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ADELAIDE, Australia (CT) – The road to the Santos Tour Down Under has been a bumpy one for the UniSA-Australia National team. Selecting the squad, already a challenging process, was made even more difficult by an administrative error at Cycling Australia (CA) that left several riders ineligible to take part due to changes to the anti-doping rules.
For the man who’ll call the shots from the UniSA team car this week, Andrew Christie-Johnston, it’s been a particularly tough few weeks. The effusive Tasmanian’s dominant domestic team, Bennelong-SwissWellness, was entitled to five of seven places on the UniSA-Australia national team, but the CA mix-up left just four of his riders eligible to race in Adelaide.
But a team was selected, the dust has settled, and the UniSA-Australia riders are now ready to do battle with their WorldTour rivals. On the eve of stage 1 of the Tour Down Under, CyclingTips caught up with the man known as ACJ to get his take on the week ahead, the team’s goals, and the challenges of the past few weeks.
CyclingTips: You seem to have a good mix of guys here — younger riders, experienced riders, riders for the sprints, riders for the climbs. Are you happy with the mix?
Andrew Christie-Johnston: Yeah definitely. All these guys here are talented. It’s always a challenge bringing a bunch of guys from different teams to try and get the dynamics right but straight away they seem to have gelled quite well.
With Steele [Von Hoff] and Sam [Welsford] — both are capable of winning stages. And the GC, well that’s always difficult — when you’re going up [against] someone like Richie [Porte] and guys like that it’s hard. But you know, a couple of them have been … Tim [Roe] and Nathan Earle … have been top 10 here before so we’ll see how they go.
What do you do to try and get the team to gel straight away? And how important is that?
Look it’s vital to the success of the team to make sure that we do click. I think that’s just sitting down to start with and setting some rules. Really it starts with me and if I’m a bit casual about it and not worry about it … I’ve always been pretty tough on my lads in my own team and here I’m the same. I set out some rules and when people do the right thing they get rewarded.
So at the end of the day I lay down the law really on the first team meeting. You can tell — they sort of step up and I can see just the way they’ve been mixing over the last few days that they’re all here and they have each other’s backs. So we’ll see how they go stage by stage.
What sort of rules are you talking about? Do you mean in terms of the role each rider has?
Yeah. When you give someone a role you’ve got to make sure that at the end of the day they stick to the plan, there’s no sort of rogue element. You have a plan then you see someone go ‘I think I’ll try my own side of things today.’ It doesn’t work in cycling.
There’s athletes out there that you would probably say are slightly selfish and you see that on every team. I can’t stand that. And so at the end of the day that’s some of the rules that I talk about from my side of the thing. I don’t really think we’ve got anyone selfish on this team anyway to be honest and being a national team it’s a good opportunity. Some of them it’s the first time they’ve ever ridden for national team so I think they’ll gel well.
What are you hoping to get out of this week? What are your goals and expectations?
Look, it’s a stage-by-stage thing. To go for the overall would be lovely, but very difficult. So we’re just going to take a stage-by-stage approach and I do think that with Steele and Sam, they’re more than capable of landing a podium and maybe a win.
Stage 1 is definitely … I don’t know, I have to speak to Sam and Steele. Steele seems happy to work for Sam when he’s there. So it’ll probably be for Sam those flatter ones. Maybe Steele more like a Stirling stage [ed. stage 2, which has an uphill drag to the line]. And then Victor Harper [stage 3], we’ll see how Sam … whether he can make some of those earlier climbs and get down there.
GC-wise, Tim and Nathan Earle will be the focus so I suppose stage 4 and 5 will be the ones that we look for them. And the other guys will get a little bit of freedom to maybe go into the break.
I think we’d like to target maybe a jersey, something like the KOM jersey. Sprint jersey — it’s not worth targeting. It’s not worth going for the intermediates — it’s often decided by the stage. So if you’re doing well in the stage you’ll probably grab that jersey. But I think KOM we might make a bit of a focus and see how we go on that.
What are you expecting from stage 4? On paper it looks like a really interesting one with that climb about 8km from the finish …
Yeah, I think that’s a bit of an unknown. I’ve been speaking to a range of people [to get] their thoughts and same with some of the favourites, some of my old mates. I went up for a drive there yesterday and caught up with a few of them trying to figure out what the plan is.
Maybe that becomes the decisive stage — maybe that changes what happens at Willunga [stage 5] to some sort of degree. A lot of the GC guys have always waited and [it’s] been decided at Willunga, but I don’t know. No doubt BMC with Richie will be trying to get rid of everyone there [on the final climb on stage 4], that will be clear, but then you have people like Nathan Haas and some of those other guys that are punchier than Richie — they’ll be hanging on for dear life.
And really, no one knows exactly what that outcome is going to be. [It’ll] probably come down to a bit of temperature on the day and how aggressive it’s been ridden from the start. If there’s a lot of fatigue coming into the bottom of that [climb], I reckon it will split to pieces.
It’s obviously been a challenging couple of weeks in terms of team selection especially for Bennelong-SwissWellness. What’s it been like behind the scenes?
For me personally it’s been really tough because this team [UniSA-Australia] has always been about rewarding and I suppose that was taken away from us. I suppose we have known for several months that we had five spots at Tour Down Under and I didn’t preselect. I wanted to see how everyone went at January — I sort of had a long list but then I couldn’t reward the guys that probably got the job done.
That really hurt me. And that was a tough meeting. I sort of withheld that information from the riders until Nationals had finished, purely because I wanted them to focus on doing their very best at Nationals. But to the credit of all the guys they handled it pretty well. Whilst they were disappointed we just looked at the other races we’ve got on the calendar coming up.
So yeah, difficult personally and for a couple of individuals but we accept it. People make mistakes in life. We all make it. It’s just unfortunate the way it’s worked out.
Where do you think that mistake came from? Was it from within Cycling Australia (CA) — is that your understanding of it?
Yeah. With the anti-doping boards, we have nothing to do with it at a Continental level. We don’t get informed by the UCI directly for something that doesn’t … it’s not [relevant] to a Continental team. From my understanding CA was informed around about March and basically got lost. Someone needed to flag it — obviously you can’t do anything about it back in March but someone needed to flag it and make sure that people knew.
But I do know that, when you have a look at the change of staff between March and the end of the season, there’s been a lot of staff changes. And obviously we were greatly affected, our team, by it, but whether it be our team or not we were going to rock up at Nationals and that list was going to be pretty short about who was actually going to be allowed to ride.
I’m not one for placing blame on the individual or even CA. There was no intent by anyone — it’s something that happened and hopefully never happens again.
This is your first involvement with Tour Down Under, isn’t it?
Yeah it is, yeah.
How significant is that to you, personally, to be able to lead the national team?
It’s a bit of an honour more than anything. I don’t have aspirations in leading anything to be honest. I’m here for the riders and when this opportunity came up … I’m excited to be here and it’s a honour to do it but I’m here for the riders, the same whether it’s UniSA or my own team.
I’ve been here a lot but it’s normally on the other side of the fence supporting some of my ex-riders that are now WorldTour. The difference is that now I’ve got a role to fulfil.
When I was here before I could just have a chat, have a few beers. Now it’s business. We’ll see how I can bring these boys together.