Folding teams and the Conti scene: Is it worth having a Continental license in Australia?

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With every new racing season comes a fresh array of team names and kits for cycling fans to familiarise themselves with. This is true at all levels of the sport, and certainly in the Australian Continental scene. And in 2016, there have been more changes to the Australian Continental scene than in recent memory.

Several of the country’s biggest Continental teams have rebranded, one has gone through an off-shore merger, and others, sadly, have disbanded altogether.

So what does the Australian Continental scene look like in 2016? What do teams get for the not-insignificant cost of registering for a Continental license — road cycling’s third tier of team registrations? And is it worth the cost?

Fresh looks and closing doors

When the Australian summer of racing began in early January, it was with a peloton that bore little resemblance to the one that closed out the previous year. Avanti had ditched its blue and orange colours for black and blue, and IsoWhey Sports had come on board as a co-naming-sponsor. CharterMason Giant, meanwhile, had become State of Matter MAAP, the squad trading its blue, white and red ensemble of 2015 for an eye-catching, mostly cyan outfit.

But the changes to the Australian racing scene in 2016 extend far beyond the names of the biggest teams and the colours they wear.

Towards the end of last year, two of Australia’s biggest Continental teams shut up shop, each citing different reasons for their decision. For African Wildlife Safaris, a team that had raced in Australia’s National Road Series (NRS) since 2012, the decision was a financial one.

“It is with sadness and regret that the African Wildlife Safaris Cycling Team announces that it will not at this point in time be racing in 2016,” a team press release stated in October 2015. “The plan was to search for a major national or international sponsor to enable the team to grow into one of the best funded and operated teams in Australia and the Asian region.

“Despite being close to finding a major sponsor at various stages, the team has been unable to secure such a sponsor.”

Budget Forklifts went 1-2-3 at the 2013 Melbourne to Warrnambool, a great result from a very successful team. (Image: Cycling Victoria)

For Team Budget Forklifts, it was a case of having achieved everything management set out to do, eight years after the setup first started racing in Australia.

“We’ve done the NRS [National Road Series] and we thought in 2012 that was as good as we were ever going to get in terms of results and satisfaction,” team manager Cameron Watt told CyclingTips. “And we did a bit in Asia and the smaller UCI stuff and we ticked that box. And then we had a dabble in the track and we helped those track boys, and that was awesome fun. And then we had a crack at that hour record, and that was an experience …”

Team Budget Forklifts doesn’t exist in 2016, but the title sponsor will continue to be involved in cycling in some capacity — although the organisation remains tight-lipped about the exact details: “There’s a lot of other events on two wheels that we’re looking into heavily at the moment,” Watt said.

Mergers and slim-lining

African Wildlife Safaris and Budget Forklifts aren’t the only teams that decided not to renew their Australian Continental licenses in 2016. The Search2retain team announced in December it would merge with the Taiwanese-based Continental team Attaque Team Gusto and focus on racing in Asia.

“This transition into the Asia Tour has been in process for a number of years and will not be a surprise to anyone who follows the team closely,” an Attaque Team Gusto press release read. “Attaque and Gusto have agreed to remain as the naming sponsors and search2retain (a division of the search sports group) will manage the team.”

Meanwhile, the Perth-based Navitas-Satalyst team also chose not to renew its Continental license, citing exorbitant costs and a limited return on investment. It will continue racing in the NRS as the Satalyst Verve Racing Team in 2016.

“The cost requirement to pay UCI bank guarantees and fund a team [at Continental level] is not really justifiable for the limited amount of racing that we get in Australia that allows you to make use of that,” former team manager Wayne Evans told CyclingTips.

“Last year we did Cadel’s Race and we did the Sun Tour and even though we were the second best domestic team in Australia in the bike race … we barely got a mention on TV. Sponsors are paying significant numbers to run a team and get some publicity when they pay for a Continental license.”

How much?

Registering for a Continental license in Australia costs somewhere in the vicinity of AU$20,000 — $10,000 to the UCI and roughly $10,000 worth of insurance. And that’s not including the mandatory bank guarantee of 20,000 euros (AU$30,000) that’s set aside to be called upon if a team isn’t able to pay riders’ wages later in the season (as has happened in the case of several U.S. Continental teams in recent months). Throw in several hundred dollars for each rider’s racing license and you’re talking about a considerable investment.

But while teams like Navitas-Satalyst have been crippled by the cost associated with a Continental license, others see the cost as well worthwhile.

The St. George-Merida riders were hard to miss at Cadel's Race and the Sun Tour this year.
The St. George-Merida riders were hard to miss at Cadel’s Race and the Sun Tour this year.

St. George Merida made the step up from a club team to the Continental ranks in 2016 as part of a plan to do more international racing. After just two races under the new license — the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and the Jayco Herald Sun Tour — the team believes its money has been well spent.

“There’s a fair bit of money involved but … what we’ve got this year — we’re more than happy with the outcome, after a couple of races,” team manager Brett Dutton told CyclingTips. “Anything else is a bonus for us.”

The team lined up at Cadel’s Race with a simple goal.

“We went there with an attitude of trying to get on TV and we achieved that, and we did the same with the Sun Tour,” Dutton said. “We didn’t go there thinking we were going to win the bike race — you’ve got to know where you’re at in life.

“We had our sponsors texting in … saying ‘How good is this? You’re on TV!’. We can’t get that out of an NRS race. To have five hours of live television [for Cadel’s Race] — that’s outstanding.”

Dutton, a Commonwealth and Olympic Games medalist on the track, believes some Continental teams fall into the trap of making promises to their sponsors that they aren’t able to keep.

“A lot of these teams are over-promising or overstating what their capabilities are and the bottom line is it’s road racing in Australia,” Dutton said. “There is no coverage out the back of Mildura; there is no coverage out the back of Toowoomba. You’ve got to be realistic about what you’re giving back to your sponsor.

“We’re not asking for half a million dollars like some of these teams; we’re not like that. We’ve got a different setup altogether and I like to underpromise and overdeliver. That’s my kind of strategy.”

What you get for your money

The step-up to Continental level, while not without its costs, does provide one major benefit to teams — the ability to take part in higher-level races. Bigger races tend to attract more media coverage, delivering greater value for sponsors.

While club-level teams can race in UCI 1.2 and 2.2 events, stepping up to Continental level makes teams eligible for the next two tiers of racing: UCI 1.1 and 2.1 events, and 1.HC and 2.HC events.

In Australia, this means local teams are all but guaranteed a start in Cadel’s Race and the Jayco Herald Sun Tour should they hold a Continental license. As the manager of the now-defunct Budget Forklifts team, Cameron Watt, told CyclingTips, it also means that Continental teams are able to take part in bigger races overseas, often in Asia.

“The motivation for those moves and to progress to Continental level is so they can go do different racing other than the NRS because they can get more bang for their buck overseas,” Watt said. “They can get treated better, they can get assistance packages to help with [accommodation] or flights or free entry. All of that.

“It’s win-win — it’s cheaper to do those races and it’s better racing.”

According to Brett Dutton of St. George Merida, there are other benefits of racing in Asia as well.

“Not that bike racing’s about money — because you’re in the wrong sport if that’s what you’re after — but seriously, if you go to Asia, you can actually get some money back,” Dutton said. “We did a three-day race in China last year and it’s got US$100,000 prizemoney. The Tour of Singkarak had US$200,000 prize money.”

In 2015, the St. George NRS team took part in three UCI 2.2 stage races as allowed by its club license: the Tour de Banyuwangi (Indonesia), the Tour de Singkarak (Indonesia) and the Tour of Fuzhou (China). The step up to Continental level in 2016 means that, in addition to Cadel’s Race and the Sun Tour, St. George Merida will be able to apply to race in other, higher-level UCI races in Asia.

“My contacts in Asia have said they wanted us to be Continental because they could give us more races,” Brett Dutton said. “So we were doing them before just as a club team and because we had the contacts we made it happen, but it is easier if you become Continental because you move up the ranking a little bit.

“Before we were Continental it was always a last-minute thing — when a Continental team pulled out they’d call us and say “Can you guys fill in?” So we were getting short notice. Now it’s better because we get longer notice before the races.”

The wash-up

After all the changes that took place at the end of last year, there are now four Continental teams registered in Australia 2016: State of Matter MAAP, Data#3 Cisco Racing, St. George Merida and Avanti IsoWhey. This is down from six last year, and inflated somewhat by the return of Avanti which comes back to Australia after a year spent racing under a New Zealand license.

So is the reduction in the number of teams a sign that domestic racing in Australia is on the decline? For Andrew Christie-Johnston, co-owner of Avanti IsoWhey, the answer is no, but the loss of competitive teams is certainly disappointing.

“I don’t really see it as going backwards or forwards [having fewer Continental teams] — I just think that some teams progress and some disappear,” Christie-Johnston told CyclingTips. “It’s always sad to see a few teams disappear and Budget Forklifts has been a long-standing sponsor in cycling … to lose one like that is hard to see and African Wildlife — that was a hard one as well.

“But often those type of sponsors aren’t the result of what we’ve actually accomplished or not in our sport; it’s sometimes about just how their business is travelling.”

Moving forward

With all of Australia’s UCI-classified events now finished for the year, local Continental teams are suring up their plans to head overseas for further international racing. The majority of the racing these teams will do in 2016, however, will be within the Australian NRS.

But with the Tour of Toowoomba and several other races cancelled in recent times, and with persistent rumours that other events might meet the same fate, it’s not clear exactly what the 2016 men’s National Road Series looks like, just months from its commencement.

This uncertainty is playing on the minds of many team directors, including St. George Merida manager Brett Dutton.

“To be honest I haven’t registered in the NRS because I can’t get any answers from Cycling Australia,” Dutton said. “Last year they cancelled two races and we still paid our fee.

“Last year it cost me $4,000 to go to Grafton-Inverell for a one-day race. You can go to Asia for that. So we’ll do more state-based racing [in 2016]. Whether we do many NRS races … nobody knows at the moment because as you know Toowoomba got cancelled, Battle on the Border might get cancelled. So what are we signing up for? I don’t know.”

For Dutton and his St. George Merida team, the cost of a Continental license has proven a worthwhile investment, providing a sense of stability and opportunity in the wake of the NRS’s uncertain future. For other teams, the cost of racing at the Continental level continues to be prohibitive, forcing such teams to rely on the NRS for their racing and to provide value for sponsors.

Australia’s Continental scene is constantly changing as teams wrestle with the ever-present challenge of finding sponsorship money, but the 2016 season has delivered greater change than we’ve seen in recent year years. And with many questions still to be answered about the health of Australia’s domestic racing scene, the next 12 months could prove vital to the future of cycling in the region.

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