Neil Stephens feature, October 18, 2006.
The entry of the Kazakh Astana team into the ProTour to rescue the remnants of the erstwhile Liberty-Seguros team from oblivion has re-ignited the prospect of national teams in professional cycling. With the sport struggling to win the support of both sponsors and the public in the present climate of doping suspicions and investigations, a return to national-based competition may be in order to win back the trust of both of these necessary ingredients. One country with ProTour ambitions is Australia, who for several years have flagged a national professional team to compete in events such as the Tour de France. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes recently caught up with Aussie Tour stage winner and current Astana directeur sportif, Neil Stephens, to discuss just such a project.
For a country which has a relatively short history of success in the sport, Australia has made a clear impression on the world of professional cycling. Those such as Phil Anderson and Allan Peiper enjoyed successful careers in the past and, more recently, the country has produced the likes of Robbie McEwen, the rider who is arguably the best sprinter in the world, a number of big stage race contenders such as Cadel Evans, Michael Rogers and Bradley McGee, plus other successful competitors including Stuart O'Grady and Baden Cooke.
With the Astana team taking on a distinctly Kazakh angle, directeur sportif Neil Stephens has recently been thinking about the possibility of working with a ProTour team based around Australian riders. It is, he feels, a viable medium-term project.
"At the moment, I have an existing contract with Active Bay [the owners of Astana's ProTour licence] and I will honour that contract," he told Cyclingnews recently. "But I do think that all of this talk of a nation having a pro team has re-sparked an idea in my mind and a lot of people's minds that, some day, Australia might itself be able to have a national team in the ProTour system."
"There have been talks in the past and it is something that we have to go back, reflect upon, and really work on it long-term. There have been several attempts to try to get an Australian team, but I feel you have to think about it in the long-term. It is a very, very serious project [to have a ProTour team] and so if we can take it step by step and do things properly, that is best. Maybe we take the opportunity to assess the situation now, trying not to make the mistakes that other people have made. This whole last couple of months has been really good for me as a director. I have been able to sit back and think, 'wow, here is Kazakhstan trying to build a team,' which is fantastic. It is the whole Asian part coming to cycling. So why can't Australia do the same as well?"
Stephens has worked with the team's former owner Manolo Saiz for several years, both as a rider and as a senior team official. Saiz is currently under investigation due to his role in the Operación Puerto, but Stephens says that if he is ultimately cleared, he will honour the remaining time left in his contract.
"I have another year of a contract to go," he said. "I have been talking with these guys [the Kazakh side of the team] and it is great. They would like me to go with them, but I will honour the contract that I have got. Hopefully, the Active Bay situation will be cleared up, but I can't hide the fact that it has really sparked an idea in my mind."
"If you look at the competitors we have and the history of development in cycling, you have to ask why we have so many good bike riders? It is because we have got a good foundation there. We have got the juniors, we have got the national programme, we have got the SouthAustralia.com team, which is doing some fantastic things. And if we can create a bit of interest in the business world, we can really go about making a significant step forward, I think."
Besides the big names such as McEwen and Evans, Stephens said that the new squad shows that the development of riders is in a healthy state. "The SouthAustralia.com [team] has had a great first year as a continental team. It is a national team which is competing in Europe, but they are now continental level. Matt Goss is one of the guys doing well there and he is going to go to Team CSC for next year. Matthew Lloyd is going to go to Davitamon Lotto. So I see that as a first step, and there could be many more."
Australian pride is the key, he feels. "If you can try to associate the business world with nationalistic pride, it is big step for the world of cycling. Unofficially, Discovery is counted as the American team. T-Mobile, up until now, has been seen as the German team. Astana is going to be, really, the Kazakh team. That is fantastic. So why can't we have the Australian team? There have been several attempts in the past, but I think we should all sit back now, have a good think about it and try to work something out."
Like all of those teams, however, a big Australian player must come on board to be a major sponsor. That, simply put, is a necessity in the big business that is professional sport. If Australia should have a team of its own in the ProTour of the future, you can be sure that they won't, like Stephens had to while racing in the eighties without a sponsor, carry a big, empty zero on their backs that screamed 'this space for rent.'