Avanti Racing Team: Middle-Earth and beyond…

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The Avanti/Genesys/Praties team has been one of Australia’s most successful development squads and they’ve taken a new turn by registering the team in New Zealand. Aaron Lee speaks to Andrew Christie-Johnston about their strategy behind this decision as well as the new talent they’ve identified to help them achieve their goal of one day reaching the WorldTour.

The Taswegian tandem of Andrew Christie-Johnston and Steve Price have spent the better part of the past 15 years hell-bent on developing a pathway for aspiring Australian professional cyclists to reach the elusive ranks of the UCI ProTour.

Since the inception of the Avanti Racing Team in 2000, then aptly named Praties after the potato-based fast-food franchise owned by both Christie-Johnston and Price, the team has won an unprecedented five straight Australian Subaru National Road Series titles, producing three straight series champions, and sending a staggering seven riders to the WorldTour.

Under the tutelage of Christie-Johnston and Price, Team Sky riders Richie Porte and Nathan Earle, as well as Garmin-Sharp cyclists Nathan Haas and Steele von Hoff have all called a version of the Avanti Racing Team home. Most recently, U23 world time trial champion Campbell Flakemore (BMC Racing Team) and 2013 NRS champion Jack Haig (Orica-GreenEdge) have taken than next giant leap and add to Avanti’s growing list of prestigious alumni.

With the team’s domination of Aussie cycling now complete, the only thing left for the Continental team to do is venture abroad in search of greener pastures and fresher talent pools.

Enter New Zealand

In September, the Avanti Racing Team officially registered across the Tasman in hopes of securing greater commercial support and attracting the nation’s best young cyclists in a bid to continue its migration toward Pro-Continental status and beyond.

“One of the things we are most proud of is sending seven riders to the WorldTour,” Christie-Johnston told CyclingTips while visiting the 2015 team’s first training camp at The Watts Factory in New South Wales last week. “But for us to continue developing athletes for the next level it’s important for us to get them to key races.

“We race mainly in Asia, and it seems the race organisers are only interested in inviting one team from your region. So for example we lost out on the Tour of Taiwan (UCI 2.1) last year when Drapac, who is a Pro-Conti team, got the nod.

“In 2015 there are another two or three Australian teams applying for Continental status which will bring the total of teams applying to many of these Asian races to five or six.”

Avanti officials have made no secret their desire to take the next step, but admit that jump comes with a hefty price tag they are not currently in a position to pay.

“It takes about a $2 million (AUD) budget to go Pro-Conti and that’s a massive step up,” Christie-Johnston told CyclingTips. “We are probably about $1.5 million short of that total. At Pro-Conti, everyone on the team, riders and support staff, are paid a minimum wage and at the moment we do not have that ability to fund everyone.”

According to Christie-Johnston, he would like to secure another $300,000 annually to make life easier at the Continental level, and in the increasingly crowded and competitive Australian market he has identified New Zealand as the team’s next best option to grow.

“Only a few years ago there were no Pro-Conti or WorldTour teams in Australia and now there is one of each,” he said. “You can’t speak to potential sponsors about having the first team in the Tour de France because it has already happened in Australia.

“But it has not in New Zealand and we just need to get a commercial partner on board that would like to see a team in the Tour and these are the steps we have identified we need to take to find that commercial partner and help us make that happen.”

Under the current UCI rules for Continental country registration, a team must roster more than half of its squad from national riders, meaning of Avanti’s new 16-man line-up, nine are from New Zealand, including returning riders Joe Cooper and Taylor Gunman, as well as new signees including multiple NRS stage winner Patrick Bevin, reigning junior track world champions Luke Mudgeway and Regan Gough, 2009 team sprint world champion Cameron Karwowski and Commonwealth Games pro triathlete Tom Davison.

Transitions

With an influx of new faces, including seven Kiwis, the dynamics within the team could change but it’s not anything Christie-Johnston sees as a potential disruptive catalyst within the squad’s history of championship chemistry.

“Everyone got along really good at the team’s first training camp,” Christie-Johnston told CyclingTips on Monday. “In fact, during most training rides the Aussies could be found gas-bagging with the Kiwi riders more often than not.

“That being said there was an impromptu race between the two sides during the camp’s training ride on the last day,” Christie-Johnston added, admitting the New Zealanders got the better of the Aussies over the final climb.

With such a talented group of Kiwis on the squad, including reigning NRS champion Cooper and powerhouse Bevin, who spent four seasons in the US with Bissell Pro Cycling before joining Search2Retain last season and capturing wins at both the National Capital Tour and the Tour of Tasmania, it might be easy to overlook some of the other newcomers including Davison.

The former triathlete-turned-roadie is not the first multisport athlete Avanti has taken a gamble on with Porte also sharing a similar triathlon background.

Unlike Porte and Earle, who both dabbled in triathlon, Davison spent six years deeply entrenched with the New Zealand national team at both the junior and senior elite levels. The former ITU World Cup participant and Olympic hopeful even spent a year on the non-drafting half-Ironman circuit before returning to Olympic draft-legal racing to represent his country at the Commonwealth Games in July.

New Avanti signee, and former NZ triathlete, Tom Davison.  “Davison is very good on the bike,” Andrew Christie-Johnson said. “His numbers are some of the best we have ever had on the team." Image courtesy of Triathalon.org
New Avanti signee, and former NZ triathlete, Tom Davison. “Davison is very good on the bike,” Andrew Christie-Johnson said. “His numbers are some of the best we have ever had on the team.” Image courtesy of Triathalon.org

“I took a shot at the New Zealand road nationals last year, and did OK,” a modest Davison told CyclingTips, referring to his shockingly close third-place finish to 2014 road race champion Hayden Roulston (Trek Factory Racing) and runner up Jack Bauer (Garmin-Sharp) in January. “It was after that race I began to seriously think that a career in cycling had some legs.”

Coming off an injury in Glasgow, Davison realised it was now or never to make the switch and reached out to Avanti to join the team.

“Although I was 100 per cent focused on triathlon last year, cycling was still there in the back of my mind,” confided Davison. “I got injured at the CommGames and had to have some time off and that helped me make the decision to dive head first into the new sport.”

According to Christie-Johnston, who had very little data on the Girona-based Davison, his results at nationals coupled with his Strava reports made quite an impression on the veteran sports director.

“Davison is very good on the bike,” he said. “His numbers are some of the best we have ever had on the team.

“I’m not a massive Strava follower but it was hard to find out what he had been doing because he has really only done a handful of bike races before. But if you look at his profile on Strava you will see he owns several records on the climbs around Girona and there are several current Grand Tour riders on the list below him.”

While Davison does not rule out a return to triathlon, particularly Ironman down the road, he is no hurry to return to early morning swim training anytime soon.

“If I never do another brick session again, it will be too soon,” said the 24-year-old from Christchurch, who is known for his powerful swim stroke. “That being said, in joining a team as successful as Avanti, I feel that I have literally stepped off into the deepest end of the pool possible.

“I am just really grateful to be on this team and I just need to sit back and be respectful to the guys that have been around and learn from them.

“I know I will always get some ‘friendly’ comments about my triathlon background, but luckily I have some pretty thick skin.

“Ultimately, it’s a great group of guys on this team and I look forward to learning the ropes and contributing where I can.”

Paying dividends

Avanti did not have to wait long to see its alliance with New Zealand pay off, with the team already granted a return slot to the same Tour of Taiwan that rejected them last year in favour of Australian rival Drapac.

According to Christie-Johnston, the team should also receive word early in the new year on whether it will also receive an invite from Le Tour de Langkawi as well.

“We are still awaiting word from Langkawi, but the Tour of Taiwan has given us an early word that we will be back next year, so the New Zealand registration is already paying for itself and given us a race that we missed out on last year,” he said. “Straight away, bang!”

The Tour of Taiwan is expected to apply for 2HC the following year, which Christie-Johnston is also eager to race.

“I was gutted to miss Taiwan last year and we already got that,” he said. “Hopefully Langkawi comes off for us, too.”

Like last season, Avanti is expected to travel to Korea, Japan and China for 2015, but according to Christie-Johnston, the biggest race of the year could be the 183.7km road race at the New Zealand nationals in Christchurch (9-11 Jan).

“We are looking to go Pro-Conti and a big tick for us would be trying to win the New Zealand road title,” Christie-Johnston admitted. “It’s really hard because you have those pros there but this year we have a good mix of riders and I think we have an opportunity.

“To win that jersey and have a rider wear that silver fern throughout the year will mean a lot in our campaign to take the next step to hopefully one day reaching the WorldTour.”

The 2015 Avanti Racing Team includes:

Patrick Bevin (NZL), Jason Christie (NZL), Joseph Cooper (NZL), Thomas Davison (NZL), Ben Dyball (AUS), Anthony Giacoppo (AUS), Fraser Gough (NZL), Regan Gough (NZL), Taylor Gunman (NZL), Cameron Karwowski (NZL), Scott Law (AUS), Mitchell Lovelock-Fay (AUS), Luke Mudgeway (NZL), Mark O’Brien (AUS), Patrick Shaw (AUS) and Neil Van Der Ploeg (AUS).


Aaron S. Lee is the former editor of Cyclist Magazine and 220 Triathlon, and is currently a cycling columnist for Eurosport Australia and guest contributor to CyclingTips.

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