Junior Pathways

Posted: December 12, 2012 in Opinion

With news that Team Jayco-AIS will no longer be a continental team offering our best under-23 riders a year-long contract and opportunities to race in Europe and around the world, it’s perhaps a good time to reflect on cycling’s pathways here in Australia.

There will no longer be a continental AIS team. This is the 2009 team and included Jack Bobridge, Michael Matthews and Leigh Howard, Rohan Dennis, Luke Davison and Glen O'Shea, Travis Meyer and Adam Semple.

There will no longer be a continental AIS team. This is the 2009 team and included Jack Bobridge, Michael Matthews, Leigh Howard, Rohan Dennis, Luke Davison, Glen O’Shea, Travis Meyer and Adam Semple.  Not a bad bunch!

Our cycling trail blazers headed to Europe with no support, usually not much money, but with an intrepid Aussie spirit and willingness to race.  I’m not talking way back with the likes of Oppy (20s and 30s) or even the 50’s with John Beasley and Russell Mockridge , but when road was really taking off – the late 70’s /early  80’s.  Riders like Phil Anderson, Allan Peiper, Michael Wilson, Shane Sutton, Neil Stephens and Stephen Hodge paved the way for today’s Aussie riders.

The AIS and state institutes came into existence in the early 90’s, and it was this well funded and well planned approach that really heralded the first wave of Aussies to invade Europe in any organised fashion.  Stuart O’Grady, Robbie McEwen, Bradley McGee, Henk Vogels, Baden Cooke, Dave McKenzie, Jay Sweet and Matt Wilson (to name a few) lead the charge and found homes with European teams largely due to the opportunities the AIS gave them; firstly to train as full-time athletes and then to race in Europe.

Robbie and Stuey battling for Green at the TdF - both alumni of AIS teams.

Robbie and Stuey battling for Green at the TdF – both alumni of AIS teams.

Charlie Walsh, often maligned for his uncompromising approach to training, can take a lot of responsibility for putting in place many of the systems that we reaped the benefits from long after he was unceremoniously sacked.  Heiko Salzwedel, the German cycling coach, had a similar impact on our road programs and many of our current high performance team trained and learned from these gentlemen.

It wasn’t a perfect pathway, as can be seen with the recent doping fallout; the AIS would often find a rider a European team, but once there, they were on their own and, as young naive riders, many became easy prey for Italian and Spanish teams with strong doping cultures… but that’s another story.

As of 2013, the Jayco-AIS team will revert to a National Team.  So it provides no permanent position for Australia’s best young riders, rather it offers a larger group of riders shorter guest opportunities to ride some of the top under-23 races around the world.  I’m not against this, but it does create a bit of a quandary for our best young riders who now must find a home somewhere else prepared to allow them to leave to guest ride with the national team.  I’m sure the AIS is assisting these riders find homes both locally, with NRS teams, and with international continental teams, but is this a better pathway structure than having a dozen of our best under-23 riders riding full time for the AIS team?

The NRS is now very much a part of the cycling pathway in Australia.  From 2008 to 2010 it established itself without any real assistance from CA.  Then over the last two-years, with CA support, it has blossomed into what is hoped is a sustainable ongoing model.  There still needs to be further support for teams, namely longer term TV security that they can offer their sponsors, but its heading in the right direction.

One thing the NRS will hopefully do is help alleviate the dramatic drop off of riders coming out of under-17s and into the black hole that is under-19s.  Teams like Charter Mason Drapac and Polygon Australia are offering riders coming out of juniors with a chance to race NRS events.  This can only be a good thing.

The state institutes, while very definitely part of the pathway, do their best on varying budgets.  There doesn’t seem to be any real systems or KPIs that run through them all.  They seem to be separate islands operating as best they can, very much relying on their key personnel and the success of their state federation in raising funds from their respective state governments.  I think this is the next area that needs to be overhauled, not on a state-by-state basis, but by CA who put money into each of the institutes already.

The NTID programs seem to have been overhauled recently, but again it seems to be ad-hoc at best across the various states.  In some it is non-existent, in others it is simply integrated into the institute. Some better communication from CA might make things clearer here also?

Continuing to work backwards some states have federation run regional academies (Victoria have four regional academies), some have private academies (e.g. Illawarra Academy), some have clubs with a strong junior development ethos (e.g Wagga Wagga in NSW, Midlands in WA, Gold Coast GoldStars in QLD), some have privately run junior teams (e.g. Racing Kangaroos & the newly formed Team Bike Ride Tasmania) and some offer scholarships through teams like Team O’Grady (SA) – which has worked through many structures and now seems to come under the Jayco banner (what would cycling do without Gerry Ryan?).

Cam Meyer was fortunate to be part of the enviable WA pathway, then went straight on the AIS conveyor belt.

Cam Meyer was fortunate to be part of the enviable WA pathway, then went straight onto the AIS conveyor belt… too easy?

Some work and are money well spent, others arrive, last a year or two and then petter out.  There is surely a better way to structure and support this most important period on the pathway?  I fear it is on the CA agenda, but so far down on the list of things that need to be done that we won’t see any movement for years.

If we work back any further there is… nothing.  Cycling is terrible at identifying its emerging young riders (under-13s / under-15s) and even worse at giving them any encouragement, let alone support.  They, and their parents, are left to find their own way.  One of last year’s winners of the NJTS got a pair of pedals and a pat on the back and told to keep going but not to burn out.  They couldn’t even access their local indoor velodrome for pursuit training in the lead-up to the Nationals despite being almost certain to medal!

Most states don’t have formal development programs for under-13 or even under-15/17 riders, and those that do, might get a couple of half-day sessions throughout the year.  Better than nothing, and at least its some recognition for the kids that get selected, but hardly a ‘program’.

Cycling needs to realise that it is competing with many other sports for these talented kids.  Sports that identify, nurture and appreciate their emerging athletes… not leave them to fend for themselves.  It doesn’t need to cost a lot and perhaps it can come from CA – an invitation for talented kids from around Australia to attend a training camp twice a year – once for track and once for road… it would be the highlight of the season for many of them; heck, they’d probably even be happy to pay their own way!

I guess the question is: Is it better to offer more riders an opportunity to race in Europe or keep doing what we’ve been doing well and offer the best 10 or so riders with a smoother pathway to success?  And then should those riders give back once they make it… now that’s a whole other blog!

  1. Ciclista Genitore says:

    And now with less spelling mistakes!!

    Perhaps what we need is a system that identifies 4 or 5 J15 boys and the same number of J15 girls and gives them 3 or 4 development sessions for track and road, as well as a session with an Elite coach – perhaps via the VIS.

    As they move out of J15s we will start to know whether they are going to be a Sprinter or an Enduro, at which time they move into an appropriate program, if they are still interested and suitable, and so their pathway really commences.

    We seem to have an excellent sprint program here, although some may argue that it is highly focused through mainly 1 club and two coaches as kids try to make the Sprint program.

    For J17 endurance riders we are starting to move in the right direction with the Endurance squad but it seems to be highly focused towards Junior State and National Track Championships. What happens after States for those boys and girls who miss State selection; whats on the horizon for them? And, after months of working together doing Teams Pursuit training, getting to know how each other rides and reacts etc, there seem to be no guaruntees that the best team will be selected, rather we seem to have a selection process that will most likely select the fastest 4 pursuiters (3 for girls) and hope that they can gel together irrespective of prior training and ‘team bonding’ that has gone before.

    We are neither giving them a pathway nor are we putting our best team forward.

    What we need to do us to extend the current program into road and get a run up at 2014 Track – by continuing to work with and develop our kids throughout the year. J17s really need nurturing to ensure that our best talent is equipped and prepared not only for U19 competiyion and beyond but how to balance their years 11 and 12 at school and their sport so we don’t loose out best girls completely or that boys don’t find themselves having to ‘take a gap year at Yr11′ (ie drop out of school) to be able to train. Boys and Girls have different pressures and I’m sure with a more interactive approach the needs of the VIS and parents can be met to keep our best kids in sport.

    We parents particularly could benefit from their wisdom as to the best approach to get the best out of our young riders at times, especially those who only have club level coaching but maybe want to pursue a VIS or like scholarship.

    As it is right now we seem to have a culture where, if your not out there riding and being seen we, as parents, and our kids, feel that we are about to fall of a talent ID cliff, so much so that you can’t even get sick or sustain an injury without feeling the pressure of potentially lost form and missing a State squad spot and that it will have a long term affect. If you think this statement is ridiculous, then you probably actually understand what I’m saying. A properly developed pathway should allow for this, allow the kids to heal fully and ensure them it’s ok to take an extra week to get over that cold (and not allow it to become pneumonia) or and extra month to mend a broken collar bone so it’s stronger and less painful. Missing State selection in these cases should be ok as the pathway program would have another challenge planned on the immediate program. It needs to engage with the child’s home coach or, if they don’t have one, talk direct to the parents to help them make the right decisions and not what they feel they ‘must’ do to stay in sight.

    We are nearly there. Nearly but not quite. that said, we are closer than we have been for several years. If managed properly, we will refresh our J19 stocks and being along a raft of talented juniors.

    Sounds a bit like the WAIS program really!!

    • cycdad says:

      Some good comments/thoughts Ciclista Genitore – especially from the perspective of the parent. It is us (parents) that our kids look to for support/advice and if there is no logical system in place it is very difficult to provide that with any certainty. I know that a number of pros I have spoken to continue to advise not to put any pressure on the kids until they are under-19, but thats so hard when the state programs begin earlier than that. The pros say, if they’re good enough they’ll get on the pathway when they’re a little older and avoid any potential burn-out. Easy to say, difficult to convince the kids though. Any how, thanks again for your contribution.

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