MELBOURNE, Australia (VN) — In sporting terms, it was an event that should have been on par with Cadel Evans’ homecoming parade. But unlike that August day this year, when thousands cheered their Tour de France champion home with unbridled vigor and held yellow placards that read ‘Yell for Cadel,’ no more than 100 onlookers were present to celebrate another historic, and equally significant, Australian first.
Though hard to believe — especially given it was held in the same city as Cadel’s Carnivale — the christening of GreenEdge, the first-ever Australian team to be granted a WorldTour license, was a far more subdued affair Saturday in Melbourne.
Outside the sandstone surrounds of Melbourne Town Hall at half-past midday, Robert Doyle, the Victorian capital’s Lord Mayor, welcomed the 30-man team to the world, a team spearheaded by Milan-San Remo champion and worlds silver medalist Matthew Goss. But apart from a cozy coterie of media and smattering of cyclists back from their morning coffee-shop ride, the affair raised more bemused expressions than anything else; someone forgot to tell Australia it was on, it appeared.
Dressed in their Saturday-best stonewash jeans and black polo shirts, hairdos nicely coiffed, the GreenEdge class of 2012 certainly looked the part. They were flanked by caravan and horse-racing magnate Gerry Ryan, the team’s primary benefactor, who has agreed to underwrite the team for the first three years of operation; general manager Shayne Bannan, who, to his credit, has championed Ryan’s dream from concept to reality; and sports directors Neil Stephens and Matt White — the latter seen in the team garb for the first time, a hint he may soon relinquish his role as Cycling Australia’s professional men’s road coordinator.
The entire team had just come off a weeklong training camp in Canberra, the nation’s capital, where they based themselves at the headquarters of the Australian Institute of Sport. Aside from familiarizing themselves with one another — 13 in the group, or 43 percent, are non-Australian – and undergoing bike fits, physiological testing and the setting of race programs, riders logged a healthy dose of mileage under their belts.
“We got through probably around a bit over 1000K (620 miles) in just over the week we were up in Canberra,” said Robbie McEwen, at 39 one of the team’s elder statesmen and set to embark on his 17th and final season as a pro. “So it hasn’t all been fun and games.”
A day to remember
The key date for GreenEdge was December 5, when a fax came through to the team’s European headquarters in Varese, Italy, from the UCI, informing them their WorldTour license application had, after almost 18 months’ hard graft, been approved. Theirs and RadioShack-Nissan-Trek’s were the final two licenses to be awarded by the sport’s governing body, making for a total 18 ProTeams in next year’s WorldTour peloton.
It meant that GreenEdge would receive automatic entry to the 27-events on the 2012 WorldTour calendar — and, most importantly for the fledgling outfit, a historic start at the Tour de France.
Recalls Bannan of his initial sentiments: “It was about midnight on the evening of the 5th (of December). I received a call from Italy, from our administrator, informing me a fax had arrived. There were certainly mixed emotions; relief was one of those, because we’ve worked pretty hard in the last 10 months to achieve WorldTour status.
“But then the mind started ticking over as to the new expectations. And now we can really focus on the team, as opposed to the process. So it’s really making sure we’re ticking all the boxes in terms of the professional support we can provide the cyclists to have a successful team, on the bike and off the bike. We’ve always said sustainability is one of our big objectives with this team. So now we have a real opportunity to put something together quite special and unique.”
Speaking of sustainability, despite Ryan’s deep pockets — his personal worth has been estimated at $180 million — it is common knowledge GreenEdge has been chasing a co-title sponsor the past six months; a chase augmented by virtue of Evans’ victory at this year’s Tour, which the team was hoping to piggyback off. Is Bannan disappointed one still hasn’t come through, particularly in a year that an Australian wins the Tour de France for the first time?
“We are certainly talking and are in discussion — and still are in discussion — with several companies,” Bannan told VeloNews.
“But it was always going to be difficult selling a project, because we didn’t actually get the license till last week. But now, I think, we’re really going to concentrate on the brand, GreenEdge. And we believe in the next few months we will have successful discussions to have a partner come on board in 2013.”
In other words, unless it says GreenEdge, do not expect to see any other logo on the jerseys and shorts of these boys — and girls, for they also announced a 10-rider women’s squad this week —at their maiden WorldTour race, the Santos Tour Down Under January 15-22.
How the seed was sown
Bannan also said that unlike the ill-fated Pegasus project — a venture that failed before it had even begun due to a combination of poor timing, back-door dealings that failed to materialize, and over-promises and under-delivery — the strategy behind GreenEdge’s successful bid for a WorldTour license has been thoughtfully prepared and process-driven. And it began with a conversation between two blokes at a Parisian café, on the final stage of the 2010 Tour de France.
“I remember the conversation very well,” Bannan said. “Gerry called me … he was at the Tour de France, I was in Italy; he asked me to come to France to meet him (on) the last Sunday of the Tour — he didn’t really say what it was about.
“Half an hour later he rang me back, saying: ‘I should tell you now so you can prepare — put together a package to start a WorldTour team.’ So that’s what I did, over the next few days.
“We sat down in a coffee shop in Paris. We went over the budget, we went over the objectives; how we were going to manage the first year of achieving the license. But we really took a process (-oriented) approach to it. And, yeah, that’s when the seed was sown.”
Has time flown by or has it been a trial of tenacity?
“Oh, time’s gone by really quickly,” said Bannan, smiling. “We announced the project in January (this year) … I just can’t believe how quickly the period’s gone. It’s flown by way too quickly.”
Proven vs. potential winners
While GreenEdge has its share of heavy hitters — besides Goss and McEwen, there’s Stuart O’Grady, Jack Bobridge, Allan Davis, Simon Gerrans, Cameron Meyer and Pieter Weening, to name a few, along with North Americans Christian Meier and Svein Tuft — the team does not boast a grand-tour contender.
Bannan, however, has repeatedly said chasing such an objective is not on the radar till at least 2015. For the next three years, he says, their focus will be hunting stage wins at WorldTour races — besides Down Under, most particularly in the spring classics and three-week tours —and, following the inevitable retirement of Evans, grooming Australia’s next grand-tour star. Bobridge and Meyer are the likely candidates to figure in this role, although both are yet to show GC-potential in stepping-stone races such as Paris-Nice, Criterium du Dauphiné or Tour de Suisse.
“I see a winning team, with the riders that have already won quite big races in the past couple of years — and I see a potential winning team with the younger riders that we’ve got coming through. So I believe it’s a really good combination,” Bannan said.
Added McEwen, who is set to retire at next May’s Tour of California before taking on a tactical advisory role within the team: “I think the main thing about building a team is getting all those pieces of the puzzle fitting together, and I don’t think we have any missing pieces at the moment.”
Editor’s note: Interviews with selected GreenEdge riders will follow in the coming weeks.