Sid Taberlay: Frustrations, Promises and a Path Forward for MTBA

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Words by Sid Taberlay | Images by Chris Southwood

As one of Australia’s leading mountain bikers, Sid Taberlay has had more involvement with MTBA than most. He wrote to Flow recently explain his views on where things have gone wrong and, more positively, how riders and MTBA are now working on a path forward.

 

Please note: These are Sid’s opinions and thoughts – Flow welcomes a response or counter opinion.

 

Sid, just prior to the XCE racing at the 2013 National Champs at Stromlo.

Perhaps I should start with a little background. I raced nine World Championships, Commonwealth Games and Olympics up until 2008, at which time I had lost the love for racing in Europe. Don’t get me wrong – I still loved riding my bike, I was simply emotionally tired.

So I stepped back and started racing events I really enjoyed and wanted to race, primarily in the USA since my wife was working in LA. Over that time I became distanced from what was happening with the Australian National MTB program. Then in 2011, with the Olympics just around the corner, I decided that making the Olympic team would perhaps be a nice way to sign off from competitive racing. This decision brought me back into contact with MTBA and has lead to where I am today, like many other athletes, frustrated. Here’s why.

MTBA was formed back in the late 90s in response to a feeling that mountain biking was being neglected by Cycling Australia. It was supposedly an organisation “by the members, for the members”. But from where I stand today, I have to question the relevance and role of MTBA, both for the masses and for elite riders.

MTBA has several thousand members, but what does it really offer? Trail advocacy? Yes – and it does a good job on this front –  though by no means is MTBA the only avenue available for local clubs and riders to secure legal trails. Event support? Most of the country’s biggest events are run without MTBA involvement. Regulation? The rules that govern competition are really set by the UCI, and merely passed on by MTBA. Insurance? Perhaps this is MTBA’s biggest reason for existence. As an MTBA member, you’re covered should you have a serious accident at any MTBA sanctioned event. In my mind, this is why most people are members – they are just buying an insurance policy to be involved in their local club, they don’t have any real understanding of what MTBA is or does.

From an elite perspective, it’s no secret that there has been considerable friction between elite riders and MTBA of late. It’s a very complicated scenario, but from my perspective, it all comes down to feeling that MTBA have not given sufficient support to our best elite riders in a logistical, monetary or coaching support sense.

Back in 2011, when I became re-involved with MTBA, I was dismayed by the lack of communication given to riders about the selection process or logistical arrangements for the World Champs. I’ve relived that experience again recently, as I’ve been coaching my cousin-in-law Ben Bradley. Ben has World Champs aspirations and so we’ve been targeting races that will garner him the points needed to secure a good starting position at Worlds. Unfortunately this has created tension with MTBA as it was not ‘their’ way of doing things.

This is a story I’ve heard time and time again from the parents of junior racers; riders are largely uninformed of what is expected of them – there is no transparency surrounding the National Team selection. But if riders should choose to work out a personalised program of racing, or choose to work with coaches other than MTBA’s coaching staff, then they are disadvantaged at selection time. To me, this is crazy; junior riders need flexibility to balance riding, education and work, and this is exactly what personalised coaching offers them.

This attitude of poor communication and inflexibility was best demonstrated recently with the Oceanias (to be held in Tasmania, over the Easter long weekend). With just weeks to go, riders were given information about a pre-Oceanias Junior Team Camp. For one, many riders had already booked flights, accommodation etc, unaware of the camps, but more importantly, the camp was to include a huge training workload that had the potential to seriously undermine months of coaching preparation for the Oceanias. As one of the events that has the biggest bearing on UCI points, changing training plans so close to the Oceanias could have a huge bearing on a rider’s World Champs chances.

The costs of racing for your National Team and allocation of funds is also a source of contention. Most junior riders (or their families) can expect to be around $10,000 out of pocket should they be lucky enough to be selected to attend the World Champs and associated pre-World team camps. While some families will find a way to make this happen, for others it’s simply too big an ask – what a pity it would be if the next Australian World Champ was unable to fulfill their potential because of the costs involved.

This doesn’t just effect juniors too, of course. While MTBA spent $55,000 on staff at the 2012 World Champs, every athlete involved (including our Olympic representatives) was handed a bill to pay to cover the costs of representing their country. This raises some serious questions – should it really cost you thousands and thousands of dollars to race for your country?

When I first raced at Worlds, back in the year 2000, it did cost me, but less than $1000 all up. If things operated back then as they have been recently, I would’ve abandoned my elite racing hopes long ago.

Things are looking like they may be on the up, however. Of the back of a very heated meeting just prior to the National Champs at Stromlo, it looks like the wheels are turning to change the way things operate at MTBA. Here are some of the changes that have been promised:

  • Riders are allowed to keep their existing Oceanias arrangements without ramification for their World Champs selection chances.
  • There will be additional freedoms for riders to make their own arrangements for travel to Worlds (hopefully allowing them to reduce their own costs)
  • Selection criteria for the National Team will be communicated more clearly.
  • Junior training camp structure, timing and costs will be communicated long in advance.
  • The World Champs team structure will be determined and communicated well in advance.
  • MTBA will set up a committee with team and rider representation to help shape the future direction of the National Program support.
  • MTBA will survey all 2012 World Champs team members about how the organisation can best address athlete needs for 2013.

While these might all seem like very basic elements (and they are), these are key areas where MTBA has let elite riders down in the past. Getting these basics right at least gives our riders a chance of knowing where they stand with regard to progressing through to the National Team and preparing themselves properly for competing at a World Champs level.

Hopefully in four years time we can turn the TV on and see our current generation of young guns lining up at the Olympics. If not, we may be turning the TV on to watch those same riders lining up for their first Grand Tour on the road while we talking about what good young mountain bikers they used to be.

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