Within Australian cycling circles, they’re both feared and revered. Outside the traditional system that is the taxpayer-funded Australian Institute of Sport, they’ve unearthed some of our biggest talents including likely next Grand Tour winner-in-waiting Richie Porte – all on the smell of an oily rag. Anthony Tan charts the rise and rise of the most winning team on the National Road Series the past three seasons, Huon Salmon-Genesys Wealth Advisers.
This is the story of a guy who, without the backing of anyone but himself and a mate, decided to set up a no frills, fledgling cycling team that, one decade on, became the best in Australia.
Since topping the National Road Series (NRS) in 2010 they’ve done so every year since, and are bang on target to clinch their fourth teams’ title this year. All on an annual budget of roughly a third of a million dollars, although that is set to increase by some margin next year with a new naming rights sponsor – exactly how much or the benefactor’s name, we don’t yet know.
Besides that, Andrew Christie-Johnson and co-founder Steve Price have launched the careers of Richie Porte, Will Clarke, Nathan Haas and Steele Von Hoff, not to mention his latest export to the WorldTour, Nathan Earle, who will join Porte at Sky Procycling (arguably the world’s number one team) for the next two years starting in 2014.
“I think, at the end of the day, you’ve got to get the right sort of guys in the team. We’ve had a history of being able to develop guys and take them to that next level, and I think with that, we get a lot of riders wishing to join us,” says Christie-Johnson. “We don’t have the budget to pay many riders; we’ve got a few guys we look after (but) with the money we’ve got, we attract a lot of talent. And we spend a lot of time… I’ve been following these NRS races for fifteen years now, so there’s not many riders that I don’t know. As I see them progress, I approach them – and we always seem to end up with a few solid, good guys.”
The 42-year-old’s pathway into cycling was far from conventional – he was the 200-metre butterfly champion of Tasmania and a state soccer representative before deciding much later to race his bike, then try his hand at coaching. Though perhaps that’s part of the reason why he’s so successful: challenging tradition, breaking well-worn moulds, introducing and experimenting with new ideas, and in doing so establishing a modus operandi that has others asking, ‘How did he do that? What’s he doing that we’re not?’
“For me, racing is a chance for riders to show their ability, but training is a place where they make their career,” he says, echoing the sentiments of Team Sky’s ‘head of performance support’ and fellow countryman Tim Kerrison, also from a swimming pedigree, who 2012 Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins has more than once referred to as “the guru”.
“I got into cycling pretty late myself. I was a swimmer, and that was my background. I stepped into cycling through a mate next door; he used to race in Europe on the Six Day circuit. Then I just fell in love with the sport. We started a local Tasmanian team, which was really a bunch of mates – we weren’t real good,” he chuckles. “I had a cycling injury and was out for a few months, so I started doing a bit of coaching and a bit more work on the team. I never really returned to swimming – I just tried to help out some talented Tasmanian riders and it’s just progressed from there.”
Beginning the year Sydney held the Olympic Games and for the next ten years, the eponymous team was underwritten by the earnings from Praties – Christie-Johnson’s fast food restaurant chain in Tasmania of which he is the sole shareholder, with an annual turnover between $4-5 million. From 2010-12 Genesys Wealth Advisers (a wholly-owned subsidiary of AMP) became the title sponsor before assuming its current incarnation, Huon Salmon-Genesys Wealth Advisers. At the time of writing, Christie-Johnson was unsure as to Genesys staying on board in 2014, but said Huon Salmon had affirmed their commitment, along with a yet-to-be-named commercial title sponsor. “At the end of the day, we want to have a far bigger budget next year than what we do this year,” he says.
While there’s been plenty of talk and excitement about upgrading to Pro Continental status next year, and that if he had a minimum $1.6M he’d do it, that’s now been placed on the backburner till at least 2015. “I prefer closer to two million (dollars), because we’ve always prided ourselves on whatever we commit to, we do properly. I don’t like to have the minimum budget,” he said in May at the Tour of Toowoomba – the team clean-sweeping the GC podium in one of the marquee NRS events on the 14-race calendar, with Earle, Jack Haig and Ben Dyball first to third respectively – before deciding not to proceed with the licence application process in a bid to enter pro cycling’s Division 2. “Whether it happens for us next year (or later) I’m not going to rush it; I’m not going to do what some other teams made mistakes (doing). If we don’t have the money and it’s (not) guaranteed early then we’ll proceed at Continental level in 2014 – but most definitely with an increased budget.”
With a likely fourth consecutive NRS teams’ title in the bag, it begs the question: is Huon Salmon-Genesys too good for the series? Will continuing to race locally – where no UCI points are on offer; all the more reason why the Oceania and Asia calendars should be merged post-haste – stifle development of some of Australia’s most promising riders, who fall outside the parameters of the traditional Australian cycling system, or at the very least don’t get picked up in the talent identification process?
“I don’t think it’s necessarily that we’re too good,” he demurs.
“I try and develop riders to get to that next level, and that has attracted good riders and made us quite dominant. The reason why we’re looking to go Pro Conti is because we want to expand our racing; it’s very difficult in Asia to get starts. So, we feel if we can afford to step up to Pro Conti, it would allow us to chose the races which we would really like to do, rather than just getting knockback after knockback.
“We’ve been doing quite a few Asian races but doing the same ones over and over again. (For example, the Tour de) Langkawi, we’ve never done it and we’d love to do it. We’ve demonstrated here (in the NRS) on the climbs that we’re quite a good climbing team and I’ve had quite a few guys that I really feel could’ve won that race, but we’ve never been able to do it, so it’s about stepping up. And for a few of our senior riders where it’s maybe too late to take that next step (to the WorldTour), I’d like to have an additional budget to support them, to allow them to ride their bikes with a proper wage for as long as they wish to.”
With a Pro Conti licence on hold till 2015 then, Christie-Johnson must now go back to second base, register as a Continental team once again and acquire as many starts in UCI-ranked races on the 2014 Asia Tour as he can. It’s there where his riders will get noticed, pick up UCI points – provided they get results, which they’ve shown they can do – and thus become valued commodities by teams looking to nurture our next big things.
“We can’t race the highest level of races but (we) sure can provide some talent (for them) to take that next level. So, for me, if I can get a rider to that next step, which we have with Nathan Earle, then that’s my goal ticked off. But the job for us, as far as the NRS (is concerned), we want to be the number-one team in Australia – and I’d be disappointed if we don’t achieve that (this year).”