IT IS all about wheels within wheels when it comes to organising, promoting, overseeing and completing a successful cycling event. Last week ROD NICHOLSON joined promotor John Craven on the five-day, 500 km Tour of the Great South Coast to discover the behind-the-scenes demands of a cycling tour:
SITTING in the comfort of the loungeroom watching Le Tour de France and the breath-taking scenery gives one a false impression of elite cycling. As yet another historic cathedral slips by, another breakaway emerges, another crash almost makes you spill your warming glass of red wine, and another win for Chris Froome becomes inevitable, you become besotted by the vista and courage of the riders.
No thought is given to the immeasurable, behind-the-scenes organisation that precedes the event, the daily pack-and-dash routine of all the crews, the relentless pressure for every aspect of every one of the 23 days of the tour to go like clockwork.
The Tour of the Great South Coast is a mini replica of Le Tour de France. In virtually every respect – apart from the international recognition, the unrivalled travelogue of the nation and the billions who sit up all night to watch it – this tour is conducted with precision and planning.
Our SportsHounds colleague John Craven is the director of this tour and he took me along for “the ride” last week as almost 100 cyclists from every state in Australia – plus New Zealand and Malaysia – rode 500 km over five days between Mount Gambier in South Australia to Portland in Victoria.
It is part of the Subaru Australian Cycling National Road series and, as such, is the stepping stone for Australia’s next generation of elite cyclists to follow the ilk of Tour de France winner Cadel Evans, current star Richie Porte, who crashed badly in Le Tour last month, and Michael Matthews who secured this year’s coveted green jersey for leading sprinter.
Make no mistake, this tour will help produce the next generation of stars. Matt Ross, a 21-year-old from the Carnegie club, won the sprint award as well as king of the mountain. He has amazing potential. He is one of a dozen seemingly ready to take the next step, while the rising stars (under 21) showed they had the grit and gift, the passion and ambition, to stake a claim.
However, this story is not about what happened on the road, although special mention should be made of the course, sometimes whipped by gale force winds and monsoonal rains, sometimes hilly and other times flat – but always spectacularly beautiful.
This is about the organisation involved in presenting a five-day cycling event, which it must be said, is about wheels within wheels.
Craven began working on this tour 12 months ago, the day the previous tour ended. He’s visited the region regularly, negotiating with three councils, the City of Mount Gambier, the District Council of Grant (SA) and the Glenelg Shire in Victoria.
The councils are hugely supportive of the event. Craven’s job is raising funds, ensuring the courses used during the six stages of the event are not only beautiful and testing, but safe for the riders.
This is a two-way street. Craven needs council funding and co-operation, which includes police to organise rolling road closures, for notices to be distributed to households if roads are to be temporarily blocked, and for support to promote the event locally.
On the other hand, the benefits of the tour are immense. One council chief executive estimated the influx of cyclists, their crews and Craven’s “family” of 60 volunteers plus friends, contributed $100,000 each day to their economy.
That’s not difficult to accept given, in the midst of winter, motels are booked out, about 300 people eat and drink at local cafes and restaurants and spend on all manner of things including newspapers, winter wear and petrol. Craven and his organisation, Caribou, booked out one Chinese restaurant in Mount Gambier, following a night at the local RSL which was overwhelmed with hearty diners and drinkers. The same can be said of the Gordon Hotel at Portland, a sponsor which, many can confirm, more than recouped its funds!
The councils worked in wonderfully. Throughout the tour, any potholes on the route were filled in especially for the safety of the cyclists, and shrubbery was heavily pruned on the side of the roads to ensure any cyclists who fell did not go headlong into dangerous terrain.
The rolling road blocks, where all oncoming traffic is stopped and pulled to the side of the road until the last cyclist has passed _ a must with so many trucks laden with timber rolling through _ are amazing to watch. The 14 police in each state, either in cars or on motorbikes, worked in unison with 15 volunteer motor scouts to block side roads and ensure cyclists had an uninterrupted journey.
Sponsorship is key. Craven said the sponsors came in all shapes and sizes, ranging from $100,000 down to $250. There are the councils, giant international civil construction business Fulton Hogan, the Port of Portland, thoroughbred racing and breeding establishment Campolina, jersey manufacturer Scody, and even the CFMEU, whose Victorian chairman Ralph Edwards was present all the way, declaring the need for promoting young cycling talent.
But the unsung heroes are Craven’s “family” of 60 volunteers, many of whom have been with him on cycling tours for 30 years.
The tour co-ordinator is Leanne Freeman, who has been with Caribou for 28 years and knows every aspect, and every person, involved in the race.
Jim Anderson started off carting equipment a couple of decades ago and now is construction crew manager. He and his team are first up and last in. They can leave at six am to erect the finishing line, podium structure, sponsorship boards and all the road signs and barriers. At race’s end, they dismantle the lot, load and head to the next port-of-call to prepare to do it all over again the next day.
There are commissaires (referees), judges, drivers, motor scouts, medical personnel, media and family and friends. Five volunteers travelled from Tasmania, Diana Wong flew from Sydney to support the medical staff, which include Bobby Hall who has been around from the start, while tour director James Blight flew in from Toowoomba.
People came from Echuca, Gippsland, Bendigo and Melbourne to help. Besides the volunteers, there are others who are attracted to the race. Bob Thompson, a long-time supporter of cycling and Craven, made the trip along with Bernard Schreiber from Scody who flew in from Queensland. Naturally there are many who popped up along the way, eager to see the future stars. Be it at the bakery at Heywood (delicious curry pies!) or the coffee shop at Mount Gambier, someone always seemed to know Craven, the cyclists or support crew and the event.
But it is all about the success of the tour.
“That is the be-all-and-end-all. Nothing else matters. If the tour is successful we have done our job,” Craven said.
“You must surround yourself with enthusiastic people because mugs will ruin you,” Craven said of his collection of former cyclists or mates. “There can be no room for any negativity.
“If one person points the cyclists in the wrong direction, or one person does the wrong thing no matter what their task, the whole tour can be a disaster _ and the buck comes back to me.”
Wheels within wheels, indeed.
PS: Sometimes the moons align, as they did this year. The tour winner was Brad Evans, who rode to victory at Portland, cycling around the massive port infrastructure of Fulton Hogan, one of the major sponsors. Just so happens that Evans was born and raised in Dunedin, New Zealand, the very place where the company was founded by Julius Fulton and Robert Hogan in 1933 and where its Australasian headquarters remain to this day.
There were smiles all round about that! Craven, the executives of Fulton Hogan and especially young Evans (perhaps seeing a lucrative contract on the horizon?) couldn’t have scripted it better.