An ASE special feature by Bronwen Largier
“You can recognise the people watching the Tour de France during the winter because they have the red eyes in the morning.”
So says Florent Malézieux, Race Director for L’Étape Australia by le Tour de France, a relatively young event designed to enhance the link between the world’s most famous cycling race – le Tour de France, of course – and cycling enthusiasts down under.
A joint venture between Lateral Event Management, SBS Television and the Tour de France, L’Étape Australia is a participation cycling event in the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales which offers amateur riders “the closest experience they can have to riding in the Tour de France” in Australia.
The event comprises two courses – a Ride of 108km and a Race of 170km which take place on one day each December in conditions mirroring those of the Tour de France – fully closed roads alongside full mechanical and medical support and a smattering of professional riders.
The event comes with other bells and whistles too, including massages, bike checks and a chance to get up close and personal with cycling stars.
“The whole experience is made for the amateur riders,” says Florent. “Everything is thought and organised for them.”
As the largest of the 15 L’Étape races worldwide and with two MEA NSW Awards – for Public Event of the Year and Regional Event of the Year – under their belt and now a shot at the national awards in both categories next week in Adelaide, L’Étape Australia has become successful relatively quickly, having staged the first race in 2016.
“It’s very impressive when you know that Lateral wasn’t into cycling before 2016,” says Florent.
“In two editions, we’ve already changed the landscape of cycling in Australia and now Australian riders can experience the same level of cycling organisation as they would have in Europe on the greatest event. I think this is a pretty good achievement. The idea now is to keep developing this event and make it the biggest cycling festival in Australia.”
The strong and immediate uptake for the event is due in significant part to the involvement of SBS, who put the race on the radar of the cycling community through TVCs during cycling programs including the Tour de France and advertised it through their popular cycling website SBS Cycling Central.
Using these and other cycling related databases in Australia alongside their own website, L’Étape Australia was able to build a database of 12,000 potential clients in only a few months.
“I think the cycling community in Australia is very strong – there is a strong appetite for cycling and when we told the cycling community the Tour de France is coming – we’re coming with Chris Froome, we’re coming with the red car, we’re coming with everything which comes with the Tour de France, they said, “OK, I want to be in, I want to be part of it.”
The event has also engaged strongly with those involved in the professional side of Australian cycling.
Phil Bates AM, whose honour stems from his contribution to the cycling in Australia, including founding the Commonwealth Bank Cycling Classic, has been involved right from the start and now curates the L’Étape museum, bringing cycling artefacts and memorabilia to the event’s Village hub in Jindabyne each year – items sourced from the former professional riders themselves – everything from old jerseys to historical bikes and helmets.
The organisers also contract various ambassadors from several areas of the cycling world. This year this includes Australian professional cyclists Amanda Spratt and Matthew Hayman, who notably won one of the hardest and most famous one day cycling races in the world, Paris-Roubaix, in 2016 just 10 days shy of his 38th birthday. He had also sustained a fractured arm in a crash six weeks before the race, resulting in him being unable to train on the road for five of the six weeks leading up to his victory.
They have also contracted Matt Kennan, the prolific cycling commentator, to create the link between the professional and the amateur riders. All the ambassadors provide insight into cycling throughout the year for participants. Training tips are provided by the founder of a cycling training program, Cycling Inform on a more informal basis.
Florent himself, as his name might suggest, is a native of France, and was working for Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), the owner of the Tour d
e France, when he first became involved with L’Étape Australia as a consultant on the race course on behalf of ASO.
He joined the Lateral Team as Race Director after the first event; his passion and knowledge of cycling is evident throughout his chat with ASE. He too is in training to ride in L’Étape du Tour, the stage of the Tour de France opened to amateur riders each year during the event; essentially the event which led to L’Étape series.
“Right now,” he says, “I’m just working and cycling.”
He acknowledges being just as passionate as the riders that are their clients is important to the event.
A logistical challenge
Logistically, the event is no walk in the park – a testament to this is that it’s hard to find another amateur cycling race that has closed roads in Australia.
A Traffic Management Plan had to be developed and submitted to Roads and Maritime Services, the Traffic Management Centre, the police and the local council. The event also had to apply for a Section 115 exemption so that riders don’t have to follow the road rules during their ride.
Florent says one of the other challenges was explaining to cyclists the advantage of all this.
“The first year we had to explain to the riders what it would be like to ride on fully closed roads. They couldn’t understand what difference it would make. But once they experienced it, they said ‘Wow this is so great, not to have to worry about the traffic, being able to ride with your mates and being able to talk during your ride without being afraid of having a car passing too close to you.’”
The organisers meet every two months throughout the year with the variety of agencies involved in the coordination required for the event – everyone from the local council to NSW Ambulance, the police and fire services. They also have to liaise with the Department of Planning, partly as a result of the Thredbo landslide in 1997, and the Kosciusko National Park.
While Lateral has a core team of four working on the event year-round, the in-house team grows to seven as the event nears and they pick up a Registration Manager, an Operations Manager and a Volunteer Manager. By the time the event is done and dusted, around 450 people have worked on the event each year, including contractors and about 220 volunteers.
As evidenced by the presence of the Volunteer Manager, they manage volunteers in-house and prize them as an important stakeholder group for the event.
“I think it’s very important to have a direct relationship with the volunteers. They want to be considered as part of the event and this is what we’re trying to achieve,” says Florent.
“If they have a good experience of the event, if they have a good time and if they are respected, they’re going to tell everyone, ‘L’Étape is great, I loved working on it, you should come this year,’ and maybe some of their friends will travel.”
The organisers also do their best to stay local. “We’re trying to work with local contractors, says Florent. “The idea of the event is to try to bring money into the local economy, so if we can use local professionals, that would be better, and even cheaper, than bringing someone from Sydney.”
Economically, figures from the 2016 event show it contributed $1.7 million in direct expenditure over two days from the 3,500 participants and their supporters, mainly in accommodation and restaurant patronage. The Village set up for the event also provides the opportunity for local businesses to showcase themselves.
“Maybe from Australia we don’t see this, but the Tour de France in France and in Europe does a lot of promotion of the regional products and the regions it goes through. So we do the same here,” says Florent.
L’Étape Australia is also attempting to even out the gender imbalance in cycling. Participants are 90 percent male and mostly between 35 and 65. As one-sided as this may seem, it’s better than in Europe where the average is only five percent female riders. By having Amanda Spratt as one of the event’s ambassadors, they’re hoping it will increase the take-up by women cyclists.
“Now the real challenge is to keep the event happening,” says Florent. “Your event might be really, really great – if you do it this way the first year, the same way the second year, the same way the third year, it’s getting boring and people are not travelling to enjoy it. This is one of the biggest dangers in the events industry, to just to copy paste from one year to the other.”
In terms of year-on-year improvement and development of the event, the Florent says they are fortunate to have an extremely engaged community. A survey they completed with Destination NSW, sponsors of the event, returned 1,300 responses, an unusually high number as far as post-event surveys go. In addition, in November, Lateral completed another survey asking different sorts of questions and received over 1,000 responses in three hours.
“Our customers are not just consumers – they are really involved in the sport and they are really engaging – when we post something on Facebook, it’s not just likes, we have people asking questions, giving their advice, saying what they think,” he says.
And the feedback they receive from riders forms the basis for changes to the race – this year they’ve combined three sites into a single site at the riders’ request, brought Australian riders on-board as ambassadors and built a new registration site in response to dissatisfaction with the old one.
As for the race location, that is another avenue for reinventing the race. But not just yet.
“We are in the Snowy Mountains [but] we don’t belong to the Snowy Mountains – L’Étape du Tour in France is moving every year, so maybe L’Étape [Australia] might go somewhere else at some time, you know. It might be a way to innovate and to keep the event appealing.”
CEO: Simon Baggs
General Manager: Alice Drewett
Event director: Florent Malézieux
Operations manager: John Weston
Race course manager: James Trickey
Event village and sponsorship manager: Stephanie Bacon
Volunteer Manager: Isabelle Slack
VIP manager: Caroline Didier
Registrations manager: Fasih Syed
VIP dinner manager: Isabelle Cherry
Clinics and talent manager: Jette Sargood-Baggs