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It was back in January that GreenEdge Cycling first announced the creation of a new Continental team. Registered in China and backed by Gerry Ryan, Mitchelton-Scott was to feature a combination of Chinese and Australian riders.
So how did this new team come about? And why? What’s the link between Mitchelton-Scott and Orica-Scott? And what does the creation of the new team mean for the existing road development pathway for Australian male cyclists, the WorldTour Academy?
Laying the foundations
The story of Mitchelton-Scott dates back some 30 years, to the first meeting between then-Australian national coach (now Orica-Scott general manager) Shayne Bannan, and then-Chinese head coach (now Hong Kong head coach) Shen Jinkang.
The pair met at the 1987 Giro della Regioni where Bannan was leading one of his first European campaigns with the Australian national team and Shen Jinkang was doing the same with his Chinese contingent. As Bannan remembers it, the Chinese team was struggling to adjust to conditions in Europe, so he asked race organisers to put the Australian and Chinese contingents in the same hotel, so he could help them out. It was the beginning of an on-again-off-again connection between the two.
Bannan and Shen Jinkang lost contact for nearly 20 years, until around 2006 when they met up to discuss the future of Chinese cycling and its riders.
“We started to have more in-depth discussions about the Chinese pathway … the athlete pathway to become professional athletes,” Bannan told CyclingTips. “And then I think this discussion was about creating a team that would provide much more than just a sporting experience but also blend the two cultures; the best of both worlds, together.”
Little materialised in the next eight years. Bannan was busy getting the GreenEdge WorldTour team (now Orica-Scott) off the ground, while his counterpart had made the move to Hong Kong and was looking after that country’s Commonwealth and Olympic Games ambitions.
But then in 2014, the discussions became more serious. Bannan pitched the project to GreenEdge Cycling owner Gerry Ryan and with Ryan’s support, the team was launched in 2017.
According to Shayne Bannan, there are two main motivations behind the Mitchelton-Scott endeavour: providing a viable pathway to the pro ranks for Chinese cyclists; and the potential commercial benefits.
A growing sport
When it comes to road cycling (and indeed cycling as a whole), there’s little doubt China is a growth market and a land of much potential. In recent years there’s been an increase in China’s business interest in the world of cycling, not least from the Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate that owns Ironman, is behind the new Hammer Series and reportedly has eyes on Tour de France owner ASO. Wanda is also behind the Tour of Guangxi, a new race scheduled for October 2017 that has been added straight to the WorldTour calendar.
For Bannan, GreenEdge Cycling and Gerry Ryan, China represents a significant opportunity and Mitchelton-Scott is a play in that direction.
“The business interest there is growing the sport; is growing sport recognition in China,” Bannan said. “[It’s] getting the GreenEdge name, branding awareness there and creating enough interest where, you know, potentially a global partner, a Chinese partner will come on board.”
While Orica has been the naming sponsor of the GreenEdge WorldTour team (and GreenEdge’s professional women’s team) since May 2012, that sponsorship is set to conclude at the end of this season. There’s hope from within GreenEdge that Orica’s replacement will come from within the Chinese market; that a new sponsor will take naming-rights sponsorship of all three teams in the GreenEdge stable: the men’s and women’s Orica-Scott teams, and the Mitchelton-Scott Continental team.
For Australia’s U23 Men’s National Coach (and Mitchelton-Scott sports director) James Victor, the push into China is a sensible attempt to get ahead of the curve.
“The way Shayne operates is … he does think years ahead — two to five years ahead all the time — and where the economics of cycling sits at the moment and he’s got a really good handle on it,” Victor told CyclingTips. “So I think it’s a wise move and certainly from Gerry Ryan’s perspective continuing to back what Shayne does and what we do in Europe with the three teams.”
A two-tier setup
While the formation of Mitchelton-Scott is a push into the Chinese market, it’s also a move to anticipate potential changes to road cycling’s team structure.
For several years now there’s been talk of the UCI introducing a mandatory development pathway for the sport’s biggest teams. That change would require all men’s WorldTour team to have a second-division, feeder team; a team that would take part in .1 and .HC races — the second and third tier of racing — with those riders getting valuable experience before stepping up to the highest level of the sport.
— Mitchelton-SCOTT (@GreenEDGEconti) April 8, 2017
Australia already has a development pathway for its promising young male road riders — the Jayco-AIS WorldTour Academy. Through the academy, these potential stars of the future get the chance to participate in Under-23 and .2 (fourth-tier) races in Europe.
Unfortunately, it’s a significant jump from that level of racing to the WorldTour. As James Victor explains, having Mitchelton-Scott race .1 and .HC races would provide a better transition for up-and-coming riders.
“Instead of progressing, or trying to transition straight into WorldTour out of U23s, I think the gap is getting bigger and bigger every year,” Victor said. “I’ve tried to explain to the guys what I’ve seen happen over the last seven years and how that gap is getting bigger and how much harder it is to find your way in WorldTour in the first few years.
“If there was a division-two level, to race at a .1 or .HC level I think would be a better transition. And if the UCI in their regulations can allow that transition to be done a lot smoother I think it’s for the overall health of the sport and also the health of the athletes as well.”
The riders of the future
The backbone of the Mitchelton-Scott squad for 2017 is a group of four riders that will likely be familiar to many Australian cycling fans. Lucas Hamilton, Jai Hindley, Michael Storer and Sam Jenner all raced with the WorldTour Academy in 2016 and all had an impressive summer in Australia through January and February.
Jai Hindley was second overall at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour in February after taking second on the summit finish to Falls Creek; Sam Jenner won the U23 national road title with a powerful solo move; Michael Storer and Lucas Hamilton and Hindley were terrific at the Tour de l’Avenir last year; and Hamilton, Storer and Hindley went 1-2-3 in the Oceania Road Championships, racing as U23s and beating all their elite rivals.
We have had our first win in the Mitchelton-SCOTT colours, in fact a clean sweep of the podium at the Oceania Championships! ???????????????? pic.twitter.com/FXtZOJDSxb
— Mitchelton-SCOTT (@GreenEDGEconti) March 11, 2017
Kiwi-turned-Aussie Robert Stannard and Harry Sweeny are the remaining Australians in the Mitchelton-Scott line-up, which currently also features six Chinese riders: Wenhu Hi, Hao Liu, Chenlu Qin, Sun Xiaolong, Fuwen Xue, and Chaohua Xue.
“The six guys are primarily track endurance riders that represent China at world championships,” Bannan said of the Chinese contingent. “Track endurance riders, if you look at history — particularly our history and [Great Britain’s] history — they develop into pretty good road riders as well because they have this great physiology. So yeah, primarily they’re the Chinese teams pursuit team.”
Twenty-eight-year-old Hao Liu is perhaps the most accomplished of the six, having won a stage of the UCI 2.2 Tour of Korea in 2013.
The WorldTour Academy
For the best part of a decade now, the Jayco-AIS WorldTour Academy has provided a pathway to the WorldTour for promising young Australian male riders. Among those to have ridden with the Academy are Michael Matthews, Rohan Dennis, Jack Haig and Robert Power. So what of the Academy in 2017 if six of the best young Aussie talents (who would have raced with the Academy in 2017) are racing with Mitchelton-Scott?
WorldTour Academy director James Victor explains that the setup continues in 2017, albeit in a slightly different form.
“The track endurance athletes are primarily now known as the WorldTour Academy. They’ve received funding aligned with Gerry’s support and once the Track Worlds are over they will arrive in Italy for two weeks to settle and find their feet,” Victor said, in the lead-up to the Track World Championships over Easter. “We’ll have some road competitions where we start to mix the two groups together.”
That is, riders from the WorldTour Academy and from Mitchelton-Scott will combine throughout the season, racing as an Australian national team. Indeed, it’s as a national team that the Mitchelton-Scott riders are currently competing; not as the Continental team.
“We’re not racing as Mitchelton-Scott at the moment because we have six [Australian] athletes here and for a team to be registered in a particular country that’s where the majority of the riders have to come from,” Victor said. “So there’s six Chinese on the books … so Shayne’s sorting that out this week to finalise the seventh Chinese rider and hopefully within the next two weeks we will transition into competing primarily as Mitchelton-Scott for most of the season.”
— Mitchelton-SCOTT (@GreenEDGEconti) April 23, 2017
What the season holds
While Mitchelton-Scott comprises Australian and Chinese riders, the two groups will remain separate for much of the season. The Chinese riders will spend much of the year at home, preparing for the National Games of China, an important target for local riders.
“The China Games are every four years and it’s almost bigger than the Olympic Games to China,” Bannan said. “A lot of the key performance indicators for funding is based on results at the China games. So obviously when you have that it’s important that they’re prepared well. So it’s no use changing a lot of things for them during this year in particular.”
The Australian contingent, meanwhile, arrived in Europe in March and while it took a little while for the riders to get settled in, they’ve posted some impressive results since. Twenty-one-year-old Lucas Hamilton finished on the podium in four straight Italian one-day races and then, this past weekend, Jai Hindley kept the streak going with second at the Trofeo Citta di San Vendemiano.
Perhaps the team’s biggest target for the year is the Giro Ciclistico d’Italia, commonly known as the ‘Baby Giro’, which returns to the U23 calendar in June for the first time since 2012 (it was then known as the Girobio). James Victor says the race is not as hard as the Tour de l’Avenir — the premier stage race for U23 riders — but the U23 equivalent of the Italian Grand Tour will be far from easy.
“The Baby Giro — it’s got some uphill finishes but it’s really only the last stage that’s got a 40 kilometre climb in L’Aquila down in the centre of Italy,” Victor said. “We’ve clearly got the talent to target the overall there but the boys know it will be a stressful week because we’ve got 18 Italian teams to contend with which is a bit different to the Tour de l’Avenir which is just national teams.
“When the Baby Giro hasn’t been on for four or five years and all the Italian U23s and their team managers are chomping at the bit, you’ve got 18 teams to contend with!”
After the Baby Giro the team will head to an altitude training camp and then to the Giro Ciclistico della Valle d’Aosta, a tough Italian stage race that Rob Power won two years ago.
“It’s all around the Italian side of Mont Blanc in the Aosta Valley — it’s either up or down,” Victor said. “It’s a super hard tour for these guys, and I deliberately didn’t take them there last year because they were all first-timers in Europe but we’re heading back there this year.
“It’s an Under 23 tour, it certainly suits them and loads them up with a few more under 23 race days before we start really honing in on the Tour de l’Avenir through the back end of August.”
The Tour de l’Avenir will be followed by the Road World Championships in Bergen, Norway — a hilly course that could suit the Australian contingent. The Mitchelton-Scott riders that aren’t in contention for Worlds selection will head to China to race with their local teammates for the first time, at the Tour of China I, the Tour of China II and, in October, the Tour of Hainan.
So what will that be like, teammates meeting each other for the first time in October; teammates that don’t speak the same language?
“Sam Jenner went there [in China] for the presentation of the team … so he got to meet one of the riders there at the presentation,” Victor said. “He said ‘Yeah, it’s a lot of hand signals, applications on your phone with translating’.
“If we did head to China, we’ll have probably have more support staff than we would athletes but as long as we get through and out the other end and everyone gains good experience and knowledge with the exercise…”
Thank you to everyone who joined us for our official team ceremony in Shanghai. Bring on our debut season! pic.twitter.com/4x768YjcVu
— Mitchelton-SCOTT (@GreenEDGEconti) March 13, 2017
So looking further ahead, what does the future hold for Mitchelton-Scott? Is the plan to progress through the ranks, to become a Pro Continental team and perhaps one day a WorldTour team?
“The long-term vision would be that the Chinese would have their own WorldTour team one day,” Bannan said. “Currently we [GreenEdge Cycling] have a WorldTour team so the way that we’re structured as a company, the Continental team can only be a Continental team.
“You can’t step up because you can’t have a WorldTour team and then a WorldTour owning a Pro Conti team. But a WorldTour team can own a Continental team. So you know — we’ve got to sort of crawl before we can walk.”
(China nearly did have its own WorldTour team in 2017, with the TJ Sport investment group signalling its interest to take up the license vacated by Lampre-Merida. But the project fell apart at the 11th hour, and UAE Team Emirates filled the void.)
For Bannan, just being part of the sport’s expansion into China is important.
“I’m a big believer in the future,” Bannan said. “A strong Chinese cycling, of the future — I’m talking about a five-10 year project — will make global cycling stronger. For us to be part of that is a real privilege.”
And as for the riders of Mitchelton-Scott, the 2017 season will be one spent learning; of better preparing them for the step up to the sport’s upper echelons.
“It’s about processes, it’s about education, it’s about these guys learning languages, it’s about how they fit in and how they become European with Australian DNA, to survive,” Bannan said. “It’s really underrated, the apprenticeship these guys need to go through. Teamwork, sacrifice, sometimes at the compromise of your own result. But that’s what professional cycling is.
“As an under-23 that’s where you learn all this stuff. It’s difficult to learn once you’re in the WorldTour – it’s a whole different pressure. It’s a whole different ball game.”