I don’t often write about track cycling, but there’s a close connection between junior track racing and the road. If you look at Australia’s current elite road professionals, you’ll see a fair few riders who developed their craft in a velodrome. As youngsters, cyclists like Durbridge, Roy, Spratt and Ewan first found success on timber boards.
After working with Cycling NSW at last weekend’s junior track championships, I must say some of the performances left a big impression on me. Here are just a few reflections on the event.
1. Daniel Barber is going places
If there was an award for most impressive rider of the weekend, it would surely go to Dubbo’s Danny Barber. Yes, there were other riders that dominated their respective categories (including Under-15 Ben Anderson, who won every single gold medal on offer), but those results can be explained by the relative level of opposition.
Barber took five out of six possible gold medals against a competitive field of 20 riders including clubmates Dylan Eather and Mitchell Hines, Deren Perry and Luke Britten. But for the biggest single piece of evidence of this teenager’s potential, look no further than his breaking – nay, demolishing – of the Australian record in the flying 200 metres. Barber set a time of 10.873 seconds, besting Graeme Frislie’s previous record of 11.057 and thereby becoming the first Under-17 Australian to go under 11 seconds.
When his record time flashed up on the scoreboard, you couldn’t help wondering whether you’d witnessed one of the first achievements in the career of a world-class athlete. Let’s not count our chickens just yet – at Barber’s age, there’s plenty that needs to happen before we know how good he actually is – but for the next few years, I’ll be closely watching this space.
2. The Central West is super strong
Riders from the Western Region Academy of Sport won an astonishing 18 out of 24 possible gold medals, and 37 out of 72 possible medals of any colour. These are young riders from the Dubbo, Orange and Bathurst regions who’ve been selected to train with their regional academy, and they’re very impressive.
Looking back just just five years ago at the list of 2014 NSW champions, you’ll see a handful of names from the Central West dotted throughout the honour roll. But they’re few and far between, nothing like the domination they’ve enjoyed this year. The coaches and riders out there seem to have found a formula for success, at least at the moment.
3. Coaching makes a difference
When I spoke with Dubbo CC’s vice-president Jason Farr last year, he attributed his club’s success to two men: Vaughn Eather and Gus Dawson. These coaches are widely praised for shaping their riders into strong junior athletes. Looking at Dubbo’s results, you’d have to conclude that there is indeed something special about their influence.
More generally, on the weekend I could see the important role that coaches play in junior development. All around the velodrome infield, coaches were busy setting up bikes, discussing tactics, yelling instructions and encouragement, and, finally, congratulating their adolescent charges on a ride well done.
For me, the weekend’s best moments were seeing kids joking around with their coaches. Whether it’s a medal-winner kissing his mentor’s bald scalp for luck, or a smiling rider giving her coach a big hug, there are few things lovelier in sport than a child beaming from the love and support they’ve received from mentors around them.
4. Where would we be without a velodrome?
Cycling Australia has been criticised for its preoccupation with track cycling. I’m certainly no apologist for the disproportionate amount of funding track cycling receives under the medal-driven ‘Winning Edge’ strategy. However, it’s plain to see that there’s great value in having access to an indoor Olympic velodrome. NSW would suffer if we were ever left without one. While I don’t personally find track cycling nearly as exciting or captivating as the road stuff, it’s still an important spoke in the wheel of world cycling.
At the elite level, there’s plenty of prestige around track – look at the legacy of Anna Meares, for example. At the grassroots level, as I’ve mentioned, many young riders have honed their skills on the boards. The velodrome is a safe, controlled environment in which juniors can learn correct pedalling technique, bunch safety and race tactics.
Clearly, the riders from the velodrome-less ACT think so. Why else did the NSW Championships attract so many riders from Canberra? In the lead-up to Nationals, Canberrans scrap for every precious second they can get on a banked 250-metre track, even if it’s a three-hour drive away and there are no prizes on offer.
If Dunc Gray Velodrome did not exist, the nearest indoor track would be in Melbourne, almost 900km away. You could be sure that the health of NSW track cycling would decline. The negative effects would almost certainly flow on to the next generation of roadies, too.
5. Getting girls into cycling is still a challenge
The Under-15 women’s field was minuscule, with only six riders competing in the championships. Sure, we have some high quality among our JW15s, especially NJTS champion Keira Will. But where’s the depth? Where’s the participation?
In sport generally, the movement to give equal recognition to female athletes is growing, albeit slowly. It’s no different in cycling. I hope that the inspiration of role-models like Meares and Spratt, together with the cycling community’s increasing appetite to watch, follow and celebrate its female riders, will soon draw more young girls into the sport and keep them there.