Brett Fenton
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Race Wars

Nowadays, if you’re an A-grade club rider you may have your work cut out to even figure in the finish, let alone win it. Unless of course you’re part of one of the growing number of sponsored racing teams gracing the criterium and road-racing circuits of Australia each weekend.

Whilst the speeds may be a little slower than their pro counterparts, the tactics used in the higher echelons of club grade racing – not to mention the bikes and assorted paraphernalia they ride with – are more and more resembling those of pro teams. Protected riders. Domestiques marking the every move of rivals. Organised lead-outs. They’re on show every weekend. As are different schools of thought on whether it’s a good thing.

To explore the issues associated with this emerging trend in Australian road cycling, we talked to three people at the coal-face of the club racing scene in 2013.

The Veteran: Graham Jones

Graham Jones, or Jonesy as most people know him, has been involved in Australian club racing for decades firstly as a rider, and later as a State commissaire, coach, racing manager and even a Director for Cycling NSW. As a founding member of what is today one of the largest racing clubs in Australia, Waratahs Masters Cycling Club (circa 1994), he’s also had a front-row seat as club racing has evolved into a very different – and undoubtedly quicker – beast during the last two decades.

Fraham Jones

“There’s no doubt the speed and standard of riding has increased,” says Jones, casting his mind back to his own early days in the sport. “It’s pushed good A-Grade riders down to B-Grade. This is no bad thing. It just filters down to the lower grades whose average speeds are probably up 3 to 4km/h compared to six or seven years ago.”

The way Jones see things, faster speeds are good. It is racing after all. But what about the arrival of more and more sponsored teams every Sunday morning at his beloved Waratahs criteriums? Especially given on some weekends you’ll find as many as four teams present, complicating proceedings considerably for the usual cast of Waratahs and solo club riders. I expected such a trend to get right up the nose of a veteran like Jones. I was wrong.

“That’s a good thing too, I think. It means something always happens in the race and the other riders have to get organised to cover breaks and mitigate blocking tactics,” says Jones who like many feels teams add a harder and more tactical edge to the racing, not to mention a more relevant bridge between club and elite riding. “The more opportunity good riders get to learn or counter team racing tactics, the more relevant club racing is as a breeding ground for NRS level participation.”

As for those opposed to team-based racing at club level? Jones says he hasn’t heard too many complaints firsthand. But in a distinct nod to Rule #5 he smiles and also adds, “It’s probably just sour grapes from riders who can’t hang on anymore but are too ego driven to ride down a grade!” Ouch, Jonesy. Ouch.

The Lone Rider: James Gilmore

Whilst Jones watches A-grade from the sidelines these days, James Gilmore from Lidcombe-Auburn Cycling Club sees things from the heart of the peloton. In the last 12 months, the club races Gilmore has been frequenting for nearly 14 years have seen the arrival of several independently-funded and organised sponsored teams, including two from within his own club. On the surface Gilmore has no issue with their presence. But further probing reveals an air of frustration filtering through the conversation.

James Gilmore

“On the one hand the racing is a lot more serious because they’re there, a lot more tactical,” says Gilmore. “But on the other, it means it’s hard for a lone rider to be successful.”

The challenge of going head-to-head with teams of up to six or seven riders, instead of a loose amalgam of individuals, has made Gilmore think a lot about his own racing in recent times. Sometimes he seeks to forge alliances with other solo riders pre-race. On others he just goes it alone and digs as deep as he can. “I might not always like their tactics, but as I see it I have to find ways to counter them. Either that or just not turn up and save myself the aggravation.” (In case you’re wondering, yes, Gilmore still shows up to race most weekends.)

For a rider like Gilmore, it’s all about motivation and context. “If clubs are sprouting teams because there is a wealth of talent looking for new outlets, that’s great. If, however, teams are started simply because ‘you gotta have a team’ or as another opportunity for cliques you’d have to question their value.”

As he continues, Gilmore hints at another hard-to-ignore point. By cherry-picking a club’s finest established and emerging riders, he wonders if there’s a risk that sponsored teams may actually lead to the entrenchment of a two-tier class of club racing, where the best get better at the expense of everyone else, whose primary role becomes that of perpetual pack fodder.

“Club racing has always been about the individual, in theory anyway. The idea is that it toughens you up and allows the strongest to shine,” says Gilmore. “Team racing changes the dynamic. Basically what we’re seeing is the stronger guys being pulled into teams – and there’s often next to no-one left to take them on.”

In this way, could it become a self-perpetuating talent cycle? One, not dissimilar to the English Premier League or Spanish La Liga, where a handful of high-profile teams fight out the championship year upon year, fuelled by the biggest budgets and most talented playing rosters – whilst the rest are left to fight for the scraps. To quote the moustachioed geeks on Mythbusters, you’d have to say it’s at the very least plausible, especially if the best riders always gravitate to the best teams. Maybe it’s an extreme example, but is there a danger of the talent and opportunity gulf growing to such canyonesque proportions that it threatens to scare many up and coming riders from the sport altogether and, heaven forbid, into triathlons?

Now at this point I need to stress Gilmore, 40, isn’t completely against the idea of sponsored racing teams. Far from it in fact. Whilst humbly laughing off the chances of it actually happening, he even suggests given the right circumstances he’d probably consider riding for a sponsored team himself. So who’s doing it right, then?

Gilmore points to the approach taken by Trent Wilson’s GPM-Data#3 Racing, with close ties to the Parramatta Cycling Club in Sydney. Since forming as what was effectively a sponsored club team back in 2009, GPM-Data#3 has graduated into being a strong and regular presence in the Subaru National Road Series, including 2013 stage wins for Scott Law at the Woodside Tour of Perth (Stage 4) and Battle on the Border (Stage 5).

James Gilmore

“I really like the attitude of GPM. They race in the NRS and at that level they work as a team. But in smaller club races, they’re encouraged to compete for themselves, as individuals,” says Gilmore before continuing, “Team tactics are fantastic when employed against other teams in an elite or Open context. But I think anything outside this should be open to scrutiny.” When pushed as to why, he offers another important observation, “I’m just not sure that club racing is the best place for teams – especially if an event is poorly attended to start with or a single team dominates numbers in the field.”

Having seen this situation occur on several occasions within my own club – fields as small as 10 riders consisting of seven from the one team – I can only agree. Sponsored teams combined with small fields have a nasty habit of seeing races morph into little more than dreary processions to the bell lap; either that or glorified training rides. It’s all a bit of a yawn some days, which surely is of little value to anyone. Might as well do a coffee ride and save your entry fee for cake.

In a clue for administrators and race committees everywhere, the issue of field sizes was perhaps the most recurring point in all of the interviews conducted for this article. Given large fields, teams are seen by most as a good thing. Or at the very least, non-problematic. But as rider numbers get smaller, the voices of dissension grow louder than a scrum of inebriated fans on the Koppenburg.

But here’s the rub. Even if well-meaning organisers signal an intention to ban team-based racing in smaller fields, in reality, how could they do it? Granted they could make all riders wear their club jerseys, as denoted on their Cycling Australia licences, or refuse them race entry. But if a team is determined to work as one, unleashing the fashion police is unlikely to stop them. Similarly, commissaires could be instructed to caution riders against collusion as they recite all the other legal and safety preamble at the start of races. But surely a spirit of collusion – working with other riders towards a common goal – has always sat at the very heart of our sport?

The view from this rider’s seat-post at least, suggests any changes of this ilk are destined to be little more than impossible-to-police nightmares for already stretched club volunteers and commissaires. Perhaps the best way to safely navigate the situation is to avoid it altogether; by finding strategies to get bigger fields to club races thus diluting the ability of any one team to dictate proceedings. If you can dominate in a field of 40+ riders, good luck to you.

(Increasing field sizes is, of course, far easier said than done for most clubs – my own included – but that’s an article for another day.)

The Team Rider: Brett Fenton

There’s one group we haven’t heard from as yet, of course: those who ride for sponsored teams. Not surprisingly, they’re all for the concept. Tall, gangly and fast, Brett Fenton has been racing on the road and track for around 15 years and currently rides for the NRVRacing.com team in Sydney. Whilst agreeing that, on the surface at least, the club racing landscape is changing, in many ways Fenton feels the situation isn’t so different to the way it was when he first started out. There’s just more structure now to what was already happening then.

“Historically racing was more club-oriented than having race-specific teams like ours,” reflects Fenton. “But I remember plenty of races where a club-mate was up the road and we’d band together to protect them, or bunch kicks where we’d always look after our mates.”

Brett Fenton

“I guess the difference back then was it was just a looser collection of riders and a bit less predictable. With race-specific teams it’s now far clearer what the tactics are. In every race individual riders within teams have their roles. The bunch all know the score.”

Of course, knowing the score and being able to do anything about it on the weekend are two very different matters. But for Fenton, that’s the whole point. It forces everyone to raise their game, regardless of who they’re riding for.

“Teams coming out and racing at local events simply lifts the bar for everyone,” says Fenton. “The racing is faster, and I think something often overlooked is faster racing is usually safer racing too.”

Whilst even the most ardent of club traditionalists would agree a higher standard and safety of racing is a good thing, Fenton acknowledges there are still plenty of detractors, something that clearly rankles as he feels it’s based, largely, on misunderstanding.

“There’s a perception in some quarters that a team is simply a tool to win races at all costs. Nothing could be further from the truth, except at the most elite level. A team gives you mates who ride for each other, who motivate one another, who lift you up after a bad day. If you include the social aspect, weekends away and families being involved, it’s something really amazing to be a part of.”

Brett Fenton

That’s not to say Fenton and his teammates don’t think things could be even better. But rather than be a problem to solve, he suggests teams like NRVracing.com offer significant benefits to cycling clubs. “In big fields I’d say nothing at all needs to be done. In fact, they (sponsored teams) should be embraced by clubs because getting more teams to your races is going to get more riders at your events.”

Fenton continues, “If events are so small that dominance becomes an issue, maybe think about limiting the size of teams or running events like handicaps which nullify team tactics somewhat. But that’s up to each club to assess depending on their own circumstances.”

Graham Jones shares a similar view to Fenton, and thinks the current situation can be improved greatly by broadening the road racing calendar to include more large-scale events, particularly in Australia’s major cities, thus reducing the need for sponsored teams to compete so heavily at local club races. “Cycling NSW and other promoters really need to offer more Open events in the metro areas to allow these teams to compete regularly against each other on an equal footing,” says Jones, effectively hinting at a missing tier of road racing in Australia.

Having ridden several Open events myself during the last twelve months in Sydney, Newcastle and as far afield as Gunnedah, I can see real value in Jones’s thinking. Larger fields. More teams. Varying terrain. Less known rivals. They all combine to create the perfect climate for fast, exciting and unpredictable racing. Who knows? Get the organisation right and one day it might even become a genuine feeder circuit into the NRS itself. Think of it as Division 2 for domestic cycling, if you like.

So where does all of this leave us? As tends to be the norm for most things associated with cycling these days, it’s complicated. There are pros and cons to having sponsored racing teams. No-one is for a moment suggesting it will be easy to strike the right balance. But as the cycling landscape in this country continues to evolve at a rapid and exciting pace, surely the onus is firmly upon Club, State and even National administrators to at least try? Because love them or hate them, the one thing that cannot be denied is these teams exist and their proliferation is likely to see more and more arrive in the next few years.

Whatever the future holds for sponsored teams and club racing in general, let’s leave the final word to James Gilmore. “Sponsored teams are helping to raise the level of racing, certainly they ask more of my legs! Sometimes it’s frustrating, but often that’s just because I keep getting schooled. In the end if I was better I would get better results – end of story.”

Yes it is. For now at least. 

Peter Maniaty is Marketing & Communications Manager for Subaru NRS newcomers, Cellarbrations Racing Team, and writes the cycling blog, carbonaddiction.net 

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