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It’s becoming more popular for Australians to go and race domestically in the UK, with teams such as Rapha-Condor-JLT and Raleigh-GAC seemingly taking on a handful of Australian recruits every year. Jono Lovelock spoke with three such Aussies – Mark O’Brien, Lachlan Norris and Sam Witmitz – to find out about the allure of moving to the UK and what the future might hold for these Aussie adventurers.
When we head out on a group ride with mates, there is generally only one thing on our minds. When we don glasses that match our helmets, we make sure they also match our kit, shoes and bike. We may be aware of the self-delusion, but we allow ourselves to dream. We dream of being Pro.
We dream of European roads. When it’s raining we project our idealistic vision of muddy Flemish cobbles. When the sun’s out we go back to the great lakes and falling leaves of Lombardia, or maybe even Alpe d’Huez. But there is one place we don’t think of: Britain.
Miserable weather, bad roads and sometimes-dodgy food leave many of us feeling sympathetic for the poor cyclists who live there. But in 2013 three brave Aussies returned to the motherland to pick up where their convict ancestors left off more than two centuries ago. Mark O’Brien, Lachlan Norris and Sam Witmitz have all put pen to paper and now find themselves living in a dapper little cottage in Derby, riding for Team Raleigh-GAC.
Finding a new home
Mark O’Brien and Sam Witmitz come to the team from Horsham in Victoria having ridden for a number of teams together, including the Malaysian LeTua team and, more recently, the Australian Budget Forklifts team.
Twenty-seven-year-old Witmitz will be in his element in the British criteriums as he is a noted lead-out man and sprinter. Last year he won the sprint jersey at the Tour of Southland in New Zealand and in 2010 he was third in the prologue of the UCI 2.2 Tour de Kumano in Japan.
Although two years younger than Witmitz, O’Brien is the more experienced of the two. It was O’Brien who pushed Witmitz towards sprinting after challenging Witmitz to a max wattage test many years ago. Equipped with jeans, sneakers and a stiff set of legs after a lengthy car tip, Witmitz crunched out close to 2000 watts. The numbers were so good O’Brien performed a calibration to confirm his Powertap was reading correctly. It was.
O’Brien himself did the rounds at the Victorian Institute of Sport and then Drapac Pro Cycling only to have his first proper European contract fall to bits. He was signed to a promising new Italian project for the 2010 season that subsequently folded at the last minute and O’Brien has been left picking up the pieces ever since. A recent season spent traipsing the worst places Eastern Europe has to offer with a Greek team left O’Brien rather “under-enthused”.
The third rider I spoke to, Lachlan Norris, is another Victorian journeyman who has chased various road and MTB goals with extreme tenacity. Norris has been a national representative on the knobbly tyres and came ever so close to Olympic MTB selection last year.
Norris picked up a stagiare role (a mid-season amateur signing) with HTC-Columbia only to have the team announce its cessation the very same year. Having closed out 2012 with a victory in the hilly Tour of Tasmania for Drapac Pro Cycling (with O’Brien in 2nd just 17 seconds behind), “Nockers” has shown great potential.
And there’s a fourth Aussie on Team Raleigh-GAC in 2013: Richard Lang. Unlike O’Brien, Norris and Witmitz, Lang has already spent a year racing in the UK, having been part of the Rapha-Condor-Sharp (now Rapha-Condor-JLT) squad in 2012. Before moving to the UK Lang rode for two seasons as part of the Jayco-AIS team and before that, in 2009, as part of the Budget Forklifts squad.
An Australia connection
The main focus of Team Raleigh-GAC’s season is a series of criterium races from May to July. Known as the Tour Series criteriums these events enjoy prime-time television coverage and draw crowds of up to 30,000. Witmitz has even been told that these races “are like riding through the middle of a night club”.
With a focus on crit racing and one-day classics, the domestic scene in the UK is similar to that in Australia. According to Witmitz, this should make it easy for Australian riders like himself to make the transition to the UK:
“When you look at Aussie guys that have raced domestically in the UK in the past – Zak Dempster, Dean Windsor, Darren Lapthorne – they have all had a lot of success here and I think that is what is appealing to UK pro teams.”
Lachlan Norris adds that it’s also much easier to convince Australian riders to move to Britain than it is to convince equivalent European riders. After all, why would a Belgian rider chasing his WordTour dreams move to Britain?
“I think Australian riders generally work pretty well in teams. I also think there are a lot of Aussies trying to venture over to Europe which makes them more attainable. But it [the reason behind signing Australian riders] could be more of a deep-rooted, wanting-to-have-some-‘colonials’-to-boss-around-like-the-good-ol’-days motivation …”
A calculated risk
On paper, the prospects for Team Raleigh-GAC in 2013 are good. The riders are reimbursed well enough to live comfortably overseas. The team has recently completed a pre-season camp in Mallorca and the riders have just rubbed shoulders with WorldTour Pros at the Tour du Haut-Var in France. There is one looming doubt, however, that hangs over the rider’s heads.
When riders sign a contract they look closely at the team’s proposed calendar for that year. Whether or not the team ends up riding those races is another issue and a calculated risk for riders to take. A rider can base his expectations on races the team has completed in the past, or he can simply take the team’s word that they will be at the races they promise.
The issue at hand is that there is a big difference between a team applying for a race and actually being invited to the race. Because any team can apply, that’s the easy part. But having the sponsors, the riders or the necessary guanxi (connections, more or less) to get an invite is another matter. It’s for this very reason that the WorldTour was created.
The certainty of a WorldTour license means the team is guaranteed a start at WorldTour races and therefore sponsors know when and where they will get exposure. At the continental level, unfortunately, uncertainty permeates the planning of any team’s season.
These questions of uncertainty weighed heavily on the minds of riders such as Luke Davison (Drapac Pro Cycling) and Anthony Giacoppo (Huon-Genesys) who were both faced with the option of a season in Britain. Similarly, Bernard Sulzberger of Uni-SA/Tour Down Under fame decided to return to Australia with Drapac rather than remain with Raleigh for whom he rode in 2012.
Many are wondering why a rider with WorldTour ambitions and the ability of Sulzberger would choose to leave a team seemingly on the brink of bigger things. By many accounts, Sulzberger is one of the most underrated riders at the professional level yet to secure a WorldTour contract.
When asked about this concern O’Brien was quick to exude optimism:
“Raleigh are moving in an upwards trajectory so I’m sure each year they will continue to get more and more starts. The races we already have confirmed are better than last year, and there’s still a few getting worked out. Even if just the races we have confirmed now come through with nothing else it will still be the highest level of racing I’ve ever taken on so I’m fizzing with excitement. Bring it!”
Most riders at a continental level would likely agree with O’Brien here. At the continental level you have little more than a flimsy contract. No minimum wage, no bank guarantees – in general you must take your chances on the goodwill of others. Nonetheless, this is a story common to cyclists of all levels. One only has to look at the current Katusha versus UCI stoush to know that certainty and cycling don’t necessarily go together, even at the WorldTour level.
On the horizon
Aside from the local criterium races all three of the lads I spoke to are looking forward to their various French outings. Keep an eye out for Team Raleigh-GAC at UCI races, including the Circuit Des Ardennes, La Drôme Classic or Les Boucles du Sud Ardèche.
Aside from racing, most Europe-based Pros relish the opportunity to take a week or two off and travel with family and better-halves during their mid-season break. With destinations such as Girona, Monaco, Sierra Nevada, Tuscany and Greece being mentioned by Norris and O’Brien it seems there’s no doubt the lads will attack the second half of their season refreshed and ready to race.
The second half of the season will also bring an end to winter temperatures that most Australians wouldn’t dream of riding in. Such is the cold of the Derby winter that the team’s recent Spanish sojourn had Norris sunbaking in the 15ºC “heat”.
Back in Derby the boys can’t wear enough layers to escape the cold, but clothes shopping and maxed-out credit cards provide a welcome distraction. Not only that, but O’Brien is still enjoying the new experiences the cold climate brings:
“The novelty of training in the snow is still going strong for me. With these big races coming up I’ve been hyper-motivated, so the maximums of 1°C with snow haven’t overly been deterring me from my standard training.”
So here we have four Aussie blokes all shacked up in Britain. Busy training, busy racing, busy chasing their dreams. Their dreams coincide with those of Team Raleigh-GACs management and both parties hope that sooner rather than later, they will all be part of world cycling’s upper echelon.
Many young riders have these ambitions, and many fall short. Yet it’s the process of attempting and possibly achieving that we all tend to overlook. So for Mark, Sam, Lachie and Richard we know they’ll give it their best shot. And to be blunt, we don’t care right now if they make it or not. But that’s only because we know they are going to have a great time wherever they end up. And that’s what being, or not being, a Pro is all about.
To follow the four Australian lads on Twitter, click on the following links: Mark O’Brien, Lachlan Norris, Sam Witmitz and Richard Lang. For something more in-depth from their Raleigh-GAC teammate, check out Rob Britton’s blog.