Last week, Cycling Australia released its provisional National Road Series (NRS) calendar for 2017 with an increase in race days for both the men and women. This was made achievable with the introduction of several new races and the re-introduction of former NRS events. As Cycling Australia general manager of sport Darren Harris told Cyclingnews, the revamped calendar is an important for future sporting and commercial success for the domestic series.
"It's reflective of a lot of interests from the promoters of the existing events that were part of the 2016 series and reflective of interests from other promoters and states wishing to be part of it," Harris told Cyclingnews of the calendar. "It's a good reflection of the interests out there and provides a good mix of racing across the year and we are seeing a few more men's and women's events coming together which is positive and certainly something we are keen to facilitate further down the track as well."
In 2017, the NRS will be spread across six states and territories but there is some way to go to ensure the full national status which Harris aspires to. Victoria will host seven NRS events next year with an eighth, the Tour of the Great South Coast, to take place in Victoria and South Australia. New South Wales is next with three events, two for Tasmania, and one each for the ACT and Western Australia.
"As long as you are going to call it the national road series, it really needs to be national," Harris said of the current spread of events. "In saying that, we understand and appreciate just how difficult it is for promoters to put these events on and put them on at the level and expectation that not only Cycling Australia expects, but the teams expect as well. Our vision is to have a race in every state and territory and this provides us with a good foundation to build on over the years. Tour of Tasmania has been really well supported and has been a key event over the years and that was demonstrated again this year not just with the teams, but also with the individual riders and a lot of the Pro-Continental riders coming back and wanting to be part of that action.
Two events that have been removed from the women's NRS calendar are the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and Santos Women's Tour. Both races are .2 UCI events and have attracted international fields. While Harris is feeling the late loss of both events, he is celebrating the success of the NRS and believes other races should be striving to achieve UCI status.
"It can be looked at as a really good outcome for women's cycling in Australia and what these two races have achieved over the last few years in a very short period of time. It is a really positive story but it is unfortunate for some of the NRS teams that aren't going to be able to race in them anymore. I know some of them are disappointed but when we all sit back and look at it, it is a reflection that women's cycling has grown enormously in the last couple of years to the point now that international women's teams want to come out and support the events. When we became aware of that in the last few weeks as those event organisers were getting confirmation of the international rider rosters, it left us with the challenge of finding and filling the women's calendar at the domestic level so everyone was given the opportunity to have just as many days racing as they did this year and if not more."
Ideally, Harris would like to see other NRS events acquire UCI status. However, Cyclingnews understands not all race promoters share Harris' enthusiasm.
"I think that should be the incentive of all the events. From Cycling Australia's point of view, we want the NRS events to be the pinnacle in terms of standard of racing, of format and not just from the sports side but from the commercial side as well. We are really keen to look at all the events, the WorldTour ones in particular as the Tour Down Under really sets the benchmark inside and outside the barriers. The Herald Sun Tour does as well and that is what all the events should be looking at and aspiring towards and to create some competitive tension around that and whether we have the capability to support more UCI events in Australia would be a great problem to have."
Missing races and new events for 2017
The Tour de Perth and Tour of Toowoomba have been stalwarts of the NRS in recent years but neither event was included in the provisional calendar for 2017. Harris isn't ruling out the return of both races in the future but is less hopeful for the return of the Adelaide Tour which again missing from action.
"To be truly national, we need to have an event up there in Queensland. Whether that is the Tour of Toowoomba or not, it has a great history and reputation, it is up to the promoters and owners to establish whether they can get it up to the level it needs to be," he said. "Over in Perth, we have had great conversations with the Western Australian government over their support for cycling on the back of them hosting the UCI Gran Fondo world championships earlier this year and they see the value it in. It drives economic value for them so they were talking positively to us about the Tour of Margaret Tour being a potential race and we already knew the race promoters, they made inroads to CA a little while ago and they were the ones that came forward looking to be on the calendar. It represents a great opportunity to continue to have an event in Western Australia and in region centre.
"From a tourism point of view and economic driver point of view, that is something that state and local governments are keen for, it is easy to conduct the races in those regional areas instead of the big cities. Sometimes shutting down the big cities creates more angst for cycling than it does positives. We want to continue to bring racing into the city but we have to balance that up with the demands on the city roads."
While some events are no longer present on the calendar, several events make their NRS debut from 2017. One of those races is actually over 100 years old but has been revamped and reimagined for next year as the Goulburn to Sydney Classic comes back to the calendar as the Camden to Goulburn.
"Cycling NSW approached us about the race and there is an influential cycling group who behind it and are really keen to have that race comeback onto the calendar. Albeit in reverse," Harris said of the race which was first held in 1902 and last held in 2012 with safety issues key behind its cancellation in recent years.
"While it is before my time, I am well aware of the issues from the Goulburn to Sydney Classic and with the Hume freeway and it was really the riders voting with their feet that saw it drop off. There are still some challenges with a 6km section of the freeway that can't be avoided and there is a lot going on behind the scenes to make sure they can get the necessary agreements in place to make sure it can go ahead. That being said, the influence behind it, we hope it will get up and running for 2017 and if not then, I think we will see that race come back on the NRS race calendar and with the Grafton to Inverell, and Melbourne to Warrnambool, we'll have three historic one-day classics."
Creating a template for future sporting and commercial success
For Harris, the 2017 NRS calendar brings together the interests of the riders, teams, race promoters and stakeholders to create a template for future success. While there have been numerous critiques over the way in which the NRS has been run and handled in recent years, the series has proved to be a fertile ground for development with the likes of Brendan Canty, Paddy Bevin, Jack Haig and Chris Hamilton all recent examples of riders cutting their teeth domestically before moving to the WorldTour.
"Some of the discussions we've have had this year is about the number of races, the type of racing and number of race days. I think that is what we still need to do some work around in a commercial point of view and talking with our teams more in terms of what is the sweet spot of the number of days racing," Harris said of finding the balance of race days.
The Tour of Tasmania is the longest race in terms of race days with the majority of the tours around the four day mark. With a large spread of ability and budgets at the domestic level, a diplomatic Harris added it is all about finding the best solution for the most amount of people
"I think what we have is a good number after this year when everybody was saying there wasn't enough racing," he said. "We are looking to increase that but we still need to explore what that sweet spot is regarding race days. Some of our bigger teams would say they can afford more racing and some of our smaller teams, the races they enter will be dictated by what they can afford. We want all the teams committing to all the events, which also gives the promoter's security."
Getting the message out
In a crowded sporting landscape, getting a clear run in the media is hard enough for cycling in Australia. Television is seen as the best medium for the sport and Harris believe the NRS will soon benefit from a new broadcast deal. In 2016, four different television networks broadcast Australian cycling in a sign of commercial interest in the sport as Harris explained.
"The broadcast deal is still in discussion. Things are moving in the right direction, it sounds like some spin, but things are really positive," he said. "When I came in in January this year, the discussions around broadcasting and the NRS were nowhere near where we are in the present day with the conversations we are having with our commercial partners and broadcast partners," he said.
"We still had a pretty strong commitment to it this year and that generated some good outcomes for us and our commercial patterns through social media and visibility. We are also aware of the limitations of the audience that we're trying to communicate to as well. From Cycling Australia's broader strategic point of view to get more people racing, riding and watching, we need to make sure that we are positioning the NRS and tapping into that broader market that do watch the Olympics that do watch the Tour de France and the other grand tours and perhaps aren't that aware or connected to the domestic scene."
The 2017 National Road Series starts in February for the women with the Tour of East Gippsland, while for the men the late-April Battle on the Border stage race kicks off things off.