A series of meetings and delicate negotiations are taking place behind closed doors as Cycling Australia, the sport’s governing body, tries to handle a political football that’s giving some of the sport’s key stakeholders considerable heartburn.

With still more sensitive talks scheduled this week, CA is being asked to sanction moving Australia’s second biggest bike race, Victoria’s Jayco Herald Sun Tour, from its traditional October slot to either early or late February starting from 2011.

By looking to stage the race ideally a week after South Australia’s Tour Down Under or, failing that, later in February, the race promoter Michael Hands, managing director of TL Sports, believes it will further consolidate Australia’s elite summer road season with another signature event able to attract ProTour teams. It would also offer better weather for fans and riders.

But the move planned for 2011 and requiring the approval of Cycling Australia to be then ratified by the world governing body, the UCI, would also mean that with a one-off road cycling log jam in October 2010, with the world championships in Geelong followed by the Commonwealth Games, there would be no Herald Sun Tour next year. But as CA’s chief executive Graeme Fredericks informed Crikey, with talks ongoing he was hopeful of reaching a decision well in advance of a February deadline originally agreed with race owner the Herald and Weekly Times. “We were happy to comply with that, and obviously the sooner we make a decision the better.”

But Fredericks played a straight bat to any suggestion the decision has become a highly sensitive political football, despite Crikey insisting the February move was firmly opposed by the TDU and South Australia Events.

“I haven’t felt that or come across that particular rivalry,” he says. “But what we’ve been conveyed fairly simply is that there is a risk I guess of one event diluting the other in terms of tourism impact. I mean no one’s jumping up and down and saying they’ll do what they can to prevent it, but that’s their position. What we’re trying to find is what will work best for the sport and the two events.”

But when I spoke with influential TDU race director Mike Turtur (who is also Oceania UCI region president and sits on the management committee of the UCI), he was far more forthcoming. He is not remotely convinced there is any benefit to the TDU having both races close together, indeed believes it’s also detrimental to the viability of the Herald Sun Tour, which, he says, should stay put.

Hands argues moving in proximity to the TDU is not about trying to cut Adelaide’s  lunch but rather helping to bake a much bigger pie. “As things stand for ourselves and the Tour Down Under, we are only just scratching the surface of potential tourism. So I think we can think bigger than just defending our own little patches. We can grow the overall patch.

“That’s their simple logic and that’s exactly what the problem is — it’s simple logic that’s not going to work and I’ve explained that to them,” Turtur countered to Crikey. “My theory is that they’re going to really stuff their race up by doing something hastily without giving it thought. If they do that they’re going to be in big trouble because they will suddenly realise they’re not going to get the support they think they’re going to get from the teams they want and it’s all going to be a big mess.

“We have created something special here, and that’s why for the life of me I can’t understand for a second why you would consider jeopardising the good that’s been done here for something that’s flawed. It makes no sense to me whatsoever to try to jeopardise both events by having them too close together. I don’t agree a move to February would benefit them. Apart from everything else, knowing that in strictly cycling terms it ain’t gonna happen, because I know the teams will not support it in the way that they think it’s going to be supported.

“If you look at February that’s the start of the European season and there are about 20 events happening, so how the hell they expect to get teams to Australia straight after the Tour Down Under just doesn’t make sense to me? I hate to say it but they’re 100% totally wrong. They will not. The Australian Pro Tour riders won’t be able to ride here in February because they will be with their team. I can tell you that with my 12 years’ experience of the TDU, the number one objective of all the teams immediately at the conclusion of our race is to return to Europe.

“They have all these traditional starts to the season happening and they’re all obligated and they ride them regardless. February is now chock-a-block with races overseas, so to suggest a race on the other side of the world is going to be supported by teams that have to go to three or four different places at the same time in February is crazy — I don’t know what they’re thinking.”

But Hands has a very different take on how responsive pro teams will be to a February switch. “We were actually initially approached by ProTour teams themselves. Now because of the cycling calendar and because we are conscious of different sensitivities, we are trying to do it diplomatically rather than heavy-handedly,” he says of the current negotiations.

How ironic the TDU is now helping drive the Victorian shift when it’s impossible to ignore the historic events rivalry and animosity between two states. This acrimony dates back to then Victorian premier Jeff Kennett stealing away Adelaide’s sole major international sporting event, its F1 Grand Prix from 1996.

Hence the TDU from 1999 was established in the hope it could be a half decent suitable international replacement as the state’s signature sporting marquee. Such has been its massive and more recently exponential success as a heavyweight global cycling event, that it’s ProTour sanctioned status puts it at a ranking level behind only the three Grand Tours (France, Italy and Spain).

Today, any economic impact comparison between the Grand Prix and TDU would show the events’ worm has well and truly turned turtle!

While Melbourne’s costly loss-making F1 extravaganza is in sharp decline as a live event, South Australia basks in the afterglow of 760,000 spectators turning out for the 2009 Lance Armstrong comeback testimonial. The TDU now draw’s Australia’s biggest live crowds for an annual sporting event.

It’s certainly not lost on Michael Hands, himself formerly with Victorian Major Events when he says: “Cycle tourism is now somewhere around 4-5% of the global tourism market and growing fast.”

But whatever the cycling arguments being offered up for the change out of Victoria, Turtur isn’t buying. “I think there is more to it than just the move to February from a cycling point of view. I think it you ask some questions about Victorian Major Events, February is a slow month and they’re looking for something to plug it. Now if it’s the Herald Sun Tour then that’s no reason from a cycling perspective to move the race.”

Hence he’s convinced such a switch is a recipe for disaster that can harm the future of both races.

“People have to realise that although they’re both bike races, that’s not the main reason for the existence of both events, and more so the Tour Down Under,” Turtur reasons. “It’s based on tourism. I can tell you that if the numbers drop off for our race; that is the visitation and economic impact drops off, then the race is in jeopardy. I don’t know in respect of Michael Hands how his race works, but our race since day one has always been about tourism. Thankfully the numbers have increased each year, but if they did happen to drop off, then obviously the government looks at it and says: ‘well maybe this race has run its course and we’ve got to move on’. Obviously I hope that day doesn’t come. But I think a suggestion like this might help it to come — that’s my problem with it.”

Michael Hands admits past history hasn’t helped the process now under way, but remains hopeful CA will come to the right decision. “There’s no doubt the history of the two states colours things a bit but the heart of the matter is that the date we’ve probably had for the last 50 odd years is starting to constrain the event because of the global cycling calendar and we need to review it in that light. So I can certainly understand their concerns but I think we can allay them.”

But given the strength of Turtur’s convictions that appears highly unlikely.

Peter Fray

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