GreenEDGE: A bona-fide Aussie ProTeam in the making?

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) – They’re green. They’re edgy. They’re called GreenEDGE. Shayne Bannan addresses the media at a press conference to introduce GreenEDGE It was about as well kept a secret as the so-called mystery backer of the ill-fated Pegasus Sports outfit – only this time, GreenEDGE Cycling really…

ADELAIDE, Australia (VN) – They’re green. They’re edgy. They’re called GreenEDGE.

Shayne Bannan addresses the media at a press conference to introduce GreenEDGE
Shayne Bannan addresses the media at a press conference to introduce GreenEDGE

It was about as well kept a secret as the so-called mystery backer of the ill-fated Pegasus Sports outfit – only this time, GreenEDGE Cycling really does look like it will be the first Australian team to compete at the Tour de France.

On a mild Monday afternoon in Adelaide, GreenEDGE’s general manager, Shayne Bannan – former Cycling Australia (CA) high-performance manager and the Australian Institute of Sport’s head cycling coach for the past decade, who resigned his post on December 30 last year – outlined the team’s heady plan to become the first Aussie-registered ProTeam by January 2012.

“We’re developing a structure and a team that will put us in the top 10 (ProTeams). We’re looking at developing a budget and a team to go into the top 10,” Bannan told the mostly Australian media contingent, effectively saying that it is GreenEDGE’s desire that they receive automatic qualification into the 26-event 2012 World Tour.

The normally laconic Bannan added that regardless of whether they enlist commercial partners or not in its maiden year, GreenEDGE has the financial capacity to run its first year at a level of investment on par with the best 10 teams in the world.

“So, looking at current budgets, that would range from 10 million to 16 million Euro,” he said.

“We have committed funding to achieve (a) top-10 (ranking) – but we’re also looking at other commercial partners… an Australian sponsor would be an ideal scenario. It’s not necessary that we need to chase a commercial sponsor. If we don’t achieve a sponsor… if we can’t come to a commercial agreement by June, then that will go off the table and we’ll just focus on the committed funding that we have, and start looking at sponsors for the 2013 season.”

Asked what made him decide to pursue such a bold project – which began some 12 months ago – Bannan said: “It’s not a race or a result or an O’Grady winning Paris-Roubaix or the Tours de France or Cadel Evans winning the world title… It’s sitting round with a sausage sandwich around a barbeque, with a group of riders at one of our Australian team camps, just talking about, ‘Geez, how good would it be… ’ I think every time we get a group of Australians overseas, that discussion (about a top-level Australian cycling team) does take place.”

Before the presentation got underway, most of the journalists in the Adelaide Hilton’s conference room knew much of the story: the multi-millionaire caravan king and long-time supporter of Australian cycling, Gerry Ryan, would be the chief financier – although Bannan did not confirm this on the record – committing in writing for a minimum three years; and Neil Stephens, former sport director with Spanish team Caisse d’Epargne and CA professional men’s road co-ordinator (the latter role to be filled by Garmin-Cervélo’s Matt White on a part-time basis), would come on board as sport director. It is rumored White will be team manager of GreenEDGE after his contract expires with his U.S.-based team at the end of this year.

But apart from Ryan’s brother Andrew coming on board in a marketing capacity, making for a total staff of three, it seems GreenEDGE has a bit of recruiting to do before the 2012 ProTeam license application begins on August 1 this year. And as far as riders go, UCI rules stipulate no discussions can be forthcoming till September 1, one month later.

Said Bannan: “Obviously it’s in our best interest to target Australians that are out of contract at the end of the 2011.

Shayne Bannan, at the media launch to introduce GreenEDGE Cycling
Shayne Bannan, at the media launch to introduce GreenEDGE Cycling

“And at the appropriate time, we will be in a formal negotiation and discussion with them. So our aim is to have up to 75 percent Australian riders, not just in the first year but the second year… it’s certainly one of the aims over the next four to six years to have 75 percent (Australian) riders.”

Emotions still raw after Pegasus fall-out

The GreenEDGE project comes a month after Pegasus Sports failed to do what the former is proposing to achieve.

On October 20 last year, the UCI ranked Pegasus Sports 23rd-best out of 42 teams, thus missing the cut to be in the running for one of 18 ProTeam licenses in 2011. CEO of Pegasus Sports, Chris White, then set about applying for a Pro Continental license but despite assurances to VeloNews that he had come up with the bank guarantee and a balanced budget in the wake of its principal backer, George Gillett Jr., making an eleventh hour withdrawal, the application was denied on December 20.

Questions still linger over exactly what went wrong with the Pegasus project, particularly after the UCI took the uncharacteristically vitriolic step of sending out a heavy-handed press statement, saying the application refusal was “based on a financial aspect, given the serious shortcomings the formation had presented” and that “Pegasus Sports did not provide either a bank guarantee or sufficient financial guarantees for 2011”, refuting White’s earlier statements to the contrary.

Furthermore, the governing body felt “obliged to explain that despite the public announcements (by Pegasus Sports), the management of the Pegasus Sports project proved to be rather unprofessional from the start.” Nevertheless, VeloNews understands Pegasus’ bid to run a second Continental team (in addition to Fly V Australia) to compete primarily in Europe appears to be successful and is on the cusp of being announced.

Next steps

The obvious next step for the GreenEDGE venture is recruitment of riders and staff. Perhaps in light of the Pegasus disaster, despite Gerry Ryan’s long-standing commitment to cycling in Australia and being one of the country’s 200 wealthiest men, that may prove a tad harder than initially envisaged.

With Australia’s best Grand Tour stage racer and 2009 road world champion, Cadel Evans, locked into his contract with the BMC Racing team till the end of the 2012 season, 2010 Tour of California winner Michael Rogers and Classics veteran and on-road captain, Stuart O’Grady, appear the next most obvious choices. Perhaps even the evergreen Robbie McEwen, a victim of the Pegasus fallout but along with Robbie Hunter securing a last-minute deal with Lance Armstrong’s RadioShack team, may extend his racing career one more year before moving into a mentoring role on the team – he’ll turn 40 in 2012.

With nurturing young, raw talent one of their principal aims – a mainstay of the Australian Institute of Sport’s program (also backed by Ryan) the past two decades that Bannan oversaw – fast-rising stars Jack Bobridge, who recently won the national road championship in scintillating fashion, and Cameron Meyer, 2010 Australian Cyclist of the Year courtesy of his hat-trick of gold medals at the World Track Championships and the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, both currently contracted to Garmin-Cervelo, make for key acquisitions. Both their contracts expire on December 31 this year.

But why not have a one-hundred percent Australian roster? Why 75 percent?

Responded Bannan: “I think realistically, we certainly have the depth to have not just one team but two teams on the World Tour. 75 percent is a really good number – not forgetting it’s a global sport; various partners that we partner with in the future could have interests in America or China or Germany, so we very much want to make it a global team, an international team, as well.

“And also, I don’t think it’s healthy to want to be 100 percent Australian. I think it may cause a little bit of complacency, (with the riders thinking): ‘Okay, they’ve got to sign me up, I’m Australian, I’m good… and not only do they have to sign me up, they have to pay double the money.’ So, from that point of view, competition is really what it’s all about, from riders entering teams and, of course, competition between the other teams in the World Tour.”

VeloNews put it to Bannan they he may need to consider ‘buying out’ riders in order to achieve a ranking within the top 10, should the UCI use a similar ranking system to the one used for the 2011 World Tour.

“Looking at the riders’ lists and looking at who’s out of contract in 2011, I don’t feel there’s a need to go to those lengths. And we’re the new kids on the block as well – we don’t want to be aggressive; we want to follow the guidelines. The riders that are available will be good enough to get us into the World Tour in 2012,” he affirmed.

The team intends to be based in Varese, Italy, home to many of the Australian Institute of Sport’s European-based athletes, which of course includes cyclists. A brand-new, start-of-the-art facility is near completion and will open in early March this year, and in a commercial partnership with Cycling Australia and the Australian Sports Commission, GreenEDGE has the opportunity to utilize this facility as they wish.

“We’ll be working very hard to achieve a ProTeam license for the World Tour in 2012,” said Bannan. “That’s our aim, that’s our objective.”

The license application process for the 2012 World Tour starts on August 1 and finishes on November 1 this year.

GreenEDGE, you better get cracking.