Changing of the guard: Australia’s best domestic team set for a huge shake-up

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Praties. Genesys. Huon Salmon. Avanti. IsoWhey. Bennelong. It’s a team that’s been known by many names in the past 18 years, but in that time two names have stayed the same: those of the team’s owners, Andrew Christie-Johnston (ACJ) and Steve Price. Theirs is one of Australian cycling’s most successful pairings, a team that’s delivered more riders to the WorldTour than any other, and one that’s dominated the National Road Series (NRS) for the best part of a decade.

In 2019, the team will again be known by a different name. That in itself is not unusual — such is the way in road cycling. In 2019 the novelty lies elsewhere — for the first time in nearly two decades, ACJ and Price won’t be running a team together.

Price is calling it quits, stepping away from cycling management to spend more time with his family. The team and its legacy will continue in 2019, however, with Christie-Johnston set to forge on … at least for now. He’ll be joined at the management table by Tom Petty, director of the rival mobius-BridgeLane team. Petty will bring some support staff with him but, crucially, he’ll also bring a new title sponsor.

The ACJ/Petty setup will race in 2019 under the name Team BridgeLane, the investment company replacing both Bennelong Funds Management and SwissWellness on the team jersey.

It’s a seismic shift for Australia’s most dominant domestic team. Price’s departure represents a journey into unknown territory for a team long-famed for its ability to uncover talent and help nurture it through to the highest echelons. It’s also a development that has the potential to shake up Australian racing more generally.

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It all started to change in the middle of this year when, as they always do, ACJ and Price discussed whether they would run the team for another year.

“Basically myself and Steve had made a decision … that this year would be our last year,” Christie-Johnston told CyclingTips. “To be honest, it was just getting too hard and so many hours away. I’ve got two daughters that are quite young so I decided to spend a lot more time with them.

“We got back from Europe and we talked about whether we’re going to do it again, like we do every year, and we decided that I think it’s a pretty good time to call it.”

ACJ and Price told the team sponsors of their plan to step away in 2019. Rick and Melinda Harper, owners of SwissWellness, spent some time weighing up whether they’d like to continue to support a team in some capacity. They eventually decided that they wouldn’t.

That decision came rather late in proceedings, prompting ACJ to toss his hat back in the ring, at least temporarily.

“A lot of our riders [had] started to potentially sign elsewhere and I decided to put my hand back up and say ‘Maybe I should … stay involved for a period of time,” ACJ said. “I wouldn’t even say the entire season next year …”

mobius-BridgeLane took out the teams’ classification at this year’s Tour of Gippsland.

For several years ACJ had acted as something of an informal advisor to Tom Petty, helping his younger counterpart find his feet as the director of an NRS and later Continental team. In recent times the pair had mooted the possibility of a collaboration of some sort. As various ideas for 2019 were tossed around, that collaboration became a possibility.

“I spoke to Tom again and we came to some sort of agreement … about how best to make it work,” ACJ said. “I don’t know technically what it would be called — probably it’d be considered a merger in some degree — but more with the understanding that yes I am taking a backward step. Yes I am still involved a bit, but more as the owner of the team and Tom will certainly be heading up the team as the manager/owner.”

ACJ is one of Australian cycling’s most respected figures, a man known as much for the care and compassion he shows his riders as for the results those riders achieve. It was a feeling of responsibility to those riders that brought him back into the fold after making the decision to step away.

“It was the best way forward for those riders,” he said. “It really is 100% of the decision why I decided to sign up for a period of time. I don’t know how long that’ll be, until I suppose I can see that Tom’s got the support around him to handle it.

“It’s a lot to handle and it was me and Steve and I suppose with Tom it’s just himself. We want to give him a fair chance to get up and running and really help.”

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Tom Petty (left) has been behind mobius-BridgeLane since it began in late 2014.

ACJ will be involved with Team Bridgelane for the Australian summer races in January and February — a big focus for the Continental outfit — but he’ll spend less time in the team car and more behind the scenes. Just like at mobius-BridgeLane, Petty’s new role will involve a combination of sports director responsibilities plus business development.

For a time Petty and ACJ discussed running the team under the mobius name. But in the end the pair decided it was best to continue building on the formidable legacy ACJ and Price had built together.

“I mean, the team’s got 18 years of history,” Petty told CyclingTips. “I think that history is really important in our sport, that longevity, and it’s something that so many teams in the modern era can’t [claim].”

The result is that, at the end of this year, the team currently known as mobius-BridgeLane will cease to exist. The outfit spent the 2018 season at the Continental level, and several more before that competing at NRS level. It’s acted as a stepping stone in the careers of several riders of note, including Robert Stannard (Mitchelton-Scott), Alex Frame (Trek-Segafredo) and Alex Evans (who will race with the SEG Racing Academy in 2019).

Perhaps mobius-BridgeLane’s most impressive achievement was Evans’ second-place finish on the queen stage of this year’s Jayco Herald Sun Tour, a stirling result for a young climber and his up-and-coming team in an international field.

Alex Evans rode to second behind Esteban Chaves on Lake Mountain at the 2018 Sun Tour.

The closure of mobius-BridgeLane means one fewer team in Australia’s NRS; one fewer place for promising young riders to ply their trade en route, hopefully, to greater heights. And the merger with Bennelong-SwissWellness further consolidates the stranglehold of a team that’s already leagues ahead of its local competition (Bennelong won this year’s NRS teams ranking with more than twice the points of its nearest rival, Inform-MAKE).

At a time when the NRS is struggling for attention — with a perceived lack of competition among the many reasons — the strengthening of the NRS’ biggest powerhouse and the closure of one would-be rival team is of some concern.

Petty’s not blind to those problems but is understandably focused on that which he has the ability to control — creating and managing the best team he can. He admits that the merger of the two teams created some challenges when it came to creating the 2019 Team Bridgelane squad.

“Really what it’s forced us to [do is] painstakingly go through the riders that are available, which, actually in 2019, is a huge amount more than in previous seasons,” he said. “We’re still getting requests even for some WorldTour riders who are without rides. So it’s a season where you can easily just report another team is disappearing, and it is the case — my team will no longer exist. But I still think the best riders or the riders with the talent work their way to the top.

“I don’t think the riders that are turning into the WorldTour-level riders are missing out. I think it’s the riders that are sort of earlier on in their progression that actually just need the opportunity. I think they’re the ones that are struggling.”

VICTORIA, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 3: Jayco Herald Sun Tour, stage 3, 218km road race from Mitchelton Winery, Nagambie to Lake Mountain, on February 3, 2018 in Victoria, Australia. (Photo by Con Chronis/Getty Images)
Lionel Mawditt will join Team BridgeLane in 2019.

A little over half of the 2019 Team BridgeLane roster will be comprised of riders from this year’s Bennelong-SwissWellness outfit, with mobius-BridgeLane riders and a handful of new recruits rounding out the squad. Tour of Tasmania winner Dylan Sunderland will continue from Bennelong-SwissWellness, so too Ayden Toovey (winner of Battle Recharge and Tour of the Great South Coast) and Tristan Ward (winner of the Tour of the King Valley and Amy’s Otway Tour).

Former WorldTour pro Steele von Hoff will also return, albeit later in the season to allow for proper recovery from a series of significant injuries this year. Gun climber Lionel Mawditt will join the team from Jelly Belly, Nick White will come across from Oliver’s Real Food Racing, and Kiwi Hayden McCormick will join the squad from One Pro Cycling.

Roughly a third of the squad will be made up of new recruits — a significant departure for an ACJ-led team.

“I’ve never put on six or seven new riders, ever,” ACJ said. “I think we’ve normally just had two or three new ones so I think in itself … that’s more than 50% of the team [which] is new to each other. So it’ll be a challenge. It’s much easier to have stability and add a few because they follow in what you’ve already developed [but] when you’ve got at least 50% of the riders coming in. …

“Interesting times to start with and I think that’s probably the reason why I agreed to help Tom on the ground initially in January.”

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Steele von Hoff had a good start to 2018 and while he’ll return to the team in 2019, don’t expect to see him racing until later in the year.

The 2019 race program, meanwhile, will look much the same as that of Bennelong-SwissWellness this year.

“We’re really focusing right now on the summer of cycling,” Petty said of the early-season races in Australia and New Zealand. “We want to make sure we get off to a good start and show people that we mean business. And then from there, the same sort of Asian slash European [races] but also we’re looking forward to doing something like the Tour of Utah again [ed. mobius-BridgeLane raced Tour of Utah in 2018 but Bennelong-SwissWellness did not.] — going back to North America would be a big goal as well.”

Working out the specifics of the race calendar will largely fall to ACJ, while Petty will concern himself with strengthening the team’s financial position. As dominant as ACJ and Price’s teams have been over the years, they’ve flirted with disaster on multiple occasions. Petty hopes to set the team on a more stable course.

“Andrew and Steve have been able to achieve something that not many other managers have — that is something that we shouldn’t really gloss over,” Petty said. “But every team has its problems and you can see over the years maybe Bennelong have still struggled with sponsorship year to year. And I guess my aim is to be able to create some long-term financial stability for the team.”

While that year-to-year stability is the first goal, Petty is looking well past that. He’s got some big goals in mind.

“We want to grow the team as big as possible and we dream of winning the Tour Down Under,” Petty said. “We just think that would be the coolest thing, to have an Australian domestic team get back to that Pro Continental status one day and challenge the world’s best here in Australia.”

Drapac ran a Pro Continental team from 2014 to 2016. There has since been a void at the Pro Continental level in Australia.

For years ACJ and Price spoke of a desire to step up to the Professional Continental level, to take their program to the next level and offer greater opportunities for their riders. That was especially true when Michael Drapac shifted his sponsorship from a Pro Continental team to the Slipstream Sports WorldTour outfit, leaving what ACJ describes as “a bit of a hole” in the Australian racing scene.

It’s something that never eventuated — the couple million dollars required for the promotion remained out of reach.

“We found it difficult because it’s not a mainstream sport,” ACJ said. “And Tom will also find that difficult. He doesn’t see that as a barrier; for us we’ve been banging our head against a brick wall for a long period of time to make it happen. For him he thinks it can happen and if anyone can …

“He’s certainly done very well with the growth of his team, he’s got some good sponsors behind him and I’d like to support him in trying to take that next step. Hopefully he can pull it off at some stage because it’d be perfect to see an Australia Pro Conti squad getting some decent starts around the world again.”

Petty admits that a Pro Continental berth “won’t happen in 2019 and maybe even 2020” and that “it’s something that is financially dependent on other people”. He says it’s even possible that the team could “do everything correctly and still not achieve that goal”. But he remains optimistic.

“I definitely feel like we’ve got so many passionate people here in Australia about cycling and I would really love to see big businesses get behind an Australian team and help them take that step to that WorldTour level,” he says. “I think it’s achievable. That’s something that gets me up out of bed every morning.

“The thought even of some of our guys lining up and taking on the likes of Richie Porte … to be able to have our team eventually as part of such an iconic Australian race [the Tour Down Under] going head-to-head on Willunga, that is something that is extremely motivating. I’d love to be able to see one day a team that has been so influential in Australian cycling take to the TDU as their own outfit and take on the world’s best.”

For the past five years, Porte – a graduate of the ACJ/Price program – has been unbeatable on Willunga Hill.

While Petty will join forces in ACJ in 2019, the latter’s long-time partner (and ongoing business partner at Tasmanian restaurant chain Praties), Price, is bidding farewell to a sport he’s been a part of for nearly two decades. As ACJ notes, Price has often opted for a more behind-the-scenes role; one that has long complemented ACJ’s position as the on-the-road, public face of the team. But Price’s contribution to the team shouldn’t be underestimated.

“Without his effort the team just wouldn’t exist,” ACJ says. “He’s been fully responsible for finding the sponsors, both financial and also equipment sponsors and you need someone like that and he’s done a very good job holding things together.

“It wouldn’t allow me to concentrate more on the riders’ effort and what we actually do result-wise if I didn’t have someone like Steve behind the scenes making sure we had the finances to do it.”

It appears that Petty will step into the role vacated by Price, all while learning the craft of team management from one of the best in the business. At 29, he’s still got much to learn, but his enthusiasm, optimism, and drive put him in good stead for the numerous changes that lie ahead.

“What I’ve noticed is that he’s come a long way,” ACJ says. “I think that he’s at a very good age. He’s got a lot to give and he’s certainly very passionate about it. I think that’s probably the biggest thing is that … I wanted to have involvement with someone that has care for the riders. That’s my biggest thing and I recognised with Tom that he seems to always put his riders first.

“I think at the end of the day he brings a lot, he really does, because he’s just full of energy. Myself, I’m starting to slow down. A hundred plus days on the road is too much [for] where I’m at with my family life and with Tom he’s keen as mustard, ready to go and I think he’ll do a very good job of it.”

In one sense, the pairing of ACJ and Petty is a case of master and apprentice. In another it’s a case of two former rivals joining forces. Ultimately, it’s the start of an exciting new chapter for Australia’s greatest domestic cycling team.

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