On 1 November, cycling in Australia will enter a new era. On that day, 16 legal entities representing the sport at federal and state level across four disciplines – track, road, mountain bike and BMX – will merge to form one body, AusCycling.
To proponents of the governance reform, an overhaul has been long overdue. In 2018, consultancy Ernst & Young undertook a review that described cycling as “fragmented in its structure, strategy and delivery”. It estimated that unifying the sport would deliver $2m in efficiencies and synergies. A united sport would also have a stronger advocacy voice and be a more attractive commercial proposition.
But the road to AusCycling has been littered with potholes. To undertake such a seismic governance restructure, each of the three national sporting organisations required member approval. While Mountain Bike Australia did not have a federal structure, and quickly secured overwhelming member support, both Cycling Australia and BMX Australia needed a 75% vote – approval from six of the eight state and territory bodies – to unify. In turn, those constituent bodies required approval from their members.
Not all stakeholders have supported the unification, which will see the constituent bodies lose their legal and financial independence. Late last year it seemed AusCycling was doomed before it had even begun, when three state members of BMXA voted against the proposal. But in February, BMXA formally endorsed the merger following a revote at BMX NSW.
CA faced even greater resistance. At its initial special general meeting in March, Cycling NSW, Cycling Tasmania and WestCycle all voted against the reform. Opposition was often heated – much vitriol was vented on social media, while then-CNSW chair Glenn Viger told Guardian Australia that the AusCycling proposal had “big holes”. For a time, it seemed AusCycling would proceed without track and road cycling – arguably its two most high-profile disciplines.
But earlier this month, Cycling Tasmania reconvened another vote – which this time approved the merger. Last Saturday, another CA vote saw the unification pass, with WestCycle abstaining and CNSW again voting against. After much turmoil, AusCycling is proceeding – albeit, for now, without CNSW, WestCycle or BMX Sports Western Australia.
“This is a great step forward for cycling,” says CA chief executive Steve Drake. “This will give cycling a louder voice and have benefits for all forms of cycling.”
Having lost the AusCycling war, it may be that the hold-out constituent bodies ultimately decide to join, whether immediately or in the years ahead. An open letter from the CNSW’s new chair, Matt Bazzano, said that while his organisation voted no, “we want to put on record, in principle, our openness to seek options to open discussions to negotiate moving forwards”. The conciliatory tone was a far cry from some of the prior dialogue.
WestCycle chief executive Matt Fulton says its decision to abstain was due to a lack of updated information about AusCycling. “We are very supportive of the discussion,” he says. “I’m quite optimistic, now that the decision has been made, that we can all move on. We’ve closed that chapter now, there is still lots to play out in the story, but it is time to start the next chapter – which is collaborating to get the best outcomes.”
While the details of collaboration between AusCycling and the hold-outs are yet to be finalised, all parties are optimistic that the hostility can be forgotten. “We’ll continue to work with them,” says Drake. “We’re focused on doing the best for all bike riders in Australia.” Fulton adds: “I hope that everyone can put behind them the discussions of the past two years, which have at times been quite hostile. We need to put that to bed, respect the AusCycling decision and move forward.”
The AusCycling saga has been a prime example of a broader focus on governance reform in Australian sport. The Australian Olympic Committee has 52 national federation members, across summer and winter Olympic sports. Many have state and territory constituent bodies, reflecting Australia’s federal structure and the fact that sports administration has long been a grass-roots endeavour, typically undertaken by volunteers.
However, as government and commercial money poured into sport, questions have been raised about the effectiveness of these disaggregated structures. Sport Australia, the federal agency, has been at the forefront of efforts to drive reform. In the most dramatic example, Sport Australia recently revoked all funding from Equestrian Australia, describing its governance as “manifestly unfit for purpose”.
Drake says that CA, MTBA and BMXA led the AusCycling unification. “Sport Australia have never pushed us,” he says. “This has always been driven by the sports.” But Sport Australia has been intimately involved from the start, commissioning the Ernst & Young report. The agency has also deployed a variety of carrots and sticks to help it along – including an offer of $2.5m in extra funding if the merger proceeded and an insistence that it would only fund one national sporting organisation for cycling from now on.
“The Australian government’s national sport plan, Sport 2030, makes it clear that strengthening Australia’s sport industry is a priority,” a Sport Australia spokesperson said. “Sport Australia therefore continually works in partnership with sports to help them achieve modern, effective and efficient governance.”
While governance reform may seem a world away from Richie Porte finishing third at the Tour de France on Sunday, or Australian cyclists claiming Olympic gold, to Drake there is direct link between the two.
“AusCycling will allow us to more effectively promote cycling and get more kids on bikes,” the CA chief executive says. “That will flow through society and eventually lead to more people racing across all the disciplines. This positions cycling really well for the future.”