January 9/08 3:19 am - What is Wrong with this Picture?
Posted by Editor on 01/9/08
What is Wrong with this Picture? - An Editorial
Svein Tuft and Zach Bell just had a strong ride at the Burnaby Six Day, taking top honours over one of the top-ranked Madison pairs in the world right now, Slipstream's Colby Pearce and Michael Friedman. Svein Tuft, however, will not be funded by the Canadian Cycling Association (CCA) to ride in any of the remaining World Cups in the Madison, in favour of Martin Gilbert and Ryan Mackenzie. Gilbert, an experienced track rider who had a strong season last year, is a definite asset to the program but Mackenzie, as many have recognized, is still a ways off of his best years. Even more puzzling, Tuft is being denied the opportunity to compete in the self-funded LA World Cup project for the Individual Pursuit. Tuft has not been included in the Track Pool and therefore is not eligible for either the Pursuit or the Madison. So why Tuft is getting the flick from the CCA for their track program?
Canadian Cyclist first spoke with Sean O'Donnell, Manager of High Performance Programs at the CCA, and the staff member most closely involved in athlete selection for projects.
O'Donnell explained in a telephone conversation that this decision was made by 'the CCA' (he would not explicitly state whether it was a staff or a staff and Committee decision), and was based on a number of factors:
1. Committing to a group of riders (the CCA has been told by athletes in the past that they felt they were often tossed aside in favour of latecomers, even though they (athletes) had made a commitment to a program). The Madison group is Martin, Ryan and Zach, and the CCA has committed to supporting them.
2. In order to qualify for Worlds (and then hopefully Beijing) the strategy is to stick with riders who have the highest number of UCI points (and therefore best chance of qualifying for Worlds), and that is Martin, Ryan and Zach. (Many knowledgeable people who were at Burnaby believe that if Zach paired with Svein they could quite possibly collect more points in one ride by making the Final than had been collected thus far, however, that argument is discussed further along in this article)
3. Svein, while being a superb rider, has no current track results and did not attend any track assessment camps, and is therefore not included. (It needs to be pointed out that there have been no new selection criteria since last year's World Cup in LA, and that Martin and Ryan were preselected based on their 5th place at the Pan Am Championships in 2005. Svein could therefore just as easily be selected for the Pursuit based on his Commonwealth Games and 2006 Nationals results.)
As one can imagine, Kevin Cunningham, the co-owner of Tuft's team, Symmetrics Cycling, ain't pleased. He said "We were told the reason that Svein wasn't being considered for the track is because he didn't participate in a track training camp last fall and also he had not been on his track bike for months. He also didn't go to Australia. We tried to explain that he didn't come to the training camp out of complete exhaustion, and Svein needed some time off, as he had raced hard for 10 months winning the UCI America's title."
Svein's schedule last year included going to Venezuela in August, then straight to [Tour of] Missouri and then onto a plane to the Road Worlds. From there he came home and 10 days later he had to fly to Italy to receive his UCI America's Championship trophy.
"He started 2007 doing track [with a buncha Nat Champs medals in 2006, FYI] and proved he and Zach were very worthy of consideration for the Madison," asserts Cunningham. Cunningham also pointed that the potential for Tuft in the Pursuit should be overwhelmingly obvious, what with being one of the strongest time trialists around.
Kevin Cunningham informed us that this was the main reason for Symmetrics pulling their team out of the Pan Am Champs. The team also felt the High Performance Committee were forcing specific riders into specific events. After that, Cunningham said, the team informed the CCA of Svein's plans to focus on the Madison and that the recent Burnaby Six Day shows that Zach and Svein can be competitive against proven teams that make the Finals at World Cups.
Now, it's fairly clear that Svein has done a lot for Canadian cycling and we would have to agree he deserves some special consideration when plans are being made. To exclude Svein from the track program certainly hurts Canada. It's possible that with the current pair, that Canada will not qualify a Madison team for the Olympics, and we certainly won't qualify in the Pursuit by not entering anyone at World Cups.
When Stuey O'Grady is racing the Tour de France and other ProTour events, would Australia penalize him for missing key home events? Surely exceptional Canadian riders like Michael Barry, Svein Tuft, Brian Walton, Steve Bauer, and so on, deserve exceptions. In fact, O'Grady is a great example, as he had no track results the year leading up to Athens, but Australia won Gold.
Another person who is not happy is Houshang Amiri, who runs the PacSport National Training Centre in Victoria. Amiri was very surprised to hear about the decision [to not include Svein - he first heard about it when we contacted him], and disappointed. He added that that decisions are being made by Staff/Committees with coaches having limited input. Since coaches are the ones whose performances are assessed by national team results, they have a clear interest in being involved in selection decisions. Amiri had put together a track program leading up to Beijing which included Svein (for the Pursuit), which the CCA has decided not to follow.
It's hard to discern just where this decision is coming from. Since it's already been established (see our editorial: November 30/07 3:15 pm EST - CCA Selection: Interesting Conflicts or Conflicts of Interest?) that the HPC [High Performance Committee] plays a hand in selections, we asked Louis Barbeau [Chair of the HPC] if the Committee he runs had any say in this decision regarding Svein Tuft. Barbeau said in an e-mail, that he was "not aware of this [that Tuft not going to the LA World Cup, or any World Cups, for that matter, in the Madison.]".
Barbeau then commented, "With regards to Svein Tuft, he is obviously a very talented athlete, as he has proven this year on the road. Concerning his ability or potential to perform in Madison races, it is difficult to assess. Madison racing is very technical and requires much more than physical capacities. It needs time to master the tactics and techniques of this type of racing, and I am not sure that it can be achieved in such a short period of time."
He did however, suggest that we should get in touch with Eric Van Den Eydne "to get a proper evaluation of them [Tuft et al] ... who is in my view the best person to provide this [evaluation], not only because he knows and has seen these athletes in action over the last years, but also because of his knowledge of this specific type of event."
Of course, as we all know, Tuft has had limited time on the track ... but he just did beat Slipsteam at Burnaby. So, he's definitely got some talent, huh? Eric Van Den Eydne, by the way, is in charge of the projects (World Cups), "as it was a unanimous choice of the national team athletes to have him involved as such this year." Barbeau states that "he [Van Den Eydne] has no say into the selection process of the athletes for these projects. The only decisions he can make are on site during the event, if he feels that one athlete is not doing as well. This is what he did for the World Cup in Beijing, where he replaced MacKenzie by Bell." (Bell rode instead of Ryan as Eric Van Den Eydne felt Zach was stronger.)
Barbeau also stated that "The Burnaby Six Day is very different than a World Cup event, therefore I don't think that we can use this event for evaluation. This being said, if Svein committed to the Madison, it would be interesting to see what he could do." Barbeau concluded that the "Madison is a race that requires a lot of practice and at this point in time the three athletes that have the experience to perform at the international scene are Bell, MacKenzie and Gilbert."
Van Den Eydne, in a telephone conversation, confirmed that he is not involved at all with selections, apart from making decisions as to who may or may not ride at the actual event. (Such as the case with replacing Mackenzie with Bell in Beijing) He is the Quebec provincial coach, and he is simply a project manager at events. He did point out the difficulty with selections for racing of any sort in this country, "At one point track was going well, and we had riders competing [regularly] at World Cups. But they want us to win without the opportunity to race, and the experience is missing. In Canada, if you don't win, you're out." Therefore, building a track pool and supporting them, instead of giving in to pressures [such as this particular time with Tuft wanting to race track] is something he strongly supports, pointing out that while Mackenzie is currently the weaker rider, his technical skills are high, so he has a strong opportunity to improve.
Van Den Eydne also confirmed that the decision to omit Tuft could be based on the fact that Madison is very technical, "Madison is not only a strength race, it's not a simple race, you have a fraction of a second to decide, if you make a bad decision you lose. Sometimes the strongest rider is not the best Madison rider." Van Den Eydne also agrees that Tuft would have little chance to boost Canada's ranking in the Madison. "Mathematically, Svein would have to win [ a World Cup] to overtake the other two [Gilbert and Mackenzie]. That's why they made the decision, I think."
However, in terms of Tuft riding the Pursuit, Van Den Eydne is favourably inclined. He re-affirmed that this is not his decision, but pointed out "I am one of the reasons [that] he did track in the first place [when Tuft tried the Pursuit at the Commonwealth Games]. Based on me, it could be justified [for Tuft to race the Pursuit], because along with Zach he is the best Pursuiter in Canada."
Our editor has an interesting anecdote from Svein's debut as a Pursuiter at last year's Commonwealth Games. Tuft, who decided to enter the Pursuit on a whim (since he was there for the road), had very little track experience at the time. He was riding against one of the lowest-ranked riders there, but Rob knew that Svein - one of the most talented tt'ers around - was someone with enormous potential. He told the other photogs there, "watch this guy. This will be incredible."
Sure enough, Svein started embarrassingly slow, not being comfortable yet on the track, and was close to being caught. The photogs rolled their eyes. A few laps later, Svein got comfortable and began riding at breakneck speed. A few more laps, and he'd made up an enormous deficit and caught his opponent. By the end of the race, he ended up with a top-10 result and, if you discounted his start, he had some of the fastest laps of the competition.
Since then, Svein has trained two winters at Burnaby, has medals, Nationals wins, World Cup experience and now a Six Day win under his belt. And he's one of the fastest clean riders against the clock on the planet. But, it seems, that's not enough.
So if Tuft has the potential of being a great Pursuiter, why isn't he in the Track pool? It's clear he is dedicated to it. Furthermore, the current Madison group has not qualified for any World Cup Final thus far this season, so why not try something new?
Despite the fact a decision to support a group who have committed to a program (which the CCA has been very bad at in the past) is a very good step, the strongest member of the group is missing (Martin Gilbert), so wouldn't this be a great opportunity to try something new? Even more to the point - why not take Tuft for the Pursuit, and have the three riders (Mackenzie, Bell and Tuft) train together leading up to the Madison, so that Eric Van Den Eydne can select the best team at the event?
Colby Pearce, who is one of the most talented track riders around, and currently one of the top Madison riders on the world scene, has nothing but praise for Svein Tuft: "I am sure the CCA has their reasons for picking who they are picking, but if I were picking the team for LA, I would definitely select Svein over Mackenzie."
BC provincial coach Richard Wooles, someone with extensive track experience as part of the very successful Great British cycling program, also feels that the process must change for selections in Canada. "I think it's an unfortunate situation that isn't relevant [just] to what's happening to Svein at the moment. I believe a long list of athletes for each discipline should be strategically identified, and then given training and racing opportunities. Extra wild card slots should be available for emerging talent."
He further commented: "I'm not particularly happy with the current situation, that's why I volunteered to become part of the High Performance Committee. I would love to play a more active role in trying to support our emerging and elite riders."
At the end of the day, it seems extremely foolish to not make use of proven performers from other disciplines when they become available. Here we have one of the best riders in North and South America on the road, one of the most talented clean riders in the world, who is excited to race on the track. And our own federation will not send him on a self-funded project.
There is something wrong with this picture, CCA.