All black? Why are the kiwis kicking our Aussie butts in the NRS?

As I write this Pat ‘Paddy’ Bevin has just won back-to-back events in the 2014 Subaru National Road Series, claiming superb victories in the National Capital Tour and, two weeks later, the prestigious Tour of Tasmania. A fine rider surely destined for bigger things, Bevin, 23, now sits fifth in the overall NRS rider standings for 2014 despite missing much of the season, while ahead of him in first place sits Joe Cooper.

Both of these guys are excellent cyclists, no question. But like more and more riders in the NRS they’re also kiwis – as is the rapidly rising South African-born U19 from Charter Mason Giant, Keagan Girdlestone who’s already recorded podiums and multiple top 10s in his first NRS season. It’s a situation only likely to swell even further with Australia’s number one ranked UCI Continental squad, Avanti Racing Team, recently announcing their intentions to register as a New Zealand squad from the start of the 2015 UCI season.

Joe Cooper and Pat Bevin, two kiwis well ahead of the Aussies in 2014.
Joe Cooper, left, and Pat Bevin, two kiwis well ahead of the Aussies in 2014 (PHOTO: Jarrod Partridge).

Now before you unleash the All Black front row on me with a chain whip let me say I have no issue with New Zealanders whatsoever. Living in Sydney I see and work with kiwis pretty much every day of my life and count several amongst my closest friends. But what I do wonder is why are they kicking our backsides right now? Avanti, Budget Forklifts and health.com.au-Search2Retain boast plenty of Australian riders on their rosters, some of whom have enjoyed fleeting moments of success in 2014. But with their roles seemingly confined largely to that of domestique, it’s the men from across the Tasman who are proving to be the consistent GC high achievers, especially in the tougher tours.

Sure, it may just be coincidence. But perhaps there’s more to it than simply a couple of kiwis having a bloody good season?

I’m beginning to wonder if perhaps the global reputation of Australian cycling has now grown to such an extent that it’s somehow bringing the domestic scene to its knees? With so many of Australia’s top riders plying their trade overseas from ever-younger ages – be it the USA or Europe – could it be there’s simply not a whole lot left locally to challenge the kiwis, or anyone else for that matter, at senior level?

In many ways you could argue it’s a mirror of what’s been going on for decades with European soccer clubs. Whereas once only the absolute cream of Aussie footballers could ever hope to land pro contracts overseas, now hundreds do every season – and it can’t help but have a knock-on impact on the sport at domestic level.

From the top of my carbon seat post, it seems football’s recent history in Australia may now be repeating itself in cycling. Trouble is, with significantly lower participation numbers to call upon than the round ball game, the effects are greatly magnified. We just don’t have the cattle.

This season alone there are more than 30 Australians riding for UCI WorldTour teams, and countless more abroad on the levels just below that, Pro-Continental and Continental. Given the spectacular successes of riders like Robbie McEwan, Cadel Evans, Simon Gerrans and, this year, Michael Matthews, together with the invaluable support provided by others such as Richie Porte, Mick Rogers, Mark Renshaw and Adam Hansen, Aussie riders are now understandably highly sought-after, one of the hottest tickets on overseas squads, known for being fine cyclists, hard workers and good blokes. Personally, I know of three NRS-level riders who each gave up guaranteed domestic starts in 2014 to ride for peanuts on third-tier teams in Europe this season. I’m sure there are plenty of others just like them too.

With more and more teams snapping up more and more of our riders, often based on little more than potential and the coat of arms on their passport, it means the cupboard is getting a little bare. Instead of being home to a healthy pool of rising U23s and that bulging second tier of great-but-not-quite-world-level-yet-if-ever riders, the local talent pool has been pillaged – a situation that’s perhaps given the kiwis their chance to belt us.

Aussie riders are in demand pretty much everywhere.
Aussie riders are in demand pretty much everywhere.

Think about it. Save for a handful of late bloomers, the vast bulk of our finest young riders like Damien Howson (22), Caleb Ewan (20), Jack Haig (21) and Campbell Flakemore (22) now enjoy, at best, abbreviated tenures at domestic senior level before being swept away to compete in far away lands. While some like Port Macquarie’s Lachlan Morton (22) virtually skip the Australian system altogether.

Of course, it’s not their fault this happens. Our best riders will always be the target of Pro Tour squads. The real trouble appears to come from the significant number of riders on the next rung down, who not so long ago couldn’t have dreamt of plying their trade professionally abroad – but now can do exactly that. Sure, they may never scale the very heights of world cycling. But nor do they need to. They can travel the world and carve out solid careers as role players; loyal little fish in a very big pond. Beats the hell out of sitting at a desk 9-5.

What this leaves back home, inevitably, is a void; a void which is magnified even further when one of the top teams in recent years, Drapac Pro Cycling, is absent as it’s been for much of the NRS this season, understandably chasing the bigger races and prizes available through its evolution to Pro Conti status in 2014.

This isn’t written in any way to diminish the efforts of the kiwis who come to our shores and beat us at our own game; good on them I say. Rather it’s an observation of the seeming need for the NRS to be bolstered for the sake of its own future, so it becomes viable for a far greater contingent of Australian riders in that second tier to stick around. Easier said than done, I know. But surely without at least attempting to address things you have to wonder what is the NRS actually trying to achieve? Because potential sponsors will certainly be asking this question before signing up.

It’s taken local soccer administrators a long, long time to adapt to the Aussie talent drain, and recalibrate the sport’s relevance in this country – a struggle they finally seem to be winning after decades in the wilderness and several false dawns.

Hopefully cycling can do the same. Just faster. After all, the kiwis continue to thrash us at rugby every year. Surely we can get our own back when it comes to two wheels?

Until then, thank heavens for Tim Roe 😉

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