A team on the brink: Avanti-IsoWhey Sports’ fight for survival

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When it comes to men’s domestic road racing in Australia, there’s little doubt which team is top of the list. Avanti-Isowhey has won the Australian National Road Series (NRS) team classification for the past six years, including this year when it finished with more than three times as many points as its nearest rival.

Perhaps even more impressive than its dominance at local level is Avanti-IsoWhey’s track record in helping riders progress from the domestic ranks to the highest levels of the sport. Will Clarke, Richie Porte, Nathan Earle are just some of the riders to have made that jump, as too are Chris Hamilton and Ben O’Connor who will both join the WorldTour in 2017.

In short: if there was any Australian domestic team that should be immune from the annual struggle of securing sponsorship dollars to survive another season, it would be Avanti-IsoWhey. And yet, as Aaron S. Lee reports, it’s been far from an easy ride to keep the Tasmanian-based outfit alive for the 2017 season.

Just how close did Avanti-IsoWhey come to closing up shop? According to sports director and co-founder Andrew Christie-Johnston, it was down to roughly the same odds as those offered in coin flip.

“I’d say it’s been 50/50,” the man commonly known in the Aussie domestic bike scene as ‘ACJ’ admitted to CyclingTips over the weekend. “It’s been a stressful end of the season, no doubt about that.

“The last few months are always busy this time of year and [that] doesn’t change from one year to the other. And when you don’t have the full budget locked in by now, you start to feel the pressure.

“We feel very responsible to keep this team together and our riders with a job.”

ACJ, along with his business partner and fellow team co-founder Steve Price, has been doing just that – keeping the team together – for 16 years, when the potato-based-fast-food-franchise owners first launched the UCI Continental cycling team under the same name as their restaurant, Praties, in 2000. From their humble Tasmanian roots, the duo cultivated a cycling team that has dominated the NRS for almost a decade and sent nearly a dozen riders to the highest level of the sport.

But now, ACJ and company are frantically looking to fill a massive void left after naming rights sponsor and New Zealand bike manufacturer Avanti decided in June it wouldn’t renew it’s three-year relationship for the 2017 season.

“In cycling, every team has to deal with these same issues, from Continental to WorldTour,” explained ACJ. “When it’s this late in the year, it does make it hard, but Avanti gave us plenty of notice that they would not continue as a naming sponsor. But it’s been very difficult in finding a replacement.”

According to ACJ, Avanti’s decision came down to a lack of ROI (return on investment) in terms of the NRS.

“It’s always hard to know exactly why a sponsor decides to withdraw support,” he said. “We felt we had a pretty good relationship with them, but basically they told us the NRS wasn’t working as well for them – it was the major reason they gave to us.

“We don’t know the pressures behind the scene to reduce their budgets, but the reason given was that the NRS wasn’t giving them the same bang for their buck as in past seasons. At the end of the day, if they can’t find the money, you can’t really blame them.”

Team captain Joe Cooper told CyclingTips it was disappointing to lose the title sponsor given how dominant the team had been.

“It’s definitely a bit depressing when you win all these things and a sponsor decides to turn their back and walk away,” said the former New Zealand national road race and time trial champion, who is fresh off his second NRS individual title in three years. “Like most things, I think it probably just ran its course and I think with the NRS cutting back its schedule and not attracting more media coverage, the sponsorship just didn’t seem feasible.”

With Avanti out, the team is currently down to one principal partner – and one less cash cow – with just over a month until the new calendar year.

“We have IsoWhey Sports on board for another season,” said ACJ. “We are lucky to have a two-year deal with them.

“We can run at a smaller level than what we’ve been doing, but it would be very difficult for us to operate on half the budget. Steve and I still have the passion to do it, but we don’t have the energy.

“With less money, we would have less staff and everything would be that much harder and when you’ve been doing it for 16 years – going on 17 – it would be just too much.”

In 2016, the team operated on a budget of $380,000 to pay for expenses and salaries. Neither ACJ nor Price have ever drawn a salary. The budget is more than adequate by NRS standards, but not so when compared to the many Pro Continental teams Avanti-IsoWhey Sports consistently competes – and wins – against overseas.

“Steve and I hate this time of year, to be honest,” admitted ACJ. “We try to let our riders enjoy the end of the season because they need that break, but we always seem to miss out on that and as soon as it ends – or even before – you have to engage sponsors again and get the UCI paperwork completed …

“Then you have to get the equipment ready for next year, and we only have five or six weeks to go before we start again,” he added. “As far as stress level this time of year really sucks.”

Trouble at home…

One does not have to look far to see the importance of the NRS in the development of young cyclists Down Under. Simply ask 2015 series winner and former Avanti rider Patrick Bevin, who now rides for Cannondale-Drapac.

“My time in the NRS was really important for career development and it was actually a hugely enjoyable experience to be part of,” Bevin told CyclingTips. “The ability to race the NRS and then be accessible to UCI-ranked races in Asia create a season and a path for those who want to take their career to the next level.”

But over the past few seasons, the sport’s national body, Cycling Australia (CA) has struggled financially, causing the NRS to shrivel. Four races have folded — Tour of Murray River, Battle on the Border, Tour of Perth and Tour of Toowoomba. The fallout from the lack of funding and reduction of races is negatively affecting the teams, and this year’s winner of the John Craven Shield for best NRS squad is no exception.

Avanti-IsoWhey’s high-performance coach Mark Fenner of FTP Training, who has twice been nominated as coach of the year by Cycling Australia (2014 and 2016), as well as being named the MTB Australia coach of the year the past two seasons, weighed in with his thoughts on the current state of affairs.

“We are going down to the wire to get the finances together to make it work for next year,” Fenner told CyclingTips. “It’s a crying shame because you can’t win any more races than Avanti.

“But no matter how many races you win, it doesn’t guarantee you are going to get sponsors and at the moment sponsors don’t get coverage. Until we make a series that is a commercially viable prospect for sponsors to be involved, it will continue to be the same.

“However, from my perspective, it would be one of the biggest losses to Australian cycling to lose such a vital, alternative pathway for cyclists to go to the next level. So something needs to change.”

In regard to Fenner’s comments on commercial viability and a lack of coverage, with fewer races there are obviously fewer opportunities for exposure for both the team and – more importantly – the sponsors. This is a fact not lost on ACJ.

“It doesn’t help to have race reductions,” he explained. “If you lose a quarter of it, then potentially you lose a quarter of the media attention.

“Even though we had four races less on the National Road Series this year, as far as what we did at Nationals, Bay Crits, Cadel’s Race and the Herald Sun Tour, we probably created more media attention than we’ve ever received in the NRS.”

However, ACJ is quick to point out that while the NRS is at its lowest point in years, there appears to progress afoot.

“I think we’ve hit rock bottom this year, so it will only get better,” he said. “I think if we can survive, which we are doing, and the other teams can survive, then we can keep chipping away and some positive things [are] on the horizon.

“Every sport in every nation goes through difficult times and it’s hard to know what the reason is at the time, but CA went through a very hard financial situation. I’ve been pretty harsh about some of the lack of communication because I don’t believe you don’t need money for that. I think to be honest and open is the most important thing so that people can deal with things. But things are looking up.

“I’d say in the last couple of weeks there has been some positive talks finally and maybe next year we’ll sort of see some major changes.”

A positive change ACJ quickly points out with the series is the level of organisation at some of the remaining races on the NRS calendar, such as the Tour of Gippsland and the Tour of Tasmania. Both events were organised by GTR Events, which is headed by Orica-BikeExchange owner Gerry Ryan and Bay Cycling Classic founder and Herald Sun Tour director John Trevorrow.

“One big thing about the events we did have was that most of them were pretty damn good quality,” said ACJ. “John Trevorrow with GTR Events ran some fantastic races to UCI standard, and he wants to take on more and get them to the highest level – maybe a few UCI events – and that makes for exciting times ahead.”

Up, up and abroad…

This year, Avanti-IsoWhey was forced to find even more races outside Australia due to limited opportunities in the ever-dwindling NRS calendar. With four races off the schedule this past season, the team sought starts abroad, which included return trips to Asia and an inaugural tour of Europe.

While the European experience cost an additional – and unexpected – $50,000, the opportunity to race on the cobbles in Belgium and France was just too good to pass up.

“With the shorter NRS schedule, we were able to use our budget differently,” explained ACJ. “We were originally slotted for the US, but at the last minute we found someone in Europe that found us a massive amount of starts for us, so we opted for a three-month block in Europe rather than five weeks stateside.”

The number of pro riders who have benefited from the ACJ learning tree is continually growing. Richie Porte, Nathan Haas, Will Clarke, Patrick Bevin, Jack Haig, Nathan Earle, Steele von Hoff and Campbell Flakemore have all moved on to employment in the WorldTour ranks, and this year two more names were added to that illustrious list: Chris Hamilton (SunWeb-Giant) and Ben O’Connor (Dimension Data).

“Every year we seem to get one of our riders to WorldTour,” ACJ said proudly. “This year, we were able to convert two and that was due in large part to our presence in Europe.

“I always thought it was too hard and too scary to go to Europe, because it’s very difficult to get race starts, so we are very thankful to get the starts we did. I think next year we will be looking to go for two or three months again, and when we do, we will do a lot better job.”

ACJ claims a lack of resources off the bike – not talent on it – was to blame for a lack of results.

“It was great racing and we learned a lot ourselves,” he said. “The one-day races on the cobbles, which we did a lot of, was sheer bad luck – we got nothing.

“We didn’t have enough staff to spread up the road with enough spare wheels, so we did it tough … but in our climbing races, Ben O’Connor got third at Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc (UCI 2.2) and got recognised and signed by Dimension Data.”

Former African Wildlife Safaris boss Steve Waite, who served as an Avanti sports director this season before taking an account management position with BikeExchange, was at the helm during the majority of the team’s international races.

“Racing in Europe was not planned in the start of the season,” Waite shared with CyclingTips. “When the NRS fell apart, ACJ reached into his own little special bag of tricks and pulled off the trip to Europe.

“Some of our riders had picked up a race or two in Europe previously, but nothing anywhere near what they experienced from June to August – it was a different experience altogether.

“Our guys hit cobblestones for the first time, and how long did it take Mathew Hayman (Orica-BikeExchange) to break through on cobblestones? It was a few editions of Paris-Roubaix before he won it this year, I assure you.”

The future is now…

With the team looking to secure a naming sponsor, bike partner and a few more riders to add to roster, the sky is not falling at Avanti-IsoWhey HQ. While ACJ remains tight-lipped regarding the names of any potential partners, he assured CyclingTips that an announcement regarding a new commercial naming partner and even a possible merger with an existing NRS team is imminent.

“Unfortunately I have nothing definitive to say,” he said. “But I’m hoping in the next couple of weeks to have something to share on all fronts.”

While a return to Europe is in the works, the team also plans to continue its longstanding relationship with the UCI Asia Tour.

“We love our Asian races,” said ACJ. “For us, we race every race we can get an invite for. We would do more, but it’s a tough market out there to get starts.

“We will still do Tour of Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan – they are all great races. I think we’ve been given a start to the Tour of Azerbaijan, too. For 16 years now, I’ve been applying for Le Tour de Langkawi as we would really love to race there, but it’s pretty hard to get an invite. But maybe one day will get that opportunity.”

When asked about his team’s exclusion from the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race due to its status upgrade from 1.HC to WorldTour, giving them only one remaining international UCI race in Australia (Herald Sun Tour) to start, ACJ was optimistic but guarded.

“[We’re] trying to work on a solution for Cadel’s Race at the moment,” he said. “So, can’t really comment on it just yet.”

With a race programme being tentatively planned, just who may be the ‘next big thing’ to come off the team’s assembly line? Both ACJ and Waite were quick to single out a name.

“Sean Lake is the one,” claimed ACJ. “It’s been a quick rise for him. Third at nationals in the time trial back in January behind Richie Porte and Rohan Dennis, who are both great time trialists, is a massive step.

“Now after having 12 hard months in the legs that we gave him, watch out next year. I think he could most definitely be the next one, but we have so many guys that could be close next year.”

Waite concurs.

“Going forward, keep your eye on Sean Lake going into nationals,” he said of the former rower-turned-cyclist. “He’s super focused. You will see a different looking person, who has transformed into a chiselled weapon.”

As for any remaining doubts on the upcoming season, ACJ is adamant he has none.

“Most all of the pieces are in place,” he concluded. “We’re not quite there, but we’re getting close, and I think we’ve done a very good job of keeping the wheels turning.

“It’s difficult times out there, but I suppose it’s one of those things. In cycling you need the connections and the timing to be right. We’ve got some great new sponsors that we expect to come on board, but I can’t mention them just yet.

“Trust me, we are still going to continue fighting and are looking forward to a very successful 2017.”

About the author

Aaron S. Lee is a pro cycling and triathlon columnist for Eurosport and a guest contributor to CyclingTips.

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