Australian cycling scene loses NSW criterium series

The Australian racing scene may be prospering but New South Wales has slipped off the back of progress with the 'NSW Grand Prix Cycling' series being cancelled due to the state government pulling its support.

Organiser Phill Bates, however, is hopeful of a change of heart by the NSW government led by Premier and state Liberal leader Mike Baird, and that the series will continue - especially with free-to-air broadcasters, the Nine Network having shown their intent to continue their support for the event if government does.

"Network Nine have indicated support for the series should the government do likewise," Bates told Cyclingnews on Monday. "It is the only way to stage international cycling in NSW, but we need support similar to other mainstream professional sports."

The series was fast becoming a late November-early December institution after it morphed into a series from a one off event in 2006 – the Cronulla International Grand Prix that was held a year after the violent sectarian riots at Cronulla beach sparked after a group of volunteer lifesavers were assaulted.

The inaugural Cronulla International Grand Prix played a huge role in helping the southern beachside suburb of Cronulla, south of Sydney, to regain its image as a safe and fun place to visit.

That the first event grew into a series in 2010 under the instigation of Destination NSW said as much.

It was a remarkable coup for Bates, who ran the Commonwealth Bank Cycling Classic for its 19 years until 2000 and the Women’s Tour de Snowy and World Cup races from 1998 to 2002, that he negotiated live free-to-air television coverage of the 2006 race - and for two hours leading into that day’s cricket telecast.

The Nine Network that currently has the rights for the Tour Down Under in South Australia has supported Bates' series since - as have Radio 2GB, the Leader newspaper and the Sutherland Shire Council.

It was a major boost for cycling in a state that was in need of a showcase event to be televised live.

The five-race series in 2010, with events in Bathurst, Parramatta, Gosford, Coogee and Cronulla, attracted many of Australia’s elite men’s and women’s cyclists.

Some of them were riders who had returned home to Australia from their European bases before starting their increasingly short off-seasons.

International teams also came from the USA, New Zealand, Russia and the United Kingdom.

But then … the bad news

In 2011, the NSW Government cut its budget for the series by 80 per cent – forcing Bates to cancel the regional events in Bathurst and Gosford and Parramatta.

A huge blow was when Bates then had to drop the race at the Sydney beach suburb of Coogee where, during the previous Commonwealth Bank Classic, NSW cycling saw some of its biggest crowds

Bates was still optimistic in 2011 when the series was able to organise two races – in Wollongong and Cronulla – in a huge year for Australian cycling.

Cadel Evans had just won the Tour de France, and while he was not going to race the series, his impact on cycling had extended beyond the cycling fraternity and into households and onto public streets where the sport would otherwise have been little spoken of.

There was also growing interest in the sport with the imminent arrival of the Australian GreenEdge team – later to be named Orica-GreenEdge – on to the WorldTour team at the 2012 Tour Down Under.

Those two developments, let alone the success of Australian riders in many teams in both the men’s and women’s pelotons since – should have triggered a greater interest in the sport like what has been shown by other states in Australia.

Helas, the cancellation of the NSW Grand Prix Cycling shows otherwise. 

“It is disappointing for the sport of cycling,” Bates said in a separate statement he released on Monday. “I have been administering the sport for 48 years and the NSW Grand Prix was the only occasion that international cycling was being staged in NSW.”

But not without thanks

Bates’ lament is not aimed at local government support in Cronulla, or elsewhere. He still appreciates the backing he had and hopes that an opportunity to provide NSW with more televised racing returns.

“There were also many other support sponsors that have shown great long term commitment to the series not forgetting the many volunteers,” he said.

Bates also credits the riders who committed their time and energy to race the series, especially those who after a long international season could have opted to enjoy the beach rather than another race.

“The biggest appreciation is the support from some of the biggest names in Australian cycling who have supported the event and series,” Bates said.

“They helped make it a wonderful spectacle and promotion for the sport of cycling.”

The list of past series winners in both men’s and women’s categories says as much. It includes from the first 2010 series Chris Sutton (Sky) who won back to back titles, Commonwealth Games gold medallist Rochelle Gilmore, world under-23 road champion Michael Matthews in 2012, Caleb Ewen last year, New Zealand’s Sophie Williamson in 2012 and world champion German Charlotte Becker last year.

*Rupert Guinness is a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media)

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