Following a novel training session with the Melbourne Storm rugby league team yesterday, cyclists from the Australian GreenEDGE professional cycling team were today presented to a small crowd outside Melbourne’s Town Hall by Lord Mayor, Robert Doyle. Looking on was team owner Gerry Ryan, founder of caravan manufacturer Jayco and long-time backer of cycling events in Australia. Today’s presentation was another small step towards Ryan’s long-term ambition for GreenEDGE to one day win the world’s biggest cycling race, the Tour de France.
That ambition was significantly aided earlier this week when cycling’s governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), granted GreenEDGE a WorldTour license. This gives GreenEDGE, and 17 other global cycling teams at this highest level of the sport, guaranteed participation in all WorldTour events; an almost year-long series of races which includes the Tour de France in July.
While the team and its management, headed up by former AIS cycling head coach Shayne Bannan, is predominantly Australian, the 30-strong roster spans 10 nationalities, with riders from New Zealand, Japan, Eritrea, South Africa, Lithuania, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands and Canada.
Anointed as team “elder statesman”, veteran cyclist Stuart O’Grady, 38, is possibly the most well-known of the team’s 17 Australian riders, informing the audience his enthusiasm for cycling was as fresh as ever.
“I wouldn’t be up here now if I didn’t still get goosebumps at the start of Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France’ enthused O’Grady “I’m going to attack the classics with the vigour of a 21yr old and the head of a 38yr old.”
Fittingly, the team’s first major race in 2012 will be at home. The Tour Down Under, held in Adelaide from 15-22 January, will host the world’s top cycling teams as the opening race of the WorldTour calendar. This may also be the only opportunity for Australian cycling fans to gain close access to GreenEDGE, given the team will be based in the Italian province of Varese for the remainder of the season.
Earlier this week, the GreenEDGE team joined Federal Minister for Sport Mark Arbib and ACT Sports Minister Andrew Barr on a ride from the Australian Institute of Sport to Parliament House in Canberra. Whilst Senator Arbib spoke of Australian cycling’s outstanding year – capped with Cadel Evan’s Tour de France win – the Australian government’s AUD7.3 million of funding to cycling sport annually is substantially less than the reported AUD10 million of annual funding that Ryan has personally committed to GreenEDGE.
Across the WorldTour spectrum, it is not uncommon for annual team budgets of between AUD15-20 million to be significantly funded by passionate private owners, as is the case with Cadel Evan’s BMC team, which is fifty-percent owned by wealthy Swiss entrepreneur, Andy Rihs. Interestingly, Rihs and Ryan share another passion in their diverse portfolios; both own upmarket vineyard/winery concepts with luxury accommodation.
Ryan hopes GreenEDGE will attract commercial sponsors, especially from the Asia-Pacific region, looking to capitalize on cycling’s popularity. Subaru became the most recent commercial partner earlier this week though, apart from the supply of vehicles, no other financial aspects were disclosed. The team’s communications manager, Brian Nygaard, would not comment on prospective commercial partners, but emphasized his belief that the timing was right for Australia to have its own global cycling team.
“Our approach is not only to put as much as we can into the athlete’s careers” said Nygaard, “we also want to give back to the fans and the sport of cycling. Cycling has always been huge in Australia, but a lot of new people are coming onboard to cycling and it’s our responsibility not to disappoint them.”
Asked about how GreenEDGE will activate cycling’s apparent increased popularity in Australia, Nygaard pointed to the team’s relaxed and open Australian culture and uptake by mainstream media.
“Cycling’s coverage is increasing all the time. There is still very specific coverage where you have to know a certain amount about cycling beforehand, but there’s a growing amount of broader coverage. Social media has brought teams and riders closer to the fans. We should utilize that to make cycling more accessible. It’s getting harder and harder in Europe for media to access cyclists and cycling should be the opposite of that. We should be approachable. You’re standing here with world champions and Olympic medalists, whilst people are just strolling by on a Saturday afternoon. That’s really how it should be.”
Reigning Japanese dual road cycling and time trial national champion Fumiyuki (Fumy) Beppu – who moved from Radioshack to GreenEDGE in October – was clearly enjoying the relaxed mood at the presentation, having overcome initial nerves about his new team’s culture.
“At the beginning, I felt maybe a little scared because I don’t know Australian culture. It’s really exciting for me. I have lived in France (currently in Lyon) for 10 years, so the European culture I understand now. I come from Asia so I understand the Asian culture. But it’s really relaxing, and joking; and people (in Australia) love cycling.”
When asked if the GreenEDGE platform, with its mandate to “change the sport of cycling forever with an influence and contribution that extends well beyond professional cycling” [Note: Nygaard downplayed the hyperbole of that statement, saying "We need to rewind a bit and develop in a humble way."] will help him to promote cycling in Japan and throughout Asia, Beppu answered through the lens of his own development.
“When I turned professional in 2005, nobody else in Japan was at that level. [Beppu would become the first Japanese rider to complete the Tour de France, finishing in 112th position at the 2009 edition; compatriot Yukiya Arashiro finished in 129th position in the same year]. Australian cycling was similar, but there are now many Australian riders in the ProTour. In the future, maybe there is the possibility for Japan to have its own (WorldTour) team like GreenEDGE. I have to learn more about the organization of (such teams) to help the future of Japan and Asian teams.
We have a lot of cycling fans in Japan. It’s a little difficult now with the big earthquake and tsunami in March. When I won the (2011) national time trial and road race, I wanted to show the people I thought about them and also to wear the national jersey in the ProTour. I thought ‘I have to win’. I’ve seen my (customised GreenEDGE Japan national champion) jersey and I’m excited to wear it next year.”
Beppu will return to Australia in January 2012 for GreenEDGE’s training camp. It is too early to say how many Asia-based races will feature in his 2012 racing calendar – though the Tour of Beijing seems a good fit, in terms of proximity to his native Japan and timing with the important Japan Cup race – but he is clear about two objectives.
“I will do the Giro d’Italia next year. My future dream is winning one stage in the Tour de France, but the Giro is also a very big race. I want to have a win in the Giro. Also, the Japan Cup. I’m really interested to win that race. The race has been run 20 times, I think, but only once won by a Japanese rider (Yoshiyuki Abe riding for Mapei-GB in 1997). Next year, my objective is to win the Japan Cup.
The fans in Japan are fun and crazy (but) they also have respect for the riders. I did the Japan Cup Criterium before the Japan Cup race, which was like an exhibition race, and there were 60,000 people watching. I did the Tour de France in 2009 and it was the same feeling, same atmosphere. So many people calling my name, it was huge! I’ve stayed a long time in Europe and, that one time in Japan; it was unbelievable.”
The 18 WorldTour teams [with riders from Asia] for 2012 are:
Astana Pro Team
BMC Racing Team
Lampre – ISD
Liquigas – Cannondale
Lotto Belisol Team
Omega Pharma–Quick Step
Team Saxo Bank [Takashi Miyazawa, JPN]
AG2R La Mondiale
GreenEDGE [Fumiyuki Beppu, JPN]
[A special thanks to Wade at CyclingTips for alerting me to this presentation. I don't know how anyone would have known this was on. Only select media were forewarned, even though the launch was ultimately held on one of Melbourne's busiest CBD streets - Brian Nygaard confessed he didn't know the launch would be held outside.]