Australian cycling to benefit from ‘electric’ World Championships in Wollongong

For eight days there was an unfamiliar stillness across the city of Wollongong, as some of its busiest streets were handed over to the world’s best cyclists.

The UCI Road World Championships had arrived in Australia for just the second time as an unknown quantity for its host, the NSW south coast city of Wollongong.

Across the week Australian cyclists collected four medals, one more than the last time the event was hosted on home soil in Victoria more than a decade ago.

Australian cyclist Sarah Roy said, despite not securing a coveted rainbow jersey, her teammates could be proud of their efforts.

“It is hard when you don’t win a race to still believe that it was successful,” Roy said.

“But I feel like it was really successful.”

Sarah Roy, far right, says winning her first world championship medal was the “best day of her life”.  (ABC Illawarra: Isla Evans)

The 36-year-old Sydney rider secured her first world championship medal in Wollongong — a bronze in the mixed time trial relay.

“To get a bronze medal in that is a dream, now I have a world championship medal,” she said.

“It was probably one of the best days of my life actually.”

Days out from the start of the races, the Australian team’s chances of success were dealt a blow when star rider Jai Hindley tested positive for COVID-19.

A bunch of cyclists.
Jai Hindley tested positive for COVID-19 a week before helping his teammate Michael Matthews secure a bronze medal in the men’s road race.(Supplied)

The 26-year-old from Perth was one of Australia’s most in-form riders having just become the first Australian to win the Giro d’Italia.

“Initially, I was a bit disappointed because I thought, potentially, I would not be able to do the Worlds,” Hindley said.

The West Australian was grateful he only suffered mild symptoms and was able to link up with his teammates and play a role in Australia securing a podium place in the road race.

“In the end, I was really just happy I could be there,” he said.

“It was a once-in-a-career opportunity to race on home soil, so it was really special.”

‘Atmosphere was electric’

cycling fans
Most of the spectators visited Wollongong on the final weekend to watch the elite road races.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

Organisers predicted the event would attract 300,000 spectators across the week — a number eclipsed by the 300 million international viewers expected to be watching the races abroad.

However, with the showcase races to be held on the last weekend of the event, local businesses questioned those numbers.

“The event was forecast to attract the largest crowds for the final weekend and organisers were proved right when some 100,000 spectators descended on Wollongong for the men’s elite road race on Sunday.”

By the final weekend, the festival atmosphere that had been promised had materialised with thousands of locals standing shoulder to shoulder with interstate and international visitors to cheer on the riders.

“The support of the fans was really incredible,” Hindley said.

“Everyone really got around the race but really got around the Aussie team as well and you can definitely feel that on the road.

“The atmosphere was electric.”

cyclist climbing hill
Australian cyclist Sarah Roy climbs Mt Pleasant in the women’s elite road race.(ABC Illawarra: Justin Huntsdale)

With the emergence of time trial silver medallists Hamish McKenzie and Grace Brown, there is a genuine feeling that the Australian cycling team has turned a corner with Wollongong a launch pad for future success.

“There has been a big change within cycling for Australia and we are in a better place than a couple of years ago,” Roy said.

“There is a lot of momentum and there are a really great group of staff and riders that are coming through.

“I think it is a really good time and we can look forward to the next world championships, so I think we are only going to get better as a collective Australian team.”

Attendance down

During the week, organisers expected that the bulk of the visitors would be attending over the final weekend and they were proved right when some 100,000 spectators descended on Wollongong for the men’s elite road race.

However, the total turnout still fell short of initial projections, with 200,000 spectators estimated to have taken in the races live over the week.

The elite road races were held on the same weekend as the finals of the Australian football codes, which may have impacted domestic attendance.

The official Australian broadcaster Channel Nine’s decision to air the races on its paid streaming service Stan Sport could also have turned some Australian viewers off.

Cyclists in a road race.
The broadcast of the World Championships exposed Wollongong to millions of people across 70 countries.(ABC Illawarra: Tim Fernandez)

NSW Minister for Cities Rob Stokes visited Wollongong this week to announce the 79 kilometre race course would be immortalised with a permanent marking, similar to the marathon track for the Sydney Olympics.

He was asked whether the state government could have done more to promote the event domestically and responded by pointing to the city’s exposure to an international audience.

“The global television crowd is what has put the Illawarra on the global map,” Mr Stokes said.

“We can’t underestimate the impact that the footage of the escarpment on televisions right across Europe, across the Americas, across Asia will have on future visitation.”

cyclist riding past the Fraternity Club in Wollongong.
Some businesses like the Fraternity club were cut off from traffic for most of the week.(ABC Illawarra: Isla Evans)

Dario Travesi is the director of the Fraternity Club, which was situated along the racecourse and was completely shut off from traffic for the full eight days.

“Obviously trade in the club was affected because we couldn’t have our regulars come into the club as well as weekend weddings and functions,” he said.

Mr Travesi said he felt for businesses whose bottom line may have been affected by the event, but said the benefits to the city outweighed the costs.

“Revenue is not the issue here; the big picture is what kind of legacy can we leave with the people of the Illawarra and beyond,” he said.

“It is like planting a seed and you watch it grow, that is the way I see it.”

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