“When a rider joins the team it’s with the idea of making it to the highest level, that’s a common dream. That’s the rider’s dream, and that’s my dream.
Cycling is all about dreams. Dreaming of the Tour, dreaming of Roubaix, or simply dreaming of rolling along the Mediterranean coastline from Monaco to San Remo. For the riders that “make it”, they get to live the dream. But often overlooked are those that help make these dreams come true. Parents, partners and coaches all play their part, and every rider knows they couldn’t have done it without the support of others.
As co-manager for the Avanti Racing Team, Andrew Christie-Johnston is one of these unsung heroes. But it’s not all beer and skittles for team directeurs — if anything, time away from family, time away from work and having the dreams of 16 young riders resting in your hands weighs heavily.
Avanti Racing has had a tremendous time in recent years assisting riders to make the next step. Nathan Earle is now the team’s fifth rider to join the WorldTour following Steele Von Hoff, Nathan Haas, Will Clarke and Richie Porte. The success has continued of late with the team landing a staggering five riders into the seven-man UniSA national team for the Tour Down Under.
Born out of Hobart, Tasmania in 2000, the team has evolved from a state level outfit, to one that tackled the National Road Series (NRS) soon after. Now Avanti are a strong continental outfit seeking to move into the professional continental ranks, a goal that seems appropriate given its achievements of late.
The biggest problem for this feel-good story, however, is ensuring that the chapters keep coming. Despite landing five WorldTour contracts, notching up 23 UCI stage and tour victories in just the past three years, winning the overall team NRS ranking for the last four years and claiming the individual ranking four times in the last five years, the team has come markedly close to folding twice since 2011. The question is, why?
“Me and bike riding? I was no exceptional bike rider”
Andrew Christie-Johnston, known to his mates as ACJ, co-manages Avanti Racing Team alongside fellow Taswegian Steve Price. Price works on sponsorships and does an incredible amount of work behind the scenes as well as the odd stint as directeur sportif (DS). Christie-Johnston is the main DS, previously a coach and generally the man in the car screaming obscenities when you get it wrong, or the man in the bar buying you a beer if you get it right.
As a sportsman who was admittedly “pretty reasonable at everything but great at nothing,” Christie-Johnston fell in love with the sport of cycling at the age of 18. Previously a state level swimmer and soccer player he found his niche in Tasmania’s rich track cycling scene, even adding a wheelrace victory to his palmares.
Having followed his engineering career from Hobart to Sydney and back his sporting endeavours lapsed, but after watching riders on the Tasmanian circuit continually get trounced by the Tasmanian Institute of Sport, he decided to throw his hat in the ring.
“When we started Praties we realised that there was not much structure in cycling in Tasmania — there was only the Tasmanian Institute of Sport (TIS) and they only had so many spots and they tended to focus on the younger riders,” Christie-Johnston told CyclingTips.
“We found that there were a lot of riders around the 22 years of age onward mark that the institute weren’t interested in and we thought it would be nice to be able to get some of these riders together and ride as a team.”
The original Praties team name originates from the Tasmanian baked potato chain of the same title. Upon his return from Sydney Christie-Johnston opened up his own store as part of what was a growing franchise, and after showing a knack for the humble spud he ended up buying out the other partners.
Christie-Johnston now finds himself running the Derwent Park store with his wife Tracey, Price and Price’s wife Jo. The biggest plus to this arrangement is the steady flow of baked potatoes that team members enjoy during winter training camps in Hobart and the synergy between these four who are all crucial to operation of the team.
While Avanti has now struck an arrangement with Mark Fenner from the Watts Factory to coach and monitor the progress of riders, that was also the domain of Christie-Johnston in years gone by. ACJ has coached every one of the five riders who stepped up to the big league — and many more — and he credits the success of his approach to the type of training he practised in his swimming days.
“I was self-coached on the bike but I had a bigger background of being coached properly — in my mind — from swimming,” he said. “I was just stunned that people would just ride their bikes, whereas in swimming there was detail in everything that you did. I got interested in that side and never really returned to racing after that.”
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to be prepared to research”
During both his engineering and potato-baking days Christie-Johnston followed cycling avidly, watching as many races on TV as he could. Between the ages of 18 and 30 he took a great interest in the team tactics of cycling and wanted to use them to help his Praties members overcome the TIS.
“I had a massive interest in cycling and everything you watch on television is team orientated. In Tassie we always had to watch the same 12 individuals race the TIS and if you want to be competitive and have a bit more fun you really needed to get a team together,” added Christie-Johnston.
“Once we became more successful than the TIS and started beating them regularly we thought we would challenge ourselves and go see what the National Road Series was all about. We got a rude shock.”
Fast forward to the present and one of Christie-Johnston’s most impressive achievements is his tactical nous, and it comes despite never having raced beyond state level on the road. His secret, however, is simple: watch television, lots of television.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to be prepared to research. It’s not a hard job,” explained Christie-Johnston. “You can be in a team car at WorldTour level, or be there yourself as a rider, but you’re only seeing it from one perspective. With the great TV viewing that we have of some of the biggest races in the world you can just literally spend years and years watching bike races.”
And that’s exactly what Christie-Johnston did.
“You can analyse the tactics and strategy behind every race, you can learn so much just from that,” he said. “Whereas the rider, he might just have one role all the time and I know from my own team that a rider’s perspective can be so different to what happened in reality. They can only see so much themselves, and the DSs again, we can only see so much. But the audience out there get to see everything.”
And because Christie-Johnston hadn’t raced extensively on the road, he used his TV research as a knowledge base instead.
“Because I knew that I hadn’t been the best rider and competed in the best events, that if I wanted to be the best strategy wise that the only way I could do it was to sit back and be far more analytical,” he said. “I looked at some races with replay after replay after replay just to see the crucial decisions being made.”
“The Lance Armstrong bomb dropped”
While his riders were making the crucial decisions out on the road, Christie-Johnston and Price were helping forge crucial decisions in boardrooms throughout the country in an effort to ensure their team would survive.
As Christie-Johnston explains, timing is everything and with the team left without key financial backing late in both the 2012 and 2013 seasons, they twice had to switch their ambitions from upgrading from Continental to Professional Continental to simply surviving.
“We would like to have seen us go ProContinental by now and we thought when Genesys signed on with us [from 2010-2012] and then AMP took them over (and because AMP’s marketing budget is absolutely massive) that we may achieve it,” Christie-Johnston said.
Initially AMP were asking Price how much he would need to match ‘that GreenEdge team’. Obviously things were looking good, but in the end, it wasn’t to be.
“We had very good contacts in Genesys in 2012 and we had the right people pushing to try and get us that budget from one of the biggest firms in Australia,” he continued. “We thought we were on the right track and it was looking good but things changed in Genesys — the CEO that we were dealing with departed and that was a massive blow.”
Unfortunately for Christie-Johnston and Price, the worst of 2012 was yet to come. In the end it was the blowback from the misdeeds of others that had the most profound effects on the team.
“Right in those mid-year months of 2012 when we were having these important meetings the Lance Armstrong bomb dropped and it basically just stopped us dead,” lamented Christie-Johnston.
AMP sought to distance themselves and the professional continental dream had to be shelved for another year.
Click here to read part two of this two-part story.
About the author
Jonathan ‘Jono’ Lovelock has raced with a variety of Australian national teams, various continental teams and travelled the world a few times over, and is still just 24 years of age.
While trying to find constructive ways of procrastinating during his commerce degree Jono discovered the art of blogging and the rest is history. When not busy riding he was writing and what started as nothing more than a fleeting foray has snowballed into regular features with RIDE Cycling Review and full-time employment with Cyclingnews.com.
Now a free agent again Jono is busily preparing himself for a return to racing, but not without the odd story in between.
Disclosure statement: Jono Lovelock has ridden for the Genesys/Avanti setup for several years and is still listed on the Avanti team page while in rehab from an injury he sustained late last year.