But back to the bikes. Fechner is new to the role and the organisation she heads is also new. AusCycling has replaced Cycling Australia, its federated state and territory bodies and incorporated MTBA, BMX Australia and regional BMX associations into a single entity.
A big move, and a messy one
It was a big move, and a messy one. Former Cycling Australia CEO and UBS banker Steve Drake, who led the amalgamation, hoped it would take between 12 and 18 months, but it stretched to almost three years. Even then, Cycling Australia’s NSW arm, the one with the most money, voted against the amalgamation last September.
Glenn Vigar, Cycling NSW’s former chairman, called it an egregious plan that lacked detail. WestCycle also said it wasn’t prepared to take the leap of faith to join the national organisation and abstained.
Self-preservation? Quite possibly. The new structure dissolves state-level organisations and makes individual clubs part of the one national body.
But Cycling Australia’s history of poor governance and financial problems also underpinned the resistance. In 2014, the national sporting organisation was bailed out to the tune of $2 million under an Australian Sports Commission agreement with state cycling bodies.
Its NSW affiliate lent Cycling Australia $1.5 million, the lion’s share of the loan. Under the unification plan, however, the outstanding debt was to be forgiven and, further, the new national body would gain control over $1.2 million in cash sitting in Cycling NSW’s account.
Fechner says most people supported a single structure and the issue was about concerns over how it would work in practice. But as the new organisation took shape, further work – particularly by Drake, Besen Family Office chief executive and AusCycling chairman Duncan Murray and Herbert Smith Freehills partner and former Cycling Australia director Linda Evans – got the holdouts on board, Fechner says.
She also credits Shimano Australia Cycling managing director Matt Bazzano, who replaced Vigar as Cycling NSW chairman, for playing a big role in helping bring the parties together.
“It’s about making sure we’re having really open dialogue and conversations with the community,” Fechner says. “It’s not about one person, it’s about the community.”
The last West Australian outlier, BMX WA, also decided to come on board in February.
Cycling Australia was really challenged
Decision-makers in Australian cycling hope Fechner can repeat the success she had at Netball Australia (she was the pick of the 130 or so candidates who pitched for the role), where she got a disparate group of organisations to agree on one common commercial framework that secured big sponsors Suncorp and Telstra, which had refused to negotiate with 15 separate netball bodies. She also negotiated a five-year broadcast deal with Nine. The moves more than doubled revenue.
“Cycling Australia was really challenged in that regard,” she says. “It was very difficult to get people to agree to giving up their rights or their assets when they were not sure about the outcome.”
But the alternative is worse.
“In terms of financial sustainability, no one wants to be croquet,” Fechner says.
“A sports management guru who came in when I started at Netball Australia said to me, ‘Don’t forget that croquet was a very popular sport once and where are they now?’ You need to make decisions to ensure the ongoing viability. How can you make sure your sport can thrive and grow?”
Fechner orders the seafood linguine, an organic wholemeal pasta with lemon, chilli and garlic. I go for fish of the day, a fillet of john dory served in a broth of asparagus, peas and dill. We each have a glass of sauvignon blanc, cheerfully named Hunky Dory, to go with it.
It’s a step up for Fechner from netball, a sport that competes at only Commonwealth level, to cycling, which is a big part of the Olympics. But cycling, which hasn’t been able to get things right despite years of trying, needs a new approach.
The 186-centimetre tall Fechner made her first move into sports administration in 1992, when she played for Queensland while also working as Netball Queensland’s first executive officer. The chronic underfunding of women’s sport forces people to be agile and it also prompts them to be innovative.
In 1990, as a player, Fechner toured China with an Australian Institute of Sport team led by forward-thinking sports administrator Margaret Pewtress, who saw the opportunity for growth in the giant country back then.
In 2015, she was appointed to run the Netball World Cup, which was held in Sydney for the second time and where the Diamonds claimed gold.
Fechner took over running Netball Australia in 2017, when Kate Palmer was appointed CEO of federal funding body Sport Australia.
Palmer was also named in February to lead the unification of the country’s two athletics bodies into one new entity.
Fechner says she’s well-placed to take the new organisation forward.
“I think what AusCycling’s looking for is, to a degree, a transformational leader, and that’s what I had to do [at Netball Australia], that’s going to pick up all of the hard work and drive it somewhere else.”
Battalions of MAMILs
Her biggest challenge is boosting membership. Fechner cites figures from government-funded agency Austroads showing 3.4 million Australians ride a bike and says, post-amalgamation, AusCycling has only 55,000 members: 23,500 from road and track cycling (the former Cycling Australia), 18,000 in mountain biking and 13,500 in BMX.
The bike world’s administrators have long recognised this and the old Cycling Australia set a goal of achieving 50,000 members in 2016.
“You can still enjoy the pursuit, but you don’t have to belong,” she says. “Unless I really want to be on the pathway [to professional or competitive performance], what’s the value proposition for me to actually engage?”
She says this requires a rethink about how people see cycling and who the organised sport serves. An image of cycling for many is the battalions of MAMILs (Middle-Aged Men in Lycra) whose expensive pieces of machinery have replaced golf clubs as a status symbol and whose blinding headlights breathe life into the early morning streets of suburban Australia.
But bike-riding is unique among sports for being a cradle-to-grave activity. There are also mothers riding children to school, commuters and lines of grey nomads. If AusCycling can use data and analysis to reach those cohorts and represent their needs, it can grow. Cycling Australia focused on high performance, but the new organisation takes a wider view.
“What’s really going to unlock our potential from a data and commercialisation perspective is how do we get and capture the movements and rationale why those four million cyclists pick up a bike?” she says.
And it has to start young.
“If you capture children between the ages of five to 10, they are anywhere between six to 12 times more likely to actually stay connected to the sport, and that might be from a participation perspective or branding,” she says.
There is even more to understand about MAMILs, she says.
“Particularly for – dare I say it – middle aged men, the role that cycling is playing in mental health and wellbeing and connectedness in ways [is something] that probably not many other sports do – probably golf – but I think we haven’t unlocked that either.”
Our emphasis on winning medals
Our food arrives and it’s good. Buena Vista Social Club is blaring out of the restaurant’s speakers. Dos gardenias para ti is stuck in my head.
Money drives sport. While many administrators are scared to talk publicly about funding, Fechner is confident about addressing the matter. She says the current Commonwealth funding model puts too much emphasis on winning medals. She knows: at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games final in 2018, Australia’s world-leading netball team lost to England by one goal. That cost them an Australian Institute of Sport payment of about $200,000.
”It’s counterintuitive because we’re world No. 1, but we need to keep pushing investing in high performance, so we can find that extra 1 per cent,” she says.
Netball Australia had to take the money from its own funds to meet the collective agreement it had with its athletes.
“That’s about $200,000 that’s not going into a pathway program or a community program,” she says.
More than ever before, sport is a platform for tackling health and obesity problems, domestic violence, gender equality and promoting diversity. Compliance requirements, such as around child protection, are also greater than ever. These are growing, and unsustainable, demands for many volunteer organisations, and they need to be funded better.
“We’re relying on volunteers that have got other jobs to do that?
“As an industry, we have a role to play in coming together to demonstrate as a whole, as a collective, rather than as little bits, to drive more investment in sport. At the moment, we’re all over the place. How do we come together to be powerful as a movement to change Australia?”
Coffee time. Our long blacks arrive.
The world may think it knows how the cycling world works, but Fechner’s task is to show how it can be different. And, just as importantly, show us how it’s been all along.
Pier Farm, 34 The Strand, Williamstown, Victoria
2 bottles sparkling water, $19
2 glasses Hunky Dory sauvignon blanc, $26
Seafood linguine, $37
Fish of the day, $46.50
2 long blacks, $10