Safety takes on Olympic proportions for Santos North Western Tour

Four decades of successful, high-level race promotion meant that Phill Bates was not going to compromise when he was asked to take the reins of the second edition of the Santos North Western Tour earlier this year.

He demanded police involvement and road closures.

"If that wasn't the case I wasn't interested in being involved," Bates told Cyclingnews.

The 2013 Santos North Western Tour is stop number five for the men and the fourth for the women in the Subaru National Road Series. The race beings this Wednesday in the town of Narrabri.

The inaugural North Western Tour descended into farce on the final stage in 2012, stopped with 90km remaining after riders within the peloton continually crossing-over the middle line of the road. The New South Wales Police-issued permits only allowed for the left-hand side of the road to be used. The race had not been scheduled to be a part of the National Road Series calendar until this season however, pressure from sponsors - mining giant Santos - saw the tour fast-tracked.

"Maybe it was a bit of inexperience but it was a good concept," explained Bates. "We are working around the model that they had in place but we've changed a few things."

First, there's the police presence and road closures – rolling on the road stages with the full width utilised and total closures for the time trial and criterium. Initial plans put in place by Bates to have at least two police motorcyclists with the race, were upped weeks out from the event with NSW Police doubling their numbers – it means that it will be the largest police contingent to undertake a cycling event in New South Wales since the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000. The vast majority of motor police cyclists will be coming from outside the region. Six police cars and six motor cycle police officers will escort the race provide sterile racing conditions with no vehicles passing the cyclists except in emergency situations.

In NSW, the safety measures come at a hefty cost for the event promoter, NSW Cycling with a user-pays system in operation since 1990, unlike in some other states across Australia where police assistance is provided for sporting events.

Bates and race director Warren Scott made several changes to the 2012 parcours following consultation with the NSW Police and the five local councils the race traverses. An 80-page traffic management plan was then submitted and approved which should be music to the ears of the Cycling Australia Athletes Commission which was convened earlier this month. It was deemed that rider safety in the NRS be a priority, elevating what has been a major discussion point amongst teams directly to the Cycling Australia board.

This year's Santos North Western Tour begins with an extended individual time trial on an 8.5km course in Narrabri, with a criterium in the town centre to follow.

"The criterium is the same circuit as last year but it will be totally closed," Bates explained. "We'll place a lot more infrastructure in there not only for the safety of the riders but also for the public. We'll also be doing extensive promotion within the town to ensure that every one is aware of what's happening."

A new stage from Bingara to Narrabri has been added to the schedule, and is in place of the troublesome Gunnedah to Tamworth stage of 2012.

"It's a pretty quiet road but we're backing it up with a lot more personnel," Bates confirmed.

The penultimate and toughest stage of the race from Coonabarabran to Siding Springs and its long, steep uphill finish, four kilometres of which is at over six per cent gradient, is largely the same as last year but there is a slightly different start. Total road closures will be in place once the race hits Gilgandra Shire.

The North Western Tour will conclude with an overhauled final Sundowner stage for the men that promises to be ultra-fast. Bates says that while it's not overly challenging, good racing should ensue. Men will race along Coonabarabran Road; women along the Oxley Highway. The finish into Gunnedah is also much more straight-forward.

Bates' message for the peloton is this, should any concerns linger following last year's event.

"The tour is simpler, better and far more safe."

Cyclingnews will have a full preview of the 2013 Santos North Western Tour on Tuesday.

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