Back from the brink: The merger that saved IsoWhey-SwissWellness and the year ahead

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When the Jayco Herald Sun Tour kicks off in Melbourne tomorrow evening, four Australian Continental teams will be there, trying to make the most of their only Australian international race for the year. One of those teams will be IsoWhey Sports-SwissWellness, formerly known as Avanti-IsoWhey — Australia’s most successful Continental team.

Despite everything the team has achieved in recent years, its owners had great difficulty in finding sponsors for the 2017 season. Jamie Finch-Penninger caught up with IsoWhey Sport-SwissWellness co-owner Andrew Christie-Johnston to learn more about the team’s battle for survival and how the team is shaping up for the season ahead.

IsoWhey Sports-SwissWellness is a team that almost didn’t happen. The Continental outfit’s budget was only secured at the 11th hour thanks to a merger with fellow National Road Series team SwissWellness, saving the team from an ignominious end.

“We definitely had a hard time sponsorship-wise,” said Christie-Johnston, “As an Australian continental team it’s hard to find sponsorship. In the end the merge was what allowed us to survive. There’s probably a lot of teams out there in a similar situation. Thankfully it looks like the beginning of a great partnership.

“At the end of the day we were always going to have a good squad if we were around, but it was hard, giving the riders such late notice. That was the scary thing.”

Formerly known as Avanti-Isowhey Sports, the team was put in peril when bike and title manufacturer Avanti dropped out. Melinda and Rick Harper from SwissWellness came to the rescue with a merger that secured the now-joint-squad’s future. It’s a situation that wouldn’t have arisen but for the fluid and at times treacherous dynamic of cycling funding, something that can affect even teams that punch well above their weight, like the seven-time consecutive winners of the National Road Series’ team classification.

“It’s the nature of cycling. At the WorldTour level, they struggle to get their contracts and probably the bigger you are the harder it is,” Christie-Johnston said. “We’re always trying to improve our circumstances but sometimes things are out of your hands. With us, Avanti were bought out by Scott, and Scott sponsor Orica, so ultimately circumstances made it hard for us to renew our contract with Avanti.

“We could have run the team with a lesser budget but we didn’t want to do that. It’s hard to go backwards. It may seem tough – unjustified at times. That’s the sport of cycling.”

Building the sprinting stocks

Securing sponsorship late meant the call for riders was also put out late. But the team still managed to secure a good, all-round group of riders. Particularly exciting will be the sprint combination of Scott Sunderland and Jesse Kerrison, who rank as some of the fastest Australians in a bunch dash, even including WorldTour riders.

“Last year we thought we were short on sprinters,” said Christie-Johnston frankly. “We only had two and with all the racing in Asia, Europe and Australia it was probably a bit much to ask them to step up in all of the races. So now it turns out we’ve got four sprinters.”

Scott Sunderland was renowned in his early years for putting out massive amounts of power on the track. But in his early road career he struggled up the climbs and in the longer races. He’s since become more adapted to the rigours of road racing and has shown that he contest the tough races as well as the easy ones.

“Scott Sunderland was a pretty late signing,” Christie-Johnston said. “We’ve been talking a long time with Scott about joining the team. I wanted to give him every opportunity to sign something with a Pro Conti team and I said I’d keep a spot open for him if he couldn’t.

“So we’ve ended up with four quality sprinters. AJ (Anthony Giacoppo) and Neil van der Ploeg are probably a bit more versatile than Scott and Jesse, whereas those two are more powerful. I think it’s a well-balanced sprint squad and with the difficulty of some of the races we do they’ll work really well together.”

Replacing the promoted

Despite the heavier focus on sprinting this season, IsoWhey Sports-SwissWellness will continue to develop domestically based climbers after having names like Richie Porte, Nathan Haas and Nathan Earle all making the jump from the team into the WorldTour. Last year, the squad continued that trend having strong climbers Ben O’Connor and Chris Hamilton picked up by Dimension Data and Sunweb respectively.

“Climbing-wise last year we were good without being great,” Christie-Johnston said. “It’s difficult — you always want to improve what you’ve got and the two best climbers in the team we lost to WorldTour. It’s fantastic but very hard to replace.”

Cameron Bayly leads the acquisitions and he impressed immediately at the Nationals taking fourth in the road race, sprinting to the line just behind Simon Gerrans (Orica-Scott) and Nathan Haas (Dimension Data).

“I’ve been trying to get Cam onto my team for maybe three or four years now,” said Christie-Johnston. “For one reason or another it’s never worked but I’m really excited to be working with him and hopefully we can match his talents up with some decent races and really throw everything at him making that next step.”

Tim Roe was the other climber to join the ranks. The former BMC rider wasn’t at home in the WorldTour and then struggled at Pro Continental level with Drapac. He already looks to have partially recovered his mojo with a stage win at the New Zealand Cycle Classic and the South Australian will hope that is just the beginning in what could be a comeback season.

“Tim Roe is a little bit different. He’s been there, he’s been WorldTour before,” Christie-Johnston explained. “He definitely had a rough few years with Drapac, a few injuries and other issues there but if we can get him back to his best he’s capable of anything. We have to find that balance health and strength-wise to get him back to his very best.

“Hopefully we can figure out what makes him tick and get him back to where I know he can be.”

Development pathway

The ultimate goal for Christie-Johnston is to see riders promoted to higher levels of the sport. So far 11 riders have gone to the WorldTour from the team and when asked who would be the candidates this year, Christie-Johnston was open to being surprised.

“We always have the intention of trying to get someone there and I never know where it’s coming from. Last year I didn’t think we’d get any. Probably the two young guys [ed. Chris Hamilton and Ben O’Connor, who did secure WorldTour contracts] would be the closest to taking that next step but I didn’t think they’d be ready. And whether they are or not, we’ll find out.

“They’ve both been offered very good, lengthy contracts and at the end of the day you can’t refuse it if it’s there. Next year, maybe you have a bad year and miss out.

“With the current crop? I couldn’t tell you. Maybe we have five or six guys that could take the next step but we have to see how much effort they put in. A lot of guys have done a lot of work behind the scenes. Maybe Sean Lake, he’s an older rider, so maybe it’s that bit harder but he’s done a lot of work behind the scenes.”

Sean Lake burst to public attention with his third place in the Nationals time trial in 2016 and then backed that up with dual wins in the Oceania Championships time trial and road race. Lake is also an accomplished rider in the classics-style races — indeed he is the only person to win back-to-back editions of Grafton to Inverell, a race many regard as Australia’s toughest one-day event.

“I think he’s lost five kilos on last year and for someone who time trials as well as he did last year at 80 kilos, take five kilos off and I think he’ll be quite a versatile road rider and maybe stepping into that GC role,” Christie-Johnston said. “We think we can probably lose another four kilos off Sean yet.

“I know it sounds a lot, to go from 80 to 70 kilos, but Sean was a rower and he’s got a huge amount of muscle mass in the upper body. We’re getting DEXA (dual energy x-ray absorptiometry) scans every couple of weeks just to make sure he’s not losing the muscle in his legs.”

For Christie-Johnston personally, that is what his role has been for the past 17 years. Ever since starting the team in 2000, he has been grooming these riders so they can progress to bigger and better teams and races. There’s still plenty of enjoyment in that for the Tasmanian-based sports director.

“We have to understand our place in the grand scheme of things. We’re just a Continental team and when I say just, that’s what we can afford to do,” he said. “We do the very best we can in terms of race results and that allows to push those guys to that higher level.

“It’s always been a goal of ours and we’ve had quite a bit of success — what are we at now, 10 or 11 WorldTour riders? It’s pretty exciting to watch them on the biggest stage, the young ones, Hamilton and O’Connor, I’m just itching to see them get into it and see how they go for the next few years.”

The team’s next challenge will be the Herald Sun Tour, with Jesse Kerrison leading the team for the sprints, while a strong collection of attackers and climbers will look to be aggressive in the hillier stages.

The 2017 Jayco Herald Sun Tour starts in Melbourne tomorrow. Stay posted to CyclingTips for coverage of the race.

About the author

Jamie Finch-Penninger is a freelance cycling journalist who covers men’s and women’s domestic and international bike racing. He also runs the BrakeDown Podcast which focuses on the Australian cycling scene.

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