What Do You Get When You Cross A Luxury African Safari Travel Company With A Fledgling National Road Series Bike Racing Team With Aspirations To Grow Big Enough To Be Accepted For The World Tour?
Yep. Pretty much. And not only as a large graphic on the team jersey. If the now four years old African Wildlife Safaris Cycling Team (AWS) realises its goal in the next few years, it will be roaring all the way to the top of both the National Road Series and also, after snaring registration as a UCI Continental team last year, hunting down the lion’s share of successes overseas.
After spending its first few years remaining true to a Victorian-only roster racing most NRS events, team management has decided this is the year to start staking its claim as the team that not only “turns cubs into lions” as it first set out to do, but start its run to become a leader in the pro cycling jungle.
Founded by former 24 hour pro rider Steven Waite in 2012, African Wildlife Safaris Cycling Team has had a sizeable restructure of its roster, developed a new results focus and brought in some international flair.
“We have taken some strategic decisions in our evolution,” says White, still involved with the team as coach/handler/team manager (but preferring the title `visionary leader’).
“This year we are aiming higher. We want to realise a return to sponsors plus create an environment to nurture aspiring professionals while continuing to provide opportunities for young Melbourne-based riders. We would like to shoot through to a top three national ranking and be competitive and produce results at every event.”
To achieve this, AWS has expanded on the UCI Continental experiences of 2014 by adding more UCI level events to the calendar and bringing in riders and team partners with international experience.
Domestically the team will race the Jayco Herald-Sun Tour and made an appearance in the inaugural Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in January, both of which will complement the National Road Series competition.
Rider Darcy Woolley earned his zebra stripes in the Evans race, with points for seconds in the intermediate sprints in Barwon Heads and Torquay and the hill climb at Bells Beach. Unfortunately neither he nor teammates Sean Lake, Massimo Graziato or Michael Crosbie finished the race, but Patrick Lake was 32nd in the overall result.
Looking ahead, racing trips to Japan (with new partner Blue Monkey Lodge), South Africa and China are also in the pipeline for the 2015 calendar and, Waite says, reflect the team’s new international flavour.
It’s a big vision, but one that Waite believes is achievable in time, especially given the team’s already fast progression through the ranks.
Waite is no stranger to big dreams. “I had an early life crisis aged around 26 and had found some sort of pleasure through sport,” he says. “I spent a few years doing triathlon, racing in Australia, America, Europe and Asia and was completely and utterly focussed.
“I won the 24 hour world title team race a couple of times and got some other modest results in half and full ironman distance racing. But I especially enjoyed the bike, had a desire to do it more than the others and when I retired after four years full time and settled back in Melbourne, I found it easy to just ride my bike and work rather than do triathlon and work.
“From there I fell into the bike trade – wholesale distribution in Singapore – and joined a cycling group and then managed a bike store in Melbourne.
“I had met an exotic English girl during my travels and lured her back to Australia, so had a home life as well. I was pretty busy but I think a few people in bike trade recognised my energy and drive and we saw an opportunity to develop an avenue for the bike trade to leverage an interest. That avenue was a cycling team.”
At the back of his mind was the memory of himself aged 18 or 19, making “a lot” of mistakes with overtraining, diet, picking the wrong races – and a desire to help young riders avoid making the same ones. Great motivation . . . but not the easiest to achieve, as he discovered.
“Initially I thought it would be easy, but even putting together the original proposal, mission statements, etc, was time consuming,” Waite says.
“I was really lucky with sponsorship, though, which is usually the toughest factor of all. I met Stephen Cameron the CEO of African Wildlife Safaris through a mutual friend and was also riding with his son Kerry. He was dabbling in cycling sponsorship through races and the Amy Gillett Foundation and thought the profile of the company could benefit from sponsoring a naming rights team.
“He has 30 years of business experience behind him, incredible drive and an interest in being involved at team management level.
“We formed a natural partnership and our goal in the first year was just to put a toe in the water, see what the marketplace was like. We had 10 riders, all from Melbourne. We offered race entries, food, accommodation, kit. They purchase bikes at subsidised deals through sponsors and supporters. We did the Victorian rounds of NRS.
“Then we started to see what we really needed to be was a real development team for young riders and we have been developing as a team since then.”
AWS employed its first sports director in Joel Pearson, who started acquiring more competitive riders, achieving higher performance. In its second year the team raced the majority of NRS events; in its third year it went Continental, rode the Sun Tour plus the full NRS program.
“We were competitive at state level in the first couple of years with a few guys getting around at national level. Then in the third year we placed sixth overall,” Waite says.
Three years in, the team management decided that as well as developing aspiring professionals, it needed to bring in some talent, so this year an Italian, a German and a Kiwi have been added to the roster.
“We have grown in the past three years, gone to another level. We believe the NRS is a genuine launching pad to a professional career and once we bed down the core business will be looking to expand again. We are working on a junior men’s program for under 17s in the short term. Ideally in five years with a bit of extra sponsorship we will develop our Conti racing program, fly to other countries.”
The management team of Waite and Cameron has been joined this year by William Walker as UCI sports director/.mentor following the departure of Pearson.
Since retiring from professional cycling due to a debilitating heart condition, Walker has been committed to giving back to the sport of cycling as well as supporting research into heart disease.
Italian, Massimo Graziato, 26 is the headline signing, coming to the team with two years aboard World Tour team Lampre. He has worked as a domestique for some of the world’s best riders and will be given an opportunity to chase his own results.
Rico Rogers is a well-known rider with years of domestic and international experience. Although nearing the end of his career, he has an explosive turn of speed.
German signing Michael Schweizer continues the depth of the sprinters and with massive experience will provide a wealth of knowledge to the younger riders.
After a few years abroad rider Pat Lane is refocused and highly committed since returning home. Lane is a GC contender and good in all types of races. He will act as Captain on the road.
Sean Lake, the former Australian Rower, produced the team’s best result in 2014 with a win in the Grafton to Inverell in only his second NRS race…
Oscar Stevenson, fresh from his overall win at Tour of Bright, comes to AWS via the Victorian Institute of Sport. He has already proven his potential with 10th on GC at the 2013 Tour of Tasmania as an 18 year old.
Former mountain biker Michael Crosbie is in his first year as an elite rider and looking to expand on multiple U23 National KOM titles. Another genuine GC rider, he has shown his climbing credentials with 6th in the 2014 Mt Wellington ITT.
Tyson Chambers is a strong rider who will play a domestique role for the 2015 team, joined by Cyrus Monk, 18., a development rider with AWSCT for 2015.
Alex Smyth is another strong rider whose role during 2015 will be as a domestique as well as critical in the sprint lead outs.
Continuing with the team from 2014 are Jeremy Cameron, Shaun O’Callaghan and Darcy Woolley.
“We are excited about the year ahead and look forward to taking our place up there with the bigger teams like Drapac and Budget Forklifts,” Waite says.
“It is hard work without much return, but it is great seeing my original vision rolling out and I am grateful of the support of our sponsors, especially Stephen Cameron, along with all the others who come to lend us a hand, including student physios and others.”
AT A GLANCE
Massimo Graziato, Rico Rogers, Michael Schweizer, Pat Lane (captain), Sean Lake, Oscar Stevenson, Michael Crosbie, Tyson Chambers, Cyrus Monk, Alex Smyth, Jeremy Cameron, Shaun O’Callaghan, Darcy Woolley.
Cannondale, SRAM, Enve, fi’zi:k, Lezyne, Drift Innovations, Bell, Schwalbe, Sukkie Hydration.
6th NRS 2014; individual Grafton to Inverell, Tour of Bright wins.
CEO: Stephen Cameron