Richard Peil Interview: ‘We don’t have the talent to compete internationally? That’s bull crap’

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Words by Chris Southwood | Images by Target Trek Racing

‘My absolute mandate is that I want the three or four top male and female riders to be getting paid thirty to forty grand a year, plus all their travel and expenses, to race overseas.’

 

‘Not many people know this, but I personally, from my own pocket, contributed over $60,000 to Dan and Bec’s Olympic campaign.’ No wonder Richard Peil has some strong opinions on the state of MTBA, the organisation with the mandate to support our elite riders. This is the man behind the champions. Richard Peil has poured his life and funds into supporting our top athletes. His opinions are strong, but this is a man worth listening to.

Richard Peil has dedicated the last few years of his life and hundreds of thousands of dollars to supporting our country’s best cross country racers. A successful businessman, Richard Peil came to mountain biking late in life, racing in four and six-man teams at 24hr races. It didn’t take him long to realise two things: that he liked mountain bikers – “they’re good people” – and that mountain biking lacked a business base to grow the sport, in particular elite level racing. ‘There was hardly any support in place for these elite riders, apart from some dedicated individuals like Dean (Clarke) from Torq,’ says Richard, and so he took the matter into his own hands.

Richard Peil is the man behind the former Anytime Fitness / Trek Team, now the Target Trek Mountain Bike Team. He formed the team, funding it himself, with the aim of giving our elite riders the backing they need to compete around the country and internationally, and to offer a genuine pathway for promising juniors to develop into successful professional riders.

It’s a team that is simply bursting with talent; five National Cross Country Champions, Marathon Champions and Olympians. Yet, says Richard, there is virtually no recognition given to these athletes. ‘Two-time Olympian Dan McConnell can walk through the pits at the Scott 24hr and maybe one in every two or three people will know who he is – tell me any other sport where that happens.’ The mountain bike media is partly to blame, he says, not placing enough emphasis on covering the achievements of those at the top of the sport. ‘This makes it hard to secure sponsorship, not being able to take that coverage to a brand and say ‘look, here’s 10 photos of such and such from the last three issues’’

He may be be a familiar face but Dan McConnell is a two-time Olympiad and a king of cross country racing for Australia.

But that’s only part of the story, Peil feels; more fundamentally, our elite riders are not getting the support they need from MTBA, and this is why Richard has stepped in, providing riders with financial, logistical and equipment support. The partnership with Target will allow him to continue to expand this support. ‘Running the team costs in excess of $250,000 annually with a low “tangible” commercial return for my particular business,’ says Richard. Without external financial support it’s a pretty tough pill to swallow. Alongside Target, Trek are a key part of this relationship too, providing not only excellent equipment, but access to the Trek Factory Teams for riders who step up and show they have what it takes to challenge for podiums internationally.

‘…our riders don’t get the support they need from MTBA…’

 

So, why do Australians find it so hard to break into the top ranks of international cross-country racing? ‘People say we don’t have the talent to compete internationally, that’s bull crap,’ says Richard. ‘We’ve got the talent, but in my opinion our riders don’t get the support they need from MTBA and so they end up on the road instead.’ He reels off a list of former mountain bikers now performing to great acclaim on the road – Lachlan Norris and Steele van Hoff amongst them. ‘Australia has always produced great athletes, and it’s no different in cycling, just look at the road or track. We have exceptional mountain bike talent but we don’t have the structure in place for these riders to progress and become pro riders,’ says Peil.

We can be the top of the world at XC, we are at other forms of cycling.

He elaborates: ‘I am sure MTBA members out there believe the organisation is doing the right thing and supporting our best riders financially at World Cups, but the opposite is actually the case. Our best riders don’t get any financial support. Furthermore, they pay to represent their sport and their country at the World Championships. It’s unbelievable – McConnell, Bec Henderson, Taberlay – none of these guys get any of the near $2,000,000 MTBA budget to help them in their quest to perform on the World stage. And trust me, they work hard to raise the funds, and live sparingly, to stay on the World Cup circuit.’

‘Surely out of an annual budget of nearly $2,000,000, funded predominantly from membership fees, we should be able to find just $5,000 to $10,000 each for our best male and female…riders…’

 

‘The irony is the MTBA Head Coach recently told me one of the key performance indicators for his role is to get three males and two females to the Rio Olympics. The only way that can happen is to get our male world ranking into the top eight nations and our female rankings into the top 12. It’s not rocket science – we need our best riders racing consistently at international races that offer the most UCI points right now, for two reasons. Firstly, this will give them the international experience and competition they need and get their personal international rankings up. Secondly, it ensures that when the qualification period starts to determine how many Olympic spots we will get, our best riders will have the experience and momentum to compete at their best. Even more important, this will allow them to be well positioned on the starting grids – it’s hard to get good results starting at 150 on the grid.’ Peil goes on, ‘Surely out of an annual budget of nearly $2,000,000, funded predominantly from membership fees, we should be able to find just $5,000 to $10,000 each for our best male and female cross country riders, downhillers and the same for our best male and female marathon riders?’

‘When I spoke to the MTBA Head Coach, he told me that he simply had no money left in his budget to help our best riders! Then I find out through MTBA Chief Executive Officer Tony Scott that in 2012 he (the Head Coach) spent over $45,000 on staff at the World Championships, and $60,000 on three U23 riders throughout the year, who failed to crack a top 50 finish in any U23 World Cup and were outside the top 70 at the U23 2012 World Championships. I am not saying take all that money away from those riders, but surely a proportion of that $105,000 would have served Australian mountain biking better by helping out the riders who have proven they can race at the pointy end of international competition.’

‘I am committed to the team (Target Trek) and to trying to force change, for the next two years, leading to the Commonwealth Games.’

 

‘The thing is, I won’t keep putting money in forever unless there is change. I am committed to the team (Target Trek) and to trying to force change, for the next two years, leading to the Commonwealth Games. If there is no change at MTBA, I will simply pull most of my funding out and just privately sponsor a few riders who I have friendships with because in my view, unless MTBA makes some changes in the way it uses its funds, we’ll continue to perform well below our capacity on the world stage.’

The National Series is another area where Richard is outspoken – he sees the series’ failure to attract large number of both racers and crowds as a huge barrier to riders gaining support from potential sponsors. ‘You’re never going to get big numbers to National Series races because the perception is that it is for elite riders only. Yet if you look around, nearly every weekend there’s a race attracting 500-800 riders on somewhere.’ What MTBA needs to try, says Richard, is combining the two. ‘Imagine an XC Eliminator under lights on the rego night before a big marathon race. You can’t tell me Paul Van Der Ploeg and Chris Jongewaard wouldn’t get a kick out of racing in front of 500 screaming spectators, something in line with the famous Bundanoon Dash held at the Highland Fling.’ What is certain is that without large crowds and without all the best riders in attendance to ensure the best possible competition, then coverage and therefore sponsor support isn’t likely to be forthcoming.

‘Imagine an XC Eliminator under lights on the rego night before a big marathon race.’

So then, the real question underpinning it all is, why are we in a situation where private individuals like Richard Peil (and Dean Clarke from Torq) are supporting our elite riders? This is clearly not a sustainable state of affairs. ‘My absolute mandate is that I want the three or four top male and female riders to be getting paid thirty to forty grand a year, plus all their travel and expenses, to race overseas. With the right people in place, in a few years’ time, other countries could be referring to our mountain bike program as they refer to Switzerland’s now, because I believe we do have the raw talent.’

It can happen, but will it be up to the likes of Richard Peil to ensure that it does?

The Target Trek team has big goals, and it’s not just about winning races.  With the assistance of Richard Peil, they may just change the spotlight of the sport and the support the athletes get.

 

Response from Tony Scott, Executive Officer, MTBA.

 

‘We believe that the EDP is the best process available to us within the limited funding we have to deliver very significant outcomes.’

 

‘MTBA welcomes the faith that commercial interests – both within and outside the bicycling industry – have in the future of MTB in Australia. Never before can I recall so many commercial entities being prepared to support Australia’s emerging MTB athletes to the extent that is evident now.

We certainly welcome that support – MTBA can’t do it alone.

Personally I think that we all need to be working in unison to develop MTB athletes for the future not only as good citizens in society but also people who can excel in their chosen sporting endeavour.

In regard to Richard Peil’s statements on the way MTBA is attempting to achieve this aim it is – as is the case most of the time – more complex than he has possibly contemplated. One example of this is the thought that we could spend less on World Championships and apply those funds elsewhere.

Richard Peil has stated that we spent $45,000 of member’s funds on the 2012 World Championships. In actual fact we spent closer to about $55,000 of Elite Development Program (EDP) funds on the 2012 World Championship Team support. The Worlds are the pinnacle of the MTB calendar and as such we treat them very seriously, not only from ensuring that our best athletes attend to represent Australia but also in the depth to which we provide support to our representative athletes. And we do that by ensuring that we commit staffing appropriate to the size of the athlete team attending – for 2012 about 30 athletes. The staff involved are a combination of European based staff and Australians who take on roles as diverse as massage specialists, bike mechanics, team managers, coaches and assistant coaches.  For the 2012 Worlds there were 9 team Staff members in all, split between responsibility in DH, 4X, XCO and OT. Of course the split Gravity/Endurance weekends in Austria in 2012 contributed somewhat to a less than beneficial economy of scale for staffing.

MTBA pays for the Team’s staff totally. We did this so that the athletes that represent Australia don’t have to pay any more than their travel and their share of accommodation and ancillary support. To not do so would add – on a simple average (based on 30 athletes) – about an additional $1800 to the athlete’s expenses for the privilege of representing Australia. Of course that is worse case extrapolation but the main message remains. MTBA supports the notion of athletes representing Australia to pay the least amount possible.

We believe that the EDP is the best process available to us within the limited funding we have to deliver very significant outcomes. Of course others may not agree with that statement – that is fine by me – there are many ways a small pie can be divided. But in the end we are all looking for the same thing. And the best way to achieve that is for all interested parties to work together. What is most important in the final analysis is what is best for the athlete. We are certainly focused on that now and into the future.’

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