Despite a change of name in 2014 from Huon Salmon-Genesys to Avanti Racing Team, the Tasmanian UCI Continental team hasn't missed a beat in continuing its winning ways. Team owners Steve Price and Andrew Christie-Johnson have overseen the team which has topped the NRS team standings for four years running yet have seen several of its riders move on to bigger and better things.
With an alumni that reads Garmin-Sharp duo Nathan Haas and Steele von Hoff, Team Sky's Richie Porte and Will Clarke, now at Drapac, spent several seasons at the top end of the sport. Price and Christie-Johnson also bade farewell to Nathan Earle at the end of 2013 who signed for Sky.
Jack Haig is a name that most Australian cycling fans are well aware of and having claimed the overall NRS individual prize last year, the best young riders jersey at both the Tour Down Under and the Jayco Herald Sun Tour this year, he looks like being the next rider to move on.
Cyclingnews spoke to team manager Steve Price about the team and its seemingly endless level of success on a budget much smaller than most imagine.
CN: How was your preparation for the start of the 2014 NRS series and how are you finding the season?
It's all pretty much going to plan. We aim to perform as strongly as we can at every event we take part in but we also have other goals this year with a big block of Asian racing as well, but our preparation for the year so far has been very successful. [Joe Cooper won the first NRS event of 2014, the Tour de Perth, in March].
CN: How do you decide on your team rosters? What processes do you go through in recruiting riders?
It's a process that we start very early in the season. For example, for this year, we started looking at riders as early as May 2013. We already have a fairly good idea of the riders we want and the riders we could lose through moving on to bigger and better things like Nathan Earle last year or guys that have had a really good crack [at racing] but have decided to do different things.
We work to a bit of a recipe, we know the riders we need in terms of capability and how strong they are, what disciplines they are good at and we identity the riders who are available and then see if they express an interest in joining the team. From there, we progress based on who the best applicants are and who best suits the team.
CN: What is different about the team this year, compared to last?
Not much on the road. We lost Pat Shaw this year and he was a really integral part of our team and a really good captain on the road. He was good for the younger riders and mentoring them. That road captaincy is now spread over a couple of guys like Aaron Donnelly, Neil van der Ploeg and Joe Cooper.
The way we approach our racing, the way we plan and the way we do our reconnaissance — none of that really changes after 14 years. We feel we've been pretty successful in the way we do things and if it's not broke, there's no need of fixing.
CN: Can you explain what happened with the change in the team name?
Avanti were already signed up half-way through last year to come onboard as a naming sponsor. We had hoped to have someone to partner them but that didn't eventuate. Its not an easy market to get sponsorship dollars that we look for, but Avanti have been fantastic supporters and they have great equipment. It's not just the bikes but Giro Helmets and Easton bars and stems and all the other componentry. Without them, we wouldn't be around for sure and they are backing us again next year.
I think it's a partnership that works really well for both parties and they certainly appreciate everything that we do and we try to bend over backwards to give them as much value as possible.
CN: What is your racing calendar?
We've committed to doing the full NRS calendar and that remains to be our biggest goal; winning the team title which we've done for the last four years in a row. Then we've got a significant amount of racing in Asia which we try to do to expose our riders to a higher level of competition and get them noticed.
Coming up, we have the Tour of Japan and the Tour of Korea, Tour de Singkarak in Indonesia and Jelajah Malaysia and [Tour of] Borneo. Later in the year, we'll be off to Tour of China I and II. It's a significant amount of racing and its why we have such a big squad, because when you are racing domestically and internationally, you need to be able to pick a strong team and fight on both fronts.
CN: As the top ranked team in Oceania, will you be taking part in the team time trial at the world championships?
We haven't received an official invite as of yet and it's still undecided as to whether we'll go. We do have a few conflicting races at the same time as the worlds and it just depends on rider availability and on funds to get there. If we go, we want to do it properly and turn some heads, so it's not the sort of thing we'd go to lightly. We'd only go if we can take the best guys from the discipline and we do have a strong time trialling team but it also has to be of interest to our sponsors.
Everyone thinks we're a massive team with a massive budget but it's not as big as a lot of people would believe.
CN: What are your thoughts on the NRS calendar in terms of length and location?
We are really happy with it. We think it has a good mix and since Cycling Australia have taken more control, there have been a number of really big improvements and one of those has been the increase in the distance of stages.
The stages themselves are really good, the tours are really good and they cover a fair section of the country. We certainly don't have any complaints. We probably wouldn't want to see any more events because there is a lot and this year, the calendar is pretty full. That's probably good for us though as we can provide our riders with a lot of racing.
CN: What are the expectations of the team for the 2014 season?
Definitely repeat our NRS victory from the last four years and we want to have a really good crack at the individual [standings] and take that out. We go into every race to win it, so to win as many stages and races as we can is a pretty simple thing to say but it's a pretty hard thing to do.
The competition this year with Drapac being Pro-Continental and having a very, very strong squad and with BudgetForklifts being strong as well and then with some up-and-coming teams like African Wildlife Safaris and search2retain powered by health.com.au and guys like that, its getting harder and harder to win. We go around with a pretty big target on our back these days but in saying that, you have to have your goals and we do a lot of training and preparation to pull that off.
CN: Is there a particular race the team is targeting this year?
We target them all.
CN: What is the hardest race on the NRS calendar?
Definitely the Tour of Tasmania. The stages, anyone who has done it knows what I’m talking about, but climbing is one thing and then you have days with 40 knot winds. You have significant climbs you have to overcome day-in-day-out and it’s just a really, really tough course as there is nowhere to hide. If you’re not on form in Tassie, then you can easily find yourself down 20 minutes on GC.
It's a big tour for us as the team management is based in Tasmania but it's just a brutal, brutal race and in the future I think it has the potential to be an UCI race and attract a lot of people to it because it is so hard and it’s also in spectacular terrain.
CN: Do you expect there to be a stand-out rider this season?
It’s hard to pick as there are a few guys going really well but certainly the standout this year has been Joe Cooper in the overall and Brenton Jones in the sprints. I'd expect both those guys to feature pretty heavily throughout this year. Joe's in the form of his life and he's an incredibly strong guy. He's probably the leanest we've ever seen him and he's climbing as well as we've ever seen him climb and when you have a guy that puts out the power he does, it's a pretty formidable combination.
CN: A lot of people want to know what Jack Haig's racing calendar this year is
Jack has Battle on the Border and [Tour of] Toowoomba and then he'll go away and do the Tour of Korea with us and then he'll go off and join the WorldTour Academy team for probably the rest of the season. Jack will join Alex [Clements] and Campbell [Flakemore] over there and gain that experience which is great for him and the team.
While we don't want to lose him, we like to see guys go on to bigger and better things, so hopefully Jack gets picked up by one of the WorldTour teams. Jack leaving will open the door for other guys to come through and fill the void.
CN: Financially, what are the major challenges in racing the NRS?
Getting to the races. It's cheaper for us to race in Asia than it is to race in Australia just because of the help we get from race organisers over there. For us to do a NRS race, we don't get much change back from $15, 000 and the more races there are, the bigger budget you need.
We have riders from all over Australia so we have to fly them in, put them up, pay their race entries, we feed them … we've got great sponsors and most of our equipment is provided and most of our riders are paid these days but it's a massive operation and a big financial commitment. Just the airfares and accommodation alone are the biggest part of our budget and trying to find the funds to get to races and do it all properly.
CN: Who are your main financial and equipment sponsors?
Avanti, Praties who are a Tasmanian fast-food potato chain, Shimano, Torq nutrition, Champion System, Adidas eyewear, Giro helmets, Rocktape, Motion, BioCeuticals, Park Tools, Aussie Butt Cream, Zero, Blackburn,The Watts Factory, FTP Training, ionata web solutions and Kenda are our major sponsors.
Avanti Racing Team for 2014: Neil Van Der Ploeg, Anthony Giacoppo, Sam Davis, Aaron Donnelly, Jack Beckinsale, Ben Dyball, Taylor Gunman, Scott Law, Brenton Jones, Jack Haig, Luke Fetch, Tom Robinson, Mark O'Brien, Chris Hamilton, Joe Cooper, Mitchell Lovelock-Fay and Matthew Clark