Life beyond cycling: does Drapac’s public image match reality?

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In 2014 Drapac Professional Cycling made the long-awaited step up from the Continental ranks to become Australia’s only Professional Continental team. With the promotion came significant challenges and despite some good results, the team’s opening season at ProConti level didn’t deliver the success it was looking for.

The 2015 season has brought noticeable personnel changes at Drapac, both on and off the bike. So what’s been going on within the team for the past year or so? Where are things headed? And is the team’s transition program everything it’s claimed to be? CyclingTips editor Matt de Neef investigates.

Looking at the Drapac roster for 2015 it’s easy to see that there have been significant changes from last year. Of the 17 full-time riders that started 2014, seven are no longer with the team in 2015. That sort of turnover isn’t unusual at Pro Continental level but the fact the team lost two of its marquee signings — Wes Sulzberger and Jonathan Cantwell — just one year after leaving the WorldTour to join Drapac seems noteworthy.

The change of personnel wasn’t just limited to riders — several key members of staff left at the end of 2014, including sports director Henk Vogels — who is now the CEO of Cranktip Pedals — and chief communications officer Jane Aubrey — who left her position as editor of Cyclingnews Australia to join Drapac.

So what was happening at Drapac in 2014? Was it simply a case of the team struggling to find its feet at the new level? Or was there more to the story?

“Last year was a fairly difficult transition year for us, going from Continental to Pro Continental,” team owner Michael Drapac told CyclingTips. “It was a challenge for a lot of the staff and a challenge for some of the riders as well. It’s like me moving my business operations from Melbourne to Los Angeles — it takes a good two or three years to get it all streamlined and operating smoothly.”

One of the most significant challenges the team faced in 2014 was coping with the demands of racing at a ProContinental level while staying true to the philosophy upon which the team was founded.

Transition program

For most of the team’s 11-year history, it had been comprised almost entirely of full-time students. To quote Michael Drapac, riders “never got selected unless they were doing something [outside of cycling]”. The driving force behind this policy was Michael Drapac’s firm belief in the need for riders to focus on life after cycling; something that’s often neglected in professional cycling teams (and in sport in general).

“It’s inevitable: the door of elite sport closes and it can close for any number of reasons,” Drapac said at the 2014 team launch. “There comes a point in time in the athlete’s career where they must transition and reintegrate back into the real world.”

To this end, Drapac has helped many of his riders with their extra-curricular activities over the years. One such rider was Will Walker.

Walker rode with Drapac in 2012 and 2013 while working his way through a full-time finance degree; a degree that Michael Drapac paid for during Walker’s tenure with the then-Continental team.

“In my opinion what Drapac has done is fantastic. Michael Drapac’s philosophy about education is powerful and he’s been talking about it for a long time now,” Walker told CyclingTips. “Especially now that I’ve got my heart condition, which has become worse, I’m pretty glad that I got a university degree done in the meantime.”

But with the step up to ProContinental level in 2014 came a new challenge for the team.

Drapac riders at the 2014 Santos Tour Down Under teams presentation.
Drapac riders at the 2014 Santos Tour Down Under teams presentation.

A close look at the squad last year revealed that very few riders were enrolled in university or other study. This seemed strange, given the vigour with which Michael Drapac had spoken about the need for riders to build a life outside of cycling.

For Drapac and his team though, it was a case of finding balance.

To satisfy sponsors and attract invites to bigger races, the team would need to be winning races, and often. To do so at a ProContinental level or above, Michael Drapac told CyclingTips, “you can’t have a bunch of 18 to 21-year-old kids.” Older more experienced riders were also required — riders that had likely dedicated themselves to cycling full-time at the expense of study or other off-the-bike endeavours.

For Drapac, it proved difficult in 2014 to strike that balance between heightened expectations of victory and the team’s philosophy of supporting riders beyond cycling. Not least because the team and its owner had been so vocal about that philosophy.

“Everyone in sport has a duty, a responsibility, to ensure that that difficult process … of transitioning and reintegrating is as painless as possible,” Drapac said at the 2014 team launch. “We need to invest the resources, the time and the real heart and soul into assisting those athletes. Otherwise we’ve just exploited them.”

Supporting riders?

CyclingTips has spoken to several individuals involved with the team in 2014 who believe that the team failed to deliver on its promises of supporting athletes. Michael Drapac disagrees with such claims.

Two individuals we spoke to agreed to be quoted on the condition that they wouldn’t be identified, and will be referred to simply as Rider A and Rider B. Both riders were dropped from the team for 2015.

“I was there … and I saw the tears,” said Rider A, speaking of Drapac’s speech at the 2014 team launch in which the team owner spoke long and emotively about the need to support riders as people, not just athletes. “What I saw later on didn’t support that whatsoever.”

When asked whether anyone at the team had spoken with him about life beyond cycling while at Drapac in 2014, Rider B said “No not really, no-one did.”

Rider A said that life after cycling was mentioned just once in his time at the team.

“It was touched on in our individual meetings; what we wanted to [do] post-cycling, very briefly,” Rider A said. “A couple of minutes, in the course of a race programme meeting for the year.”

“After that it was never spoken about again. There was nothing.”

We put these concerns to Michael Drapac.

“What I would throw back at those riders is that the philosophy was impressed on them and they knew that we were there as a resource to help them,” Drapac said. “They knew whatever they were doing, the racing program would accommodate them in a very serious way.”

“A lot of them, we found, you could lead them to water but they didn’t drink. What we’re doing now we’ve done very much in the past, but we’re putting more structure to it because I don’t think leaving the riders to their own devices necessarily works.”

Michael Drapac gives his speech at the 2015 team launch in Adelaide.
Michael Drapac gives his speech at the 2015 team launch in Adelaide.

Bigger and better

Speaking to Michael Drapac it’s clear that the team’s transition program is “going to be beefed up” in 2015. In the lead-up to the 2015 season each Drapac rider attended a two-day workshop to help them understand that, as Michael Drapac says, “transition begins now” and not at the end of their career. From there a one-on-one interview with a career counsellor helped each rider to create an individual transition program.

According to Michael Drapac the amount of time the riders will spend with consultants throughout the season will vary.

“One rider might spend 40 or 50 hours,” Drapac said. “There’ll be a couple that probably only do the two-day workshop and that’s it.”

But options are there for riders that want or need guidance when it comes to the next step in their career.

“They’ve had lectures on setting up small businesses, they’ve had lectures on investing in property, they’ve had lectures on becoming trainers, they’ve had lectures on becoming coaches,” Drapac said. “So they’re able to choose areas they’re interested in and whatever they’re interested in we feed that interest.”

Each rider will be given a mentor for 2015, to oversee the execution of their individual transition program. The key, according to Michael Drapac, is to get the ball rolling on other endeavours outside cycling so that when a rider’s time in racing comes to an end, they can easily transition to “normal” life.

Winning isn’t everything?

Another challenge for Drapac Pro Cycling in 2014, according to some riders on the team, was an apparent disconnect between the team’s philosophy about winning races and the application of that philosophy. In both his 2014 and 2015 launch speeches Michael Drapac spoke long and passionately about the need to measure success as more than just the number of races you win.

“Ask Browny [Graeme Brown] — he’s got two [Olympic] gold medals — they’re special but you forget the win. It’s a very short moment; they don’t endure,” Drapac said. “Of course we all want to win the gold medal. [But] sustainable and enduring success must be achieved, and can only really be achieved, on a deep foundation of ethics and broader values.

“For us, they’re our metrics. You’ll forget how many races you won and how much money you made, but you’ll never forget those enduring memories. You’ll never forget those people’s lives you’ve changed. And they’re the things that count.”

Several riders CyclingTips has spoken to believe this philosophy was put to one side throughout the season.

“The team portrays … this image of not 100% going after the win. ‘Winning isn’t everything,’” Rider A told CyclingTips about the 2014 season. “But it was completely different through the year.”

Wouter Wippert wins stage 6 of the 2015 Santos Tour Down Under, the team's biggest-ever win.
Wouter Wippert wins stage 6 of the 2015 Santos Tour Down Under, the team’s biggest-ever win.

Rider B provided some more specific information.

“From the very first race of the year [the New Zealand Cycling Classic] we got roused on by Michael because we didn’t perform well enough in a prologue time trial where we finished three in the top 10. And that wasn’t the only instance throughout the year.”

“At the Tour of Adelaide there was yelling and screaming,” Rider B continued. “We’d won a stage and were leading — and we did f**k up in that race and we should have won it — but it certainly didn’t feel like [‘winning isn’t everything’] was the philosophy.”

“If they’re going to rouse on us like that and put that pressure on us then at the team launch they shouldn’t be saying that [it’s not all about winning]. Because that wasn’t how it was as a rider.”

We put these criticisms to Michael Drapac.

“That’s a cop out. I got angry because there were a lot of riders who thought ‘why should we have to ride hard?’,” Drapac said. “If you look at the most ethical company in the world … they can have the most progressive social responsibility agenda but if they don’t make money, they don’t exist.

“The issue is that we were in advanced discussions with two sponsors and as a result of what was happening on the ground in Australia [at the Tour of Adelaide] I lost contact and then they just weren’t interested, after they saw the performance in Australia.

“It’s not satisfactory if you’re going to NRS [National Road Series] races and you’ve got WorldTour riders and you’re getting a spanking. We had a budget which was more than all the NRS teams put together — and yet we had our pants pulled down. That’s not sustainable.”

Athletes as people

For Rider A and Rider B, the way they were told that their contract wouldn’t be renewed for 2015 was also cause for disappointment. Both felt that the team failed to deliver on promises of caring about its “athletes as people” and that claims like “Our athlete’s wellbeing is as important as any race” weren’t true.

“I was sent an email saying I wasn’t needed for next year. That was all I got,” Rider A told CyclingTips. “After that I didn’t hear from anyone on the team about how I was going to … continue my cycling career or what I was going to do after my cycling career.”

“It did surprise me there was so little support for me. You expect that from some teams, but in this team that has always prided itself in supporting riders after cycling, there was nothing whatsoever.”

Rider B was left feeling similarly disillusioned.

“My exit from the team might have been a two-sentence paragraph in an email. There wasn’t any of this ‘we care for our riders; we really want to know where they’re going and look after them after cycling’ or anything like that,” Rider B told CyclingTips.

“It was a reflection of the whole year to be honest. It was really disappointing. It’s such a great group of guys and the manifesto is fantastic. But it just isn’t executed as well as it could be.”

The Drapac riders assembled on stage during the 2015 team launch.
The Drapac riders assembled on stage during the 2015 team launch.

Moving on

So are these sentiments from former riders a case of “sour grapes”? Or is there indeed discord within the team, and a disconnect between the public image Drapac Pro Cycling has built for itself and the reality inside the team?

It’s hard to know for certain while standing on the outside. But, after many conversations with reliable sources it’s clear the team had a very challenging year in 2014, both internally and on the results sheet. Indeed Cycling Quotient has Drapac as the second-worst-performing ProConti team of 2014.

This season appears to be headed in a more promising direction though. Despite losing Wesley Sulzberger and Jonathan Cantwell in the off-season the team has bolstered its line-up for 2015. According to Michael Drapac the signing of veteran sprinter Graeme Brown is the biggest recruiting coup in the team’s history, while the addition of Martin Kohler (formerly BMC), Tim Roe (formerly Budget Forklifts and BMC), and promising sprinter Brenton Jones (formerly Avanti) are also exciting developments.

The team also has two UCI wins to its name already this year: Wouter Wippert’s final-stage win at the Santos Tour Down Under — the biggest win in the team’s history — and Will Clarke’s win in the Jayco Herald Sun Tour prologue.

The team will be hoping it can continue its winning ways as the season rolls on and catch the attention of race promoters around the world.

“We didn’t get an invite to Tour de Langkawi or Qatar or Oman this year … and that’s probably because we didn’t perform on the bike to the level which was commensurate with that level of invitation,” Drapac told CyclingTips. “If the team is going to continue to grow … and we’re going to command invitations from the races which we need to help us promote our business you just have to improve on the bike. And that doesn’t mean at the expense of your other values.”

One race the team did get an invite to is the Tour of California; a coup for Drapac and his largely US-based real estate business. But before then the team will contest the Oceania Championships this weekend and then a suite of international races, including the Tour of Taiwan, the Tour of Turkey and the Tour of the Gila.

Beyond this year, the team and its owner have ambitions of joining the WorldTour by 2018. For Michael Drapac, making that next step up is not an issue of money.

“Financially, I can write the cheque tomorrow but you’ve got to do it organically,” Drapac told CyclingTips. “We’ve got to get all the elements right.”

Of course one of those elements is the team’s signature transition program.

“I think by this time next year our transition program will be very impressive,” Drapac said. “I think at the end of the day we’re doing a lot more than anybody else.”

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