How does Australia keep producing cycling talent?

As the medals stack up at the Road World Championships, national performance director Kevin Tabotta explains the secrets behind Australia's success

Like the Swiss team in Cool Runnings, Australia is the international cycling team to beat.

The nation has already made its mark at this year’s UCI Road World Championships in Ponferrada, Spain and prior to today’s elite men’s time trial was top of the medal tally.

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Macey Stewart won gold in the women’s junior time trial with compatriot Anna-Leeza Hull taking the bronze medal in the same event. Michael Storer finished third in the men’s junior time trial whilst Campbell Flakemore won the under-23 world title. Looking ahead, Australia has two potential winners in Simon Gerrans and 2010 under-23 road world champion Michael Matthews in the men’s road race on Sunday.

National performance director Kevin Tabotta here gives an insight into how Australia, a nation far from cycling’s traditional homeland, produces so many talented young riders.

It’s a system

“We have a development system, which progresses through junior ranks and through our state institute of sport network,” says Tabotta. “We have seven institutes across each of the states in Australia with full-time coaches and full-time programmes. The sole objective of each is to produce athletes to feed into our development and national programmes.

“From state institutes those athletes feed through junior world titles into our under-23 and development programmes for the road and also for the track and BMX. From there, particularly for the road, we run a full European set-up from February to October because they have to become familiar with that lifestyle and culture. They’re given a couple of years to really become at one with the European racing scene. We have got full-time staff, a full set-up with equipment and great sponsorship and we also have a link in to Orica-GreenEdge, which allows us to extend the pathway.

“For a 15-year-old coming into the sport, our objective is to provide a pathway and a vision for those people right through to a professional contract.”

Don’t rely on physiology alone

“When we identify the talent, physiology is one component,” says Tabotta, “but the capacity to adapt to European-style racing is the key. It’s about embedding athletes in the racing environment for as long as possible and allowing them to take steps backwards before they can take steps forward. That means putting a support structure around them that supports failure, as well as success, on the way towards bigger goals. It can be a six to eight year pathway through to becoming successful and going towards podiums. There has to be support structures.

“We’ve been doing this now since the mid ’90s so we have a system in place that’s been built over many, many, many years and we keep building on that system each year. There’s no  one-line response — it’s a work in progress and it constantly evolves. We look at the gaps and the issues as we go and how the trends of world cycling move and then we adapt to that as we go.”

There is no silver bullet 

“You have to cover a lot of bases when you bring athletes from Australia. It’s a 26-hour travel scenario, and they’re going to be away from home for six to seven months of the year. That’s our greatest challenge is actually fighting geography and dropping people into new cultures and asking them to be successful away from home. That’s Australia’s greatest challenge and that’s the thing that potentially becomes our greatest asset once we overcome it.”

Preparation is key

“The under-19s is different to the under-23s, and that’s different to the elite women. The professional mens is completely different because we actually don’t have a big hand in the preparation of the professional men. We are a finishing system for them. We provide an environment for them to come to because it’s their professional teams that effectively prepare them.

“If we use our under-23 programme as an example, they are full-time in Europe, with full-time staff, with dedicated daily training programmes and daily coaching and monitoring, with sports science support, from March to October. That’s the difference when we’re coming into a World Championship. We’re not pulling people together at the last minute and saying let’s go after a world title. It’s been prepared six months out.”

Go your own way

“Every nation looks at one another’s set-ups. We try to learn from everybody but always make our own path. We’ve done that since day one because it’s important we’re finding a way to be ahead of the curve. We learn from Great Britain, we learn from Germany, we learned from the Italians very early on. In 1997 we embedded [athletes] in Italy full-time because we wanted to pit ourselves against the best in the world and measure ourselves against that nation on the way to our own greatness.

“Observations can come from athletes from another team, from support staff watching what other nations are doing in preparation, for example, around their riders. It can come from what’s published in the press. You’re constantly on the scout to see what is happening rather than focusing on just one nation.”