World Champs should be UCI’s gift to the people

Sean Lee Columnist

By , Sean Lee is a Roar Expert


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    HTC ñ Highroad team rider Mark Renshaw of Australia (R) rides in Doha. AFP PHOTO / PASCAL GUYOT

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    Imagine it. You have lived in a small country town for most of your life. You rode your bike down the hill to footy training every Tuesday and Thursday night.

    You splashed around in the tiny town pool each summer. Nothing ever happened. It was a town much like any other.

    Then, one September, things changed. There were people. Thousands of them. You walk around, wide eyed and nearly bump into Fabian Cancellara.

    You know it’s him. You can see his hair sticking out from under his helmet. And that SBS bloke is interviewing him. SBS, here, in this town!

    But wait, there’s more. Isn’t that the Italian? You know, Vincenzo Nibali, sitting in the door of that mini bus?

    It is. And look, there’s Filippo Pozzato, lounging up against the side of that marquee like a playboy, posing for photographs with his winner’s trophy. He only won because that other bloke (Poland’s Maciej Bodnar) slipped his chain at the finish.

    “Hey Dad, there’s the rider from Chile who finished third, quick take his photo.”

    The year was 2010 and the event was the world championship warm up race held in the Victorian country town of Buninyong (home of the national championships). The main event was to begin in Geelong a week later, but already the region was gripped by world championship fever.

    I was there for two reasons. Firstly, because I was a cycling fan and wouldn’t have missed it for the world, and secondly, because it is my hometown.

    It was a day that us humble country folk got to walk among cycling’s elite and it was a day that my son and I found a new hero.

    While even the most avid of cycling fans may struggle to recognise the name Carlos Oyarzun Guinez, he quickly became out favourite cyclist and we followed his progress closely throughout the championships.

    He finished third at the Buninyong event, behind Pozzato but ahead of Cancellara, and after the presentations I endeavoured to photograph them for a website I was running at the time.

    Pozzato I snapped, standing aloof beside the presentation area, safely enveloped within his own air of superiority, but it was third placed Oyarzun who stole the show.

    With the crowd more interested in the likes of Pozzato and Cancellara, Oyarzun was left standing almost anonymously among the milling mob. He was obviously pleased with himself, despite the lack of attention he was receiving.

    He beamed with pride when I asked him to pose for a photograph, and, in a gesture as spontaneous as it was joyous, he scooped up my then five year old son, and held him in a celebratory embrace while I took my shots.

    My son has raced bikes ever since.

    Every year, scenes like the one described above, play out during the world championships. They at once thrill and inspire new generations of fans and cyclists and remain one of the most eagerly anticipated events on the cycling calender.

    Until now.

    The decision by the UCI to award Qatar the 2016 world road racing championship robs cycling of the very thing its fans cherish most – an opportunity to get up close and personal with their heroes.

    While I baulk at the thought of pro cycling never leaving its European heartland, the UCI must ensure that it doesn’t alienate its passionate fan-base (any further) by scheduling races away from those who crave it most.

    In fact, the world championships should be the UCI’s gift to cycling’s loyal supporters. It is the one race they have the capacity to move from year to year, and it should be shared among those who most deserve it.

    While Qatar will have a massive television audience, the silence on the course itself will be deafening. One only has to look at the annual Tour of Qatar to see that local interest in cycling is negligible.

    Races can work well outside of Europe – supporters turn out in droves in places such as Australia and the Americas. Even local races in Australia are well supported.

    Last year’s Jayco Herald Sun Tour was a ripping event and the crowds lining the Arthur’s Seat climb on the penultimate stage were indicative of cycling’s growing popularity in this country.

    The Jayco Bay City criteriums held in Geelong and Melbourne have always drawn big crowds – even pre Cadel and the Tour Down Under.

    Our nationals, held in the picturesque village of Buninyong, have grown to the point where the town can barely cope with the influx of visitors it receives. They swarm over its mountain like ants and crowd the start/finish area several bodies deep.

    There must be dozens of other countries away from Europe that have a similar passion. Unfortunately Qatar is not one of them.

    In 2010, the worlds came to Australia. Big crowds watched all the events (an estimated 300 000 over the championships), but the men’s road race was the real draw card, with over 150 000 people lining the Geelong circuit.

    The atmosphere that day was electric. I sat on Challambra crescent, halfway up a vicious, kicking climb, and dreamed of how lucky my European counterparts were to be able to witness such spectacles on a regular basis. I was wracked with jealous envy.

    My memories of that day are still vivid.

    Us Aussies had tasted international pro cycling at its best and we wanted more.

    Will we be able to say the same about the people of Qatar in 2016?

    * Chile’s Carlos Oyarzun placed 14th in the individual time trial at the Geelong worlds and recorded a DNF in the men’s road race. He rode the Giro d’Italia for Movistar in 2011, but now finds himself back in the lower ranks.