Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by SWpix.com
The start of the 2021 season in Australia has been thrown into further disarray, with hasty border restrictions threatening what’s left of summer training and racing opportunities.
The number of Australian WorldTour riders who have returned home for the southern hemisphere summer appears significantly less this year, with many presumably giving consideration to international border restrictions plus the mandatory two-week hotel quarantine required on arrival and at your own expense.
That hasn’t stopped athletes set to compete at the Australian Open, postponed to February, or Test cricket between Australia and India, which has reached boiling point with the tourists threatening to boycott over strict quarantine protocols.
However, cyclists have been less inclined to make the long journey, as the cancellation of the Tour Down Under, Herald Sun Tour and Bay Crits partly attests, and those that did now potentially face another challenge.
COVID-19 outbreaks across New South Wales and Victoria, which comparative to Europe and the USA are minute, have led to state governments imposing their own border closures and quarantine measures with little notice. For example, the Victoria government on New Year’s Eve announced that its border to all of NSW, not just Sydney hotspots, would close at midnight on New Year’s Day, leading to a mad scramble across a vast landscape for the border, to make it home in time. Those that made it were required to get tested and self-isolate for 14 days. Those that physically or financially couldn’t make it remain in NSW.
It presents a potential problem for riders aiming to compete at the upcoming national championships in Victoria and the January 19-24 Festival of Cycling in South Australia, effectively a substitute for Down Under, as they risk, unless given special consideration, getting stuck, or having to undergo unforeseen quarantine. South Australia, like Victoria, has closed its border to NSW.
Richie Porte, Luke Durbridge and Lauren Kitchen are among the top-tier professionals, who have returned home from Europe during the off-season.
Porte and Durbridge are both slated to compete in Adelaide, which Kitchen has decided to forgo. The FDJ Nouvelle-Aquitaine Futuroscope captain has designs on the proceeding February 3-7 national road championships, but now has doubts as to whether the titles in country Victoria will run.
“The team has been really supportive. But now with the new border issues, I’m not sure what’s going to happen in the next weeks to be honest. At the moment I’m planning to do nationals but I am going back to NSW next week so that might be problematic,” Kitchen said.
“At the moment you can go to NSW because NSW haven’t closed the borders, but you can’t come to Victoria [from NSW], not even if you’re a resident I think, you just can’t even come.
“My opinion is if the border stays like this how can they run the nationals? Because also, South Australia have said, ‘Oh be careful, we’re going to close the border to Victoria,’ and WA have already closed the border. You can’t go back. So, people won’t come.”
A Cycling Australia spokeswoman on Monday was unable to confirm an elite men’s and women’s start list for the national championships but indicated the governing body remained confident it would run. The titles contribute to Olympic Games selection processes.
“We believe that many male pros may remain overseas while most women will return, with the exception of a couple,” the CA spokeswoman said. “But we won’t know more until later this month.
“AusCycling is still working towards the 2021 road national championships going ahead as planned.
“However, we are also continually reviewing and assessing the COVID-19 situation across the country and how border restrictions may affect the event as athletes may not be able to attend.”
Kitchen returned from France to Australia for a family wedding and left NSW for Victoria on December 22, before Victoria imposed a state-wide border restriction on NSW. Under the current rules, which going on recent events could change at any minute, Kitchen seemingly won’t be able to go from Portland, where she is now, to her base in Port Macquarie, NSW, and then come back for nationals.
“My brother is getting married on the 10th of January – that was the reason I came back from Europe, actually. I’m lucky I decided to stay down here instead of [going] back to Port Macquarie,” she said.
“I would have stayed; I’d committed to staying [in Europe]. I even bought an apartment…”
Kitchen arrived in Australia for the off-season at the beginning of November and underwent hotel quarantine in Perth before travelling to the east coast on the back of an injury and pandemic-affected season.
“The team has covered all of my travel expenses, but they didn’t agree to cover my quarantine,” she said. “I went to Perth, I just went wherever I could get in, wherever I could get a flight.”
The UCI hasn’t responded to questions on how the pandemic, if at all, will affect other early season races, including January’s Vuelta a San Juan, in South America, and February’s UAE Tour, in the Middle East, which teams appear to be planning for as usual. Festival of Cycling organisers have also been contacted for comment.
Kitchen’s main focus this year is the cobbled classics, and she is aiming for Olympic Games selection. The 30-year-old is preparing for the European spring as if it will go ahead as planned.
“Our team has applied to lots and lots of races and then they’re going to pull out if they don’t go ahead but they’ve applied with the assumption a lot will be cancelled and they’ve shared that with us,” she said.
“The big races are all going ahead from what we can see. I think it’s more a case of if countries start reacting again and I think Holland could do that, and Belgium. If Holland and Belgium do that then it will be a very different spring.
“It’s a bit extreme over there now so I don’t know what to expect.
“I felt like nationals will definitely happen but now I’m not too sure. And I think [the Festival of Cycling] is going to struggle to go.
“[FDJ] just don’t want me to get stuck and they’re also like, ‘Can you come back as soon as possible’ because they’re not sure if I’ll have to do quarantine to come back. I shouldn’t have to, and I don’t have to at the moment, but, you know, they want to have time for all of that stuff if that happens.
“I’m very good at crossing the world with one days’ notice!”