the organisers were more than happy to continue those conversations as they finalised the schedule.

"As a local organising committee we'd be open to have that conversation and we would need to work with the various local authorities both at a local government level as well as a state government level,” said Taggart.

He added that the approach would be to consider what was the best outcome for the event, listening and considering the point of view of all event partners.

“It's something that we understand is an important issue, and it’s something that we're really keen to continue the conversation on and see where we land," said Taggart.

Cross-winds and climbs?

A view of the Sea-Cliff Bridge at Stanwell Park from a blimp on April 28, 2016 in Sydney, Australia.

The 665-metre long Sea Cliff Bridge, a little over 20km north of Wollongong, has proven a popular picture worthy feature for recreational cycling events in the area (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Already plenty of Australian riders are talking about Worlds as a focus for 2022, from the likes of Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) to Amanda Spratt (Team BikeExchange) as it’s not too often any rider can count on a Worlds on home soil, let alone a rider from as far away from the centre of world cycling as Australia. The first time Worlds was held in Australia it came to Geelong in 2010, when Cadel Evans was defending champion.

Then Norway’s Thor Hushovd won the men’s road race on the windswept course, which packed in plenty of climbing but no long mountain ascents, while it was Giorgia Bronzini of Italy who beat Marianne Vos (Netherlands) to the women’s elite rainbow stripes. A young Michael Matthews delivered Australia its only victory, winning the men’s U23 road race.

However, what we don’t know yet for 2022, is what type of course the Wollongong Worlds will be and whether or not it will play to the strengths of climbers like Spratt or sprinters like Ewan. There are certainly plenty of options facing organisers in their design, with exposed ocean roads that could deliver crosswinds, rolling terrain and challenging climbs all within reach of Wollongong.

“As always, when you're designing a course, you're trying to look at a lot of things and combine them, be they technical requirements, the beauty of the area and the broadcast production opportunities around it,” said Taggart. 

“We feel like we've found a really good balance working with the UCI on that and we're looking forward to releasing it as we continue to finalisation with the various government authorities, but the intent is to do that before the end of this year.”

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