They have been the stalwarts of the domestic cycling scene in Australia for the best part of the past 10 years, and more recently become very real contenders on the more competitive UCI Asia Tour. But Drapac Professional Cycling are setting lofty goals, with an invite to the upcoming Tour Down Under all but confirmed and ambitions to ride the Tour de France in 2016.
Since its inception, The Drapac Group – a boutique property investment and development company based out of Melbourne – has almost wholly backed the team. When founding the squad, team principle and Managing Director of The Drapac Group, Michael Drapac, wanted to cultivate a culture that produced well rounded, successful people – not just successful athletes. It was long a policy of the team that each of its riders must either have or be studying for a degree or trade to be a part of the squad.
The iconic red kit has long dominated what has now come to be known and formally structured as the National Road Series. However, a shift in focus in recent years to the UCI Asia Tour and races in Europe has arguably seen the dominant domestic vacuum occupied by pro-prospering machine Huon Salmon- Genesys Wealth Advisers.
“We have been vocal in stating that the team’s priorities for 2012 and 2013 have been to dominate Asia,” said Team Manager Jonathan Breekveldt. “Europe was a key component of our Athlete Development up until 2012 but we removed that component this year as we believe that the Asia Tour offers equal development opportunities for athletes and greater potential for attracting a partner title-sponsor.” In regards to Asia, squad member Bernard Sulzberger won the recent Tour of Taiwan and currently sits fourth on the UCI’s Asia Tour, which includes such races as the Tour de Langkawi and the lung-busting Tour of Qinghai Lake in China.
The question of additional sponsors is crucial too to the team’s ambitions of stepping up to a UCI Professional Continental License – allowing it to seek wildcards to World Tour events like the Tour Down Under and eventually the Tour de France.
“The hardest component of the Professional Continental License registration is raising the appropriate funds to support the bank guarantee and minimum salaries of the 16 riders and eight staff. We have secured these funds and are on track with the paperwork and the deadlines set by the UCI,” says Breekveldt. “We are in several serious negotiations with both orporations and industry related companies for next year and are hopeful of securing a second title partner for 2014 to help boost the budget enabling us to sign stronger riders and have better support services for the athletes. Our budget for 2014 has tripled from 2013 and we will look to grow this throughout the years to both improve our competitiveness and spread our program into Europe.”
The Tour Down Under and Tour of California are the two key races in which the team are seeking invites in 2014. According to recent reports, their invite to the former looks almost assured with Race Director Mike Turtur suggesting, “The time has come to add an Australian Pro Continental team to the Tour Down Under peloton”. In terms of California, Breekveldt notes, “in the past, the Tour of California has invited a non World Tour Australian Team, Fly V-Australia, so the precedent has been made and we believe we can be the second.” An invite to the premier American race would be important for Drapac’s exposure stateside due to the groups increasing focus on the US arm of the company.
More locally, Breekveldt believes the National Road Series has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years since Cycling Australia has taken a more active role in coordinating the calendar. He also specifically mentions the positive influence figures like Scott Sunderland have had on Australia’s premier road races. “It will be many years however before we have a National Road Series which matches that in America. Our biggest difficulty is that the premier event in Australia, Tour Down Under, is a race that is not accessible to any domestic teams. In the USA their premier event (Tour of alifornia), is open to domestic continental teams creating a significant boost to the commercial value of their domestic teams and racing scene.”
As the Tour Down Under is a UCI World Tour event, all World Tour teams are obligated to attend. This leaves just one wildcard position which has traditionally been filled by Team UniSA – something of a composite national team that only comes together in Adelaide, allowing promising younger Australian riders and the victor of the National Championships to ride the Tour Down Under. Should Drapac receive an invite in 2014, it is more than likely it will be at the expense of Team UniSA. However because the Tour of California sits on the UCI America Tour, Californian organisers have almost free reign as to the teams they invite; these are usually made up of a mixture of World Tour teams along with domestic based American teams.
In terms of a more continental UCI calendar for Australia, Breekveldt labels the Oceania Tour with only two races – the New Zealand Cycling Classic and Oceania Championships – as “embarrassing”. Incoming president of UCI Oceania Cycling Confederation Tracey Gaudry has made it a priority to look into the merge of the flailing Oceania Tour and the might of the UCI Asia Tour. Breekveldt suggests, “The amalgamation of the two calendars would be a massive step forward for road cycling in Australia and New Zealand. We must however remember there are many steps and decisions that need to be made for this to happen. Having Tracey as the new president is a big step forward and she is already very active in making improvements to this situation”.
Drapac’s philosophy on rider development has traditionally been to foster young Australian riders, both on and off the bike. If Professional Continental status is achieved, Breekveldt understands the need to grow the squad both in size and nationality: “we will look to have riders from Europe, USA and Asia”. The signing of a few established World Tour professionals may also be crucial in gaining invitations to more prestigious races with higher exposure across the USA and Europe. He reaffirms however that “the development of riders as people and making them aware and prepared for life after the door of their sport closes has and will always be paramount”, something that in the high corporate-churn environment of professional cycling is more often overlooked.
With the aim of riding the Tour de France within four years, we could very well see two professional Australian teams lining up against the world’s best in July. However this is something the team believes will be easiest achieved with a World Tour license and a budget in the vicinity of AUD$10 million – quite a way from a fledgling Victorian based squad back in 2004.