Hard Graft Takes Hodge to Cycling’s Pinnacle

Canberra, ACT

Stephen Hodge was one of the first Australian riders to make a name for themselves at the Tour de France and he’s gone on to become arguably the nation’s most important lobbyist for cycling.

Stephen is the only professional lobbyist in the halls of Federal Parliament to be dedicated entirely to ensuring cycling gets its fair share of the Government’s half-a-trillion-dollar budget each year.

But how much do you know about the man who will emcee the inaugural Micromobility Conference & Expo?

Our influencers! podcast with Stephen was one of the most popular of the first series and we’re looking back on the interview as the latest instalment of our influencers! transcripts.

Micromobility Report: You were a professional cyclist but you first completed a science degree at ANU. Most professional cyclists left school young and started young. How did that come about?

Stephen Hodge: I used to ride in early high school, even quite long distances to school on a 10-speed, and I started cycle touring with a group when I was in my final two years of school at Phillip College in Woden, so I think I was probably already developing that endurance that I’d need later on in my cycling career.

It wasn’t until my first year of a science degree at ANU that I actually did my first bike race. One of my friends said: “Hey, Stephen, you should come along. It’s really fun.” I went along, probably in stubbies and shorts and sandshoes, and rode my first race and came second. They put me into a junior category, even though I was just over and I won my second race. I was hooked and that’s how I started cycling competitively.

MR: It was really a late start for a pro.

Stephen: Yes, I was 17 or 18.

MR: You speak six languages. Where did your love of language come from?

Stephen: I don’t think we could honestly say I speak six languages, but at school I learnt some Japanese and that was actually even a little bit useful later in life.

I learned French at school and then when I went overseas to live and cycle, I lived in a German-speaking part of Switzerland in my first year. I was working, doing half-day work, and cycling the other half days as an amateur. I had to speak German. They didn’t speak any English, but that was a Swiss German dialect. It was actually quite different to German.

I used to babysit for a family in the village where I lived and the mother used to give me German lessons in return for babysitting and so I learnt enough German to get by.

Then the next year, I moved to the French-speaking part of Switzerland, and all the French I’d learnt at school actually was quite useful, even though I couldn’t speak it anymore, but I learnt that very quickly.

I turned pro three years later and rode for Spanish teams. I had to learn Spanish if I wanted to be properly integrated into the team.

We’ve got German, French, Spanish, and a bit of Japanese, and, of course, as a cyclist, you cycle in Italy and Holland and Belgium, so you learn all the bad words first.

I do love speaking other languages. My French and Spanish are quite good; German is pretty poor and a few words of Japanese that helped me avoid getting lost when I went to the world championships in 1990 in Utsunomiya, 100 kilometres from Tokyo. There you have it. I think that’s probably as much as we can claim on languages.

MR: You’re best known now for your cycling advocacy work. A lot of people watching this might not realise just how successful you were as a professional cyclist. Could you please give an overview of some of the best events you rode and experiences you had during that long career?

Stephen: I guess we start at the top. I rode 10 world championships for Australia. I rode one Commonwealth Games in ’86 and one Olympics in ’96.

In the Commonwealth Games road race, I was sixth. I was one of the favourites, but it got messed up a bit and I missed out on a better result.

My best result in the world professional titles was eighth in Stuttgart of eighth. In the amateur worlds, I think my best result was 23rd in Italy.

I rode 14 Grand Tours: France, Spain and Italy. My best result was maybe 19th in Italy, 34th in the tour of France – and winning team in the Tour of Italy. I did six Tour de Frances, four tours of Italy, four tours of Spain, and I finished them all. I think, for me, that’s something I’m mentally proud of that I actually did not pull out of any major tour that I rode.

Since then, of course, we’ve had a lot of fantastic Australian riders do a lot more than I did. I won, I think, 21 races over my career, which is not many, but there are some that were really great, and I just had an unbelievably fantastic time.

MR: There must have been one or two of those Grand Tours where you had a bad fall or sickness. You don’t ride all those Grand Tours, which are 21 days of racing over more than 3,000 kilometres, without having some mishap somewhere along the way.

Stephen Hodge bike racing
Stephen (front left) during his pro cycling days with the powerful ONCE team, sets the pace up a climb with Swiss champion Alex Zülle on his shoulder during the 1993 Tour of Spain.

Stephen: Very quick story, but it requires me telling you about the last three stages of the Tour of Spain where we were battling for the lead, with Alex Zülle trying to win the Tour of Spain. I had a virus in the last week and I was really flat. I could hardly get out of bed. I was exhausted.

The third last stage was quite difficult and it had one big climb, and then rolling. It finished up a six or eight-kilometre climb. My team director knew I was pretty cactus and he said: “Just try and get in the break. Just do what you can, see if you can represent the team.” I got in the breakaway and we had a minute lead at the foot of this big climb in the middle of the race. I immediately got dropped and on this 15-kilometre climb by halfway up, I’d lost so much time that all the leading guns were steaming past me. I was just trying to make it to the top.

By the top, the very last riders in the tour, we call ’em the fat-ass riders, the sprinters, they caught me and I just managed to hang onto Jean-Paul van Poppel, who’s a friend of mine, and some of the other sprinters. We got to the last climb to the finish. Of course, I got dropped. The only time in my life I finished alone in front of the broom wagon, the one that collects all the riders who pull out. I finished and I was just dead, totally dead. I said to my director, Manolo: “I really think for my own health, I shouldn’t start.” He said, “Oh, just see how you go.”

“Each time you have to dig that deep just to get through, the next time you get to that low point, you are that much stronger.”

The next day was the longest stage of the race, it was 230 or 250 kilometres. Thank goodness it was rolling and not too hard. I yo-yoed all day. All the other guys in the team, they knew how much I was struggling. The mere fact that I didn’t pull out, I think really gave them something extra. “If Hodge’s struggling and just coming back, coming back, dropped, coming back, we can do what we need to do to get Alex Zülle up for the win.”

The last stage, we finished at Santiago de Compostela, the Saint James way. It was one of the holy years they had. Thank goodness, it was a time trial. You can get through a time trial, even if you’re not going too fast, because you have a much larger margin you’re allowed to finish behind the winner – 25%. I finished that Tour of Spain, I was not in great shape.

Each time you have to dig that deep just to get through, the next time you get to that low point, you are that much stronger. You know you can go that deep. Next time you get there, you can go even deeper. It’s one of those weird things with elite sport or personal circumstances, where you get strength from getting through those things.

MR: People probably don’t realise how hard professional racing is and how much you have to suffer. Do you think that translates into your career now and professional life.

Stephen: It’s a relief not to have to try that hard. Look, it does give you an innate sense of confidence that you can get through difficult things. There is something about that endeavour and it comes not only from sport, it comes from many different areas.

I’m very privileged that my physiology and where I was in life at the time, allowed me to go off to Europe, really with no idea what I was going to do. I went to Europe as an amateur and came back as a pro. All these Australian riders who saw me come back as a high-performing pro cyclist, all thought: “If Hodge can do it, we can do it.” They went over there not realising how many years I struggled and got smashed on the cobbles or had to eat dirt, had mud in my mouth, and had to do all the hard things. I’ve got friends who have been to the cobbles. They reach down and they kiss the cobbles, and say, “Hodge, we had no idea.”

There was a 13-year career there. Yes, you see the great bits on TV when I’m leading (Laurent) Jalabert onto the foot of the Poggio in the final of the Milan-San Remo but you don’t see everything else that goes on.

This is the same whatever sector you’re in, that all the hard work often isn’t visible, but all the great stuff is, which is fine by me.

MR: Many cyclists find it hard to make the transition to normal life after their pro career ends. How was the transition for you?

Stephen: A couple of things are important. I had a completed science degree, so I’m actually Stephen Hodge, BSC, Bachelor of Science before I went cycling. Those skills and that training stood me in enormously good stead for being critical with information, putting together arguments, and so on.
I came back and set up a consulting business with my wife who was the high-flying executive when we got married.

The thing I did that I think was really important is I decided to put a bit back. I got onto the board of Cycling Australia. I was on there for many years. I think I contributed significantly over quite a few years. I got very interested in the bigger picture around people using bikes every day for transport, for health, and so on. I’d been working in the sport governance area but I had this side interest that developed and developed, and I started doing some ad hoc work with the advocacy group the Cycling Promotion Fund.

Then there was an opportunity where clearly there was a vacuum federally for advocacy for cycling. People were doing stuff in the states, but no one representing cycling from the very top. That’s when the CPF said: “We’re going to set up a federal government relations program” and I really wanted to be contracted to do that.

MR: You’ve been in that role for 14 years now. That’s a long time in any role, especially one so challenging. What motivates you to keep going?

“What gets me up every day is an opportunity to change minds and hearts and influence policy.”

Stephen: We have a chance to make Australia a healthier place where children can walk and ride to school like they used to. Most are driven now. We have a chance to really influence the transition to a low carbon future. Nationally, more than half of all trips for all purposes are 5km or less. That’s a distance that’s quite easily done by cycling, shorter trips by walking and public transport.

There’s this enormous opportunity sitting right at our feet. There are a lot of barriers to activate that opportunity. Currently, we have about 1% to 1.5% only of all trips done by bike each day, those short trips. In places like Melbourne, 41% of all trips in greater Melbourne are only 3km or less. This is a distance that takes 10 minutes of easy cycling.

What gets me up every day is an opportunity to change minds and hearts and influence policy, get more investment for infrastructure for programs for kids to ride to school, for making cycling mainstream in our thinking about how we get around.

MR: You just mentioned influencing policy and your workplace for a lot of the time is the federal parliament. You have access and respect from federal MPs and senators that many other lobbyists in larger, more powerful industries, will only dream of. How have you gone about maintaining and building these relationships?

Stephen: Even before I started actually being paid to make a difference for cycling, I was running a parliamentary cycling group. I turned up once a week and I’ve done it for 15 or 16 years. All of the people working in the house, whether they’re MPs, senators, staffers, can come out for a bike ride.

We go for one hour, we finish with a coffee, and then they go back to 10, 12, 16 hours in the house.
It’s a really privileged moment for the MPs that love cycling because it’s something that gets them out of the house and allows them to do something in Canberra, which is a lovely place to ride.

I’ve been able to get to where I’ve got with these relationships in parliament partly because of that investment over many years. It builds relationships based on more than just simply lobbying interests. We’re doing something they enjoy and it gives me a chance to open doors that are often very hard to open.

While Dave Sharma was instrumental in getting the Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, to launch our Australian Cycling Economy Report in October last year, I actually just texted Josh and said: “Hey, Josh, we’re launching this report, right up your alley. I hope you can respond positively to Dave’s invitation to launch it.” He came back and said: “Hodge, that sounds interesting.” Right away, I knew I had his attention and he came out launched it for us in a live telecast from parliament when the whole place was locked down. We’d managed to get all our cameras in parliament under the strict quarantine conditions. That’s one of the best examples of all these years of effort, how it pays off.

MR: Are Dave Sharma and Josh Frydenberg regulars or occasionals on the Riders of the Hill, as you call it?

Stephen: Dave Sharma is the best cyclist in parliament. Josh has been on the Pollie Pedal, which is the weeklong charity fundraising ride that was organised by Tony Abbott, and taken over by Angus Taylor. I actually spent the first day of one year’s ride helping him up most of the big hills because he wasn’t terribly fit. Then my wife, Adrienne, drove Josh back to his accommodation in Canberra and he bought me a bottle of Moët to say thanks. These are the things that money can’t buy. These are personal investments that have paid off.

Tony Abbott became Minister for Health and then he was Prime Minister. Sussan Ley was a backbencher and an early rider with us on the Riders on the Hill. She became Minister for Health. This is one of our key portfolios of interest. Now, she’s environment minister [at the time of the interview]. You just never know.

These investments in a very pleasant context pay off down the track, but it’s investment over more than a decade, thanks to the Cycling Promotion Fund and now all the members that have come with us to We Ride Australia, which is an independent charitable governance structure.

MR: You’ve mentioned the Australian Cycling Economy Report, which has been very well received and very influential. Would you like to mention other wins over the years that have been particularly sweet for you?

Stephen: Sometimes it gets really hard to keep your spirits up because infrastructure and investment is delivered by State and local government. They’re extremely important. Some of the wins are that we’ve taken senior bureaucrats overseas to look at how cycling infrastructure and policy is done in the Netherlands, but also in North America. The senior bureaucrat from WA that we took told us that WA moved ahead by at least three years in outcomes for cycling and investment because of what he was able to bring back from that expert study tour.

MR: What about the GFC recovery funding you helped secure?

Stephen: Thanks for reminding me. That should be the first thing I talk about, shouldn’t it? In the very early days of doing this role, I had been getting to know all the different key politicians and the Greens had the balance of power in the Senate. After the global financial crisis, I’d got to know the deputy leader of the Greens. She rang me and said: “Can you get us a list of shovel-ready projects because be blowed if we’re not going to get some money out of our Senate negotiations for active transport.”

Working with all the relationships we had around the States and the bureaucrats, we put together a list and gave it to the Greens. Then I got a call from (Greens Leader) Bob Brown’s office who said:
“Can you find us information about how many jobs will be created by the projects?” We got them a very robust defendable figure of 12 or 14 jobs per million dollars of project. Next thing, I get a call saying: “We’ve got a $40 million bike path fund for cycling.” It delivered $100 million of infrastructure because it was a co-funded thing.

With some of the other funding from the GFC, we sent letters to every council in Australia saying: “You know you can use your community infrastructure funding for bicycle and shared paths in your communities, which really get everyone moving and allow kids to get to school.” That resulted in more than a third of the funding nationally going into paths for bikes and walking. We can have a really big impact but sometimes it’s hard to talk about it.

MR: The federal government on both sides of politics has been pretty stubborn. What have been particular barriers and have there been any cracks to this resistance starting to open of late?

“Everything we do strategically is calculated to address the barriers so that politicians have a greater level of comfort and feel able to stand up and support investment policy and decisions in favour of active transport.”

Stephen: One of the really important parts of our job is to make it easy for decision makers to say “yes”. They face significant barriers in public opinion if they get ahead of the curve. They’re not going to go against public opinion because they’re interested in keeping their jobs. Part of our job is to generate a narrative and an image and an acceptance of investment in cycling so that they have the confidence to stick their head up out of the trench for us, for our stuff.

It takes leadership, it takes courage on their part, but we can be super supportive, and that’s what we are doing. We’re generating materials that tell the good stories we support through broad alliances, changes in policy that will make it easier to invest in cycling. We’ve been a foundation member of a national network of 15 Australian peak groups including the Property Council, the bus industry, rail industry, and a parliamentary friends of Better Cities Group for a number of years. That is about putting cycling as part of the bigger agenda for better places, for people making Australia a better place to live and more productive.

Everything we do strategically is calculated to address the barriers so that politicians have a greater level of comfort and feel able to stand up and support investment policy and decisions in favour of active transport, which is walking, cycling, public transport. The public transport industry has changed its language since we’ve been working with them. They don’t just say “We want everyone to be able to catch busses and trains”, they say “walking, cycling and public transport”.

Everyone’s language has changed. We’ve been investing in a broad set of relationships.
Most recently, we were approached by the Australian Automobile Association to assist them to get better outcomes from the new National Road Safety Strategy. We successfully lobbied to have the action plan of how that’s delivered sent back to States because it didn’t sufficiently allocate responsibility directly to the States to do stuff to stop vulnerable road users – walkers, pedestrians, and cyclists – being injured and killed on our roads.

MR: Someone watching this might find it a bit daunting, all this behind-the-scenes policy work, which is really quite complex. A lot of people don’t realise the complexity and the networks of support you have to build. Overall, they’re sympathetic with what you’re talking. What should they be doing to help or to help those politicians make those more brave decisions?

Stephen: Politicians respond to their constituents. A letter to your MP is enormously influential. Their primary occupation is being in government, getting the government elected, but they want to be elected too. This year has been an election year, and that’s been a particularly important aspect of this year’s politics.

It’s also supporting the groups that are local to you. There are fantastic local bicycle user groups. There are State bicycle organisations that are doing a great job around Australia. You just need to add your voice when you can to say “This is great. More of this, please” – whether it’s to your council, your local member, your State or Territory member, or to your bicycle user group if they ask for your support.

MR: You’ve been in the trenches for 14 years now in this role. How many more kilometres have you got in you? How many more mountains? What would you like to achieve in the time you’re going to continue in this role?

Stephen: That’s a really good question. I’m now over 60. The thing about this job is sometimes it’s really hard going. As long as I feel that We Ride Australia is moving forward and that I can help it along, I will probably stay highly motivated.

I’m not the only one who can do this. It’s not based on me, it’s based on the work that we do as a foundation. There are lots of brilliant people working in this area, working towards the same aims that we are.

We’ve seen an enormous transformation in NSW. There’s an enormously courageous minister now for infrastructure, cities and active transport, Rob Stokes, who’s just turned that State around from being a laggard into a leader in driving change to make streets for people or streets of shared spaces a reality. That is really exciting to see.

I’d like to see a transition in investment in our transport system that recognises the need to transition to a low-carbon future. Yes, electric vehicles are important but so are micromobility modes because of how many trips are so short every day all across Australia. I’ve just stepped out of a marvellous conference in Melbourne, which had a really good focus on walking and the things we need to do to make walking more attractive. Walkers are often the poor cousins, even though all of us walk every day.

I don’t know how long to keep going. I still love riding my bike and I have a new bike about to be built, a handmade steel, beautiful gravel thing. When I have that, who knows, I might just turn into Forest Gump and ride around Australia. I probably won’t do that, but I might just suddenly get a hankering to load up and go bike-packing. Something fun like that.

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