All being well, there will be a new cycling team on the start list at January’s women’s Tour Down Under in Adelaide. “If everything goes as plan, we’re hoping and praying that we’ll be on the starting line,” says Patrick Shaw, an ex-pro and one of the figures behind the new venture.
This is not, in itself, unusual. Cycling teams come and go, new colours and new riders are a common feature at the start of each season. But what is unusual is the way in which Shaw and his colleagues are hoping to get to the Tour Down Under: via crowdfunding. The group recently launched a GoFundMe campaign in the hope of securing $100,000 to “create opportunities for Australian women’s cycling.” (At the time of writing, they had raised over $11,500).
The crowdfunding campaign points to a paradox in Australian cycling. On one hand, the nation is flying high – in a few weeks, Wollongong will host the road cycling world championships, the Australians recently dominated on the track at the Commonwealth Games and in May an Australian, Jai Hindley, won the Giro d’Italia for the first-time in cycling history. But beneath the surface, not all is well.
Australian domestic racing has long faced financial difficulties, with road cycling lacking the backing found in the sport’s traditional heartland of Europe. Even the most successful domestic team, Team BridgeLane, which has elevated a dozen cyclists to the World Tour, began as a passion project and continues to run on a shoestring budget. Peak body AusCycling (then Cycling Australia) almost went insolvent in the mid-2010s after its gamble on increasing the popularity of the National Road Series didn’t pay off.
But even for local teams operating frugally – almost no domestic riders are paid a salary, with budgets expended on travel and other costs – finding the funds to keep racing has proven difficult. Shaw, who previously raced for Team BridgeLane, joined InForm TMX MAKE earlier this year as the sports director for the women’s team. Only he soon found that the team was unable to secure financial support into 2023 and was set to become just the latest NRS team to meet a premature end.
“I was around the people who were most impacted when the team folded,” he says. “That motivated me to do something that would guarantee that riders wouldn’t be left without an opportunity.” Shaw says he hopes, by creating a new team, to be able to offer spots to at least a dozen riders who would otherwise not have a ride during the 2023 season.
Crowdfunding is not the team’s only source of financial support – they are in discussions with potential sponsors. But in addition to much-needed financial backing, the campaign is also a way to attract supporters. “We now know who our supporters are,” he says. “One thing is to raise money, the other is to understand our sense of being – who is interested in doing what we’re doing?”
The support has come in thick and fast, particularly from the tight-knit Australian pro cycling community. The campaign recently promoted a raffle, open to those who donate, involving a signed Team Ineos Grenadiers jersey from the ongoing Vuelta a España, gifted by national champion Luke Plapp. “There are so many talented and passionate Aussie female up-and-coming cyclists,” said pro rider Amanda Spratt. “This is a great initiative to create more opportunities so they can realise and show their potential.”
Shaw underscores the wide-ranging support. “The donations have come from all different walks of life,” he says. “Mums and dads are donating, young cycling enthusiasts, 17 and 18-year-olds racing at club level, professional athletes who are already at the pinnacle at the sport. Who knows, there could be a mum or dad who donates to the team and a few years down the track we have their daughter on the team.”
It is still early days and it may be some time before it is clear whether the project is viable in the longer-term. Shaw says that the plan is to have the team racing by this Australian summer, and then compete domestically next year, together with a stint in Europe. Provided they have the funds, the team would cover all riders costs. But, as is typical, there would be no salaries. Instead, the team would provide an opportunity for the next generation to progress to the top-tier of international cycling.
Shaw says it is critical either this project, or efforts like it, get off the ground. Without domestic opportunities, young riders in the late teenage age group are likely to drop out of the sport. In turn, without those role models, the younger age group are less likely to pick up the bike. And suddenly, Shaw says, Australia goes from being a leading cycling nation to a laggard. “We want to make sure that these young people don’t miss out on these opportunities, which can mean so much and really shape their lives,” he says.
Shaw points to a number of riders recently signing professional contracts. “We have a flourish of brilliant young, talented riders from our nation signing for some of the best teams in the world,” he says. “It would be a real shame if in three years’ time, we’ve gone from the absolute peak of cycling for our nation, for women, to the absolute low.”