Oliver’s Real Food Racing team manager Samuel Layzell is back in Australia following the almost-unbelievable chain of events at the cancelled Tour of Sarawak this week. Layzell sent Cycling iQ a full account of the experience.
Disclosure: this interview was conducted by Oliver’s Real Food Racing staff in Australia and sent in the form of a media release. Cycling iQ has a strict policy of not publishing media releases, but is making an exception in this extraordinary case to give it the wide airing it deserves. For an extensive backgrounder on what happened, go here
Sam, thank you for speaking to us. Are all of your riders and staff home safe?
Yes thank you, everyone is now back home. It was quite a challenge logistically with flights, bearing in mind we were stranded in Miri, 800km north of our departure airport Kuching. But we managed to bring our flight home forward and get out of there before we had to pay more!
You say “pay more”, I assume meaning accommodation costs?
Yes, our team ended up footing the entire bill for our four hotel rooms in the Imperial Hotel in Miri. Our riders were fortunately considerate enough to not eat at the hotel, and cover their own meals. But as per the UCI rules [CiQ: UCI regulation 2.2.010], these meal costs should also have been covered by the race organisers.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Miri airport, you arrive, nobody there to pick you up to transport you to the hotel, and then you were told there were no hotel rooms booked for you. What sort of mindset were you in?
We did not arrive into Miri as a group. Our New Zealand-based riders actually arrived on Saturday morning, and they were picked up by two gentlemen who identified themselves as part of the race logistical crew. When they arrived at the hotel and were told there was no room booked for them they immediately called me and asked what to do. I told them to pay a deposit for that night, because I had written communication from Zairy Amrin, the Tour of Sarawak Technical Coordinator, stating they would arrange all accommodation to suit our needs. I assumed because it was only Saturday and the organisers had not yet arrived, it was simply an oversight and we would be reimbursed.
So when did things start going wrong?
On Sunday my Australian based riders all arrived and were not picked up from the airport. This is where things started to seem off. They arrived at the hotel after catching two taxis to find they too did not have any accommodation booked for them. We were the first team to arrive along with the Iranians. After a 15 hour transit, to find no hotel room booked I advised them to do the same as our Kiwis, pay a deposit, get into a room and relax.
In hindsight this seems like not a good decision?
Yes, that of course is the beauty of hindsight! In retrospect it was probably not a good decision, as we will likely never ever get that money back. But what it comes down to for me as a manager is rider welfare. If they sit in a lobby for another two or three hours, what sort of price do we pay performance-wise in the race a few days later?
Mohd Fadzli (2nd left) and Social Development Minister Tan Sri William Mawan Ikom (3rd left) unveil the 2016 Tour of Sarawak logo in April 2015. Image: Jeffery Mostapa
I understand you weren’t in Miri until Tuesday morning? Why was this?
I had to spend some unexpected time in Melbourne last week after one of our riders had a serious crash at the Oceania Road Cycling Championships. I rescheduled my flight, and flying Monday night worked out to be cheaper than the original flight, so I took that option to save some cash for us. I have full faith in the decision making of all of our riders; especially our senior riders of whom I had two in the Sarawak squad. There were no management meetings held until Tuesday anyway, but if there was a scenario where an earlier meeting occurred, I had no problems with my riders representing our team and making decisions on my behalf.
So by the time you arrive on Tuesday, the race is already in serious doubt. What sort of information did you receive from officials?
We (team managers) had three meetings with race organisers throughout the day. We were told a range of conflicting information. The race was called off, then called back on, albeit reduced to three stages; all the time with managers asking when their hotel bills would be paid. As the day wore on, everyone became frustrated. Personally I was frustrated with Mohd Fadzli Mat Yusof, the race director. He made no attempt to personally address any team managers. Instead, he sat back and let a representative of the Malaysian National Cycling Federation (MNCF) do all the speaking. I felt for the MNCF gentleman [CiQ: Ibrahim Omar]. He flew in on the same flight as me that morning, he was thrown straight into the lion’s cage! We ended the day with a meeting at 9pm. But still no decision was made about whether the race would continue. I left that meeting at 11pm, with riders from other teams still sitting in the lobby while managers demanded Fadzli to pay for their rooms so they could be unlocked. It was clear there was no intention of money to be put forward by any party. It was a standoff!
So Wednesday morning comes and the news comes through that the race as cancelled. What was the reaction from teams?
Anger of course, and frustration. More so the latter as there were still claims the race would go ahead early in the day. It was to be shortened to three stages, starting in the city of Sibu. From my personal observations however it seemed to me the main priority for the organisers was to get the hotel paid what they were owed, with the race being an afterthought. At one of the many informal meetings we had, I asked if the security of the riders could be assured if the race continued. The response I got was that there was no police organised to escort the race, but they would be requested to attend once we all travelled to Sibu. It was at that point I decided, along with the other Australian team, and Kenyan Riders Downunder, to withdraw from the race.
You then had to come up with a contingency plan to get your riders back home. What steps did you have to take?
We explored a number of options, including a five-day impromptu training camp, joining Kenyan Riders Downunder hiring a van, and riding the 800km down to Kerching. But cost for this spiralled quickly out of control. After much thought and deliberation, we decided our most cost-effective option was to move our flights forward, and fly home early. If we did not take the 6am Thursday morning flight out of Kuching, we would have been stuck in Sarawak until our original flight home. The expenses of hotels and transportation alone would have been costly.
The event organisers offered a bus transfer from Miri to Kuching overnight on Wednesday. But your team chose to fly? Surely that could have been an avoided cost?
Absolutely not! The race organisers then offered the bus to Kuching at the last minute. By that time we had already booked our earlier flight home. There was no way we would have made our flight at 6am the next morning. The road trip was 14 hours and they didn’t leave Miri until 7pm. The race organizers clearly could not be relied upon. It also again came down to rider welfare. It is still early in the season and a 35 hour transit door-to-door was not something I was prepared to let my riders endure! I understand also the bus was funded by the MNCF, not the Tour of Sarawak. Fadzli also joined us on the same flight to Kuching.
So you are home, and out of pocket, who is responsible for this mess?
I think the responsibly lies with a few people. Obviously the event organiser Fadz Industries Sdn Bhd needs to be at the forefront of the blame. I understand his (Mohd Fadzli Mat Yusof) position and wanting to keep his dream alive. But there is a point where that becomes irresponsible – especially with the financial consequence he potentially faced that has now become reality! Responsibility also lies with the MNCF. To let the organisers get to the point they reached, they should have pulled the plug even as late as 10 days ago, when the rumours of the demise of the race, which we obviously didn’t hear, apparently began. Even three days before the race, when all the hotel rooms were cancelled! The governing federation needs to oversee the event organisers. They need to govern! Especially with the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) ranking of the event. It means they are both responsible, and also accountable. The fact also that two teams didn’t even show up in Miri tells you there were serious doubts in some circles about the event. It is my thought therefore that quite a number of people knew about the potential demise of the race long enough before for something to be done about it.
How much has this event cost the team?
Thousands of dollars. The team has had to cover the expense of changes to flights, plus the flight from Miri to Kuching. There was also the cost of four rooms at the Imperial Hotel Miri for three nights. What also must be considered is the cost to our riders, whom funded their airfares over and back all for nothing. It is incredibly disappointing and we will be seeking compensation from Fadz Industries in the upcoming weeks.
This has been a tough few weeks for your team, with two riders being involved in serious crashes earlier in the month, and now with the demise of the Tour of Sarawak. Firstly how are your riders after the accidents, and how do you recover from all of this?
Both of our riders are doing very well with their respective recoveries. It has all obviously been very tough on everyone involved. The fact we are such a tight-knit squad however makes it far easier to recover from times like these. We all support each other, because we all care so much about the team. We also have an amazing sponsorship group who are there for us too every step of the way. We are so very thankful also to all the support we receive from all of our fans, especially the cycling communities from our home towns of Newcastle and Canberra in Australia. With the help of all of these aspects, we will recover. We have the National Road Series getting underway in just over a month, plus a number of Cycling New South Wales events to attend between now and then to prepare for. We will bounce back from all of this and be a stronger team for it.
Oliver’s Real Food Racing is an Australian Based cycling team competing in the National Road Series. The team’s primary focus is to identify, develop, and provide opportunities for young cyclists to attain the highest possible levels of achievement in cycling. They aim to provide a solid team environment by assembling a team comprised of both young talented developing riders and older experienced riders to promote a strong team atmosphere in local, state, and national events.
Oliver’s Real Food is the world’s first certified organic fast food chain. Oliver’s has been created to raise and set new standards in fast food, providing consumers with Fresh, Natural and Organic food choices. The name Oliver’s Real Food was inspired by the story of ‘Oliver Twist’ and the poor starving orphans, that got nothing but GRUEL everyday (Traditional fast Food) when what they really wanted was some REAL FOOD.