Moving forward with McGee-NSWIS, January 29, 2004
As it enters its third year of existence, Australian based development team FDJeux.com-NSWIS has undergone a name change to McGee-NSWIS, reflecting the level of involvement that FDJeux.com captain Bradley McGee now has in his "baby". Naturally, the team still works closely with FDJeux.com and the NSW Institute of Sport as part of its ambition of developing young riders into professional cyclists. Cyclingnews Chief Online Editor Jeff Jones reports on the team's progress.
Just a few days before the team set off for the Australian Open Road Championships in Buninyong, the newly renamed McGee-NSWIS team sat down at Sydney's Dunc Gray Velodrome to outline its progress so far and field questions from the media. It's clear that this rather novel project, started just over two years ago by brothers Brad and Rod McGee with the cooperation of FDJeux.com and the NSW Institute of Sport, is making progress towards McGee's future dream: to field an all-Australian team in the Tour de France.
For now, the team remains purely a development squad, where talented young riders have the opportunity to learn all the nuances of becoming a professional without being pressured to produce results. And as Brad McGee says, he's very happy with what the team has achieved in its first two years.
" " - Brad McGee is confident that he can help start an Australian Division I team
"It's been a bit of a learning curve for Rod and myself," McGee admitted. "The best thing that's happened is that Mark [Renshaw] has made the big step into the pro ranks and it's really paid off. The ultimate goal of setting up this team was to get riders into the pro ranks."
The 2004 line up is similar to last year, with Rod McGee at the helm as manager/rider and Chris Sutton, David Tanner, Richard Moffat, Keiran Cameron and Ashley Humbert comprising the rest of the squad. Keiran Cameron will also have a place with an amateur team in Dijon in France, as Renshaw did this year. As its name implies, all riders hail from the Australian state of New South Wales.
So how has this new team been received overseas, specifically in Europe, the heartland of cycling? "It's been received pretty well," McGee says. "Not only with Mark being taken up by FDJ but the opportunity to turn pro with a few other professional teams this year. Today's pro cycling world is very tight. There are not many riders turning pro, there are more retiring than there are getting contracts. It's promising that they're not only interested in Australians, but they're interested in Australians coming out of entities like this. It just gives so much more confidence to the directors of the teams, that these riders are so much more prepared than the average bike rider."
McGee also credits the NSW Institute of Sport, which has added a lot to the team in not necessarily financial ways. "What we did combining with the institute gave it so much more credibility. The infrastructure it's got in place for athletes is really incredible, you can't even put a figure on it. I'm putting in the financial backing and the equipment but everything else that happens, NSWIS has got it in abundance. The personnel is incredible, the professionalism is second to none."
An Australian Division I team?
Even in today's world of lightning fast communication of virtually any sort of information, the vast physical separation between Australia and Europe will always pose a barrier to starting a fully funded Australian Division I professional team. But McGee is confident that it will happen.
"It's more than just a dream. I believe it is going to happen but when it does happen I want it to be more than just a brief thing from a sponsor interested in being involved in cycling. It's got to be something that sticks for the long term, a structure that lasts. I believe that what we've got here is a breeding ground for that, to produce the soldiers you need for a pro team. A certain quality of bike rider that's not just a quick guy who can win sprints, but is a good bloke too who can work with a number of directors, speak languages and is cultured enough to be a real professional."
An Australian company would have to have a big interest in expanding into Europe to put up the necessary sponsorship dollars for a Division I team, but this doesn't faze McGee. "I don't think that 10 million dollars from a major Australian company is an issue. I think it's just whether it fits their company image and long term goals.
"I don't think it'll ever happen starting an Australian team overnight and taking on the world. It's got to happen as a stepping stone in a co-sponsorship type of deal with a team like FDJ who are receptive and keen for it. Marc Madiot [FDJeux.com director] is out in Australia for the Tour Down Under. Believe me, he didn't need to come out, they've got plenty of directors who could have come out, but he's more than interested in what's on offer in Australia from a financial point of view. He's got four Aussies in a French team. I'm sure they're interested in talking to Australian sponsors. If that sponsor likes what's going on after a couple of years, they'll take the next step, but I don't think we need to rush in."
With the UCI changing its setup of trade teams in future to provide guarantees to big money sponsors to gain starts into the Tour de France and other big races, FDJeux.com will have to lift its game to stay in the top division. "FDJ needs to come up with some more revenue because it's not big enough as it sits now, which opens up doors for co-sponsorship," says McGee. "That's very positive for what we hope will happen. I disagree with the current setup where companies can put in a lot of dollars, employ a lot of big hitter riders and not get a start in the Tour. Even coming from a team that often gets wild card entries under criticism, but I think we've held our heads up high enough to prove ourselves in the Tour. At the same time I'm in favour of the top club."
Can his own team FDJeux.com survive in this brave new UCI world? "What we're seeing is that FDJ is constantly sitting down with proposals. The problem is over there with all those French companies is that it's very politically based and biased. If a company CEO is more left or right than FDJ, that can cancel any negotiations which is a big problem. But I think an Australian team coming across, that political bias would be almost nonexistent which could make things a little easier. Maybe I'm being a little bit optimistic."
Brad McGee is firm in his belief that Australia will not produce a rider who is competitive for the GC in a major tour until that rider is in an Australian team. "Because you've got Aussies helping Aussies," he says. "Sure over in Europe you're in a race and you've got a mixture of French and Australians and other foreigners and everyone's doing their job. But what really is doing your job? You can make it look like you're helping your mate next sitting to you so that the boss doesn't rant and rave after the finish, or you can go out and spit blood to make sure that guy wins the race. I think that only comes from Aussies helping Aussies. Until we've got an Aussie team together, working together, I don't think we've got a shot at winning the Tour de France."
What drives a successful, well paid athlete at the peak of his career into putting his money into something like this, that has no tangible benefits to him? "Long term I don't want to look at the sport and say 'thanks very much, that was nice' and rock up to a race and cheer on young kids," McGee says. "To do what I'm doing now means I can rock up to a race and be actively involved in creating something that's really giving back and for me that gives me more satisfaction.
"You'll never see me in a car as a team director," McGee hastens to add. "I've done it already in the Herald-Sun Tour. Done it, finished with it. Maybe a team liaison person, I can see that happening."
Kenneth Graham, the acting CEO of NSWIS, is also very enthusiastic about supporting McGee's project and cycling in general. "I think it's one of the major sports and I suppose, looking at this specific program within our cycling program, what Brad's done has been extremely generous, putting in his own money and having this initiative as an athlete. You really expect the athlete to be focused on their own performance and their own career. For an athlete while still competing to consider helping another athlete is very generous, helping set up a pathway both for athlete development, and also now with Rod working as the assistant coach for Gary Sutton, setting up coaching pathway within our cycling program. Hopefully it will further strengthen the results of the NSWIS program.
"Over the years we've had five world champions on the track coming out of the NSWIS program," Graham continues. "And to transfer that success onto the road with the help of Brad's program we'll hopefully cement our position in Australian cycling, and also by this cooperation cement this program's position in world cycling."
There are certainly no conflicts with FDJeux.com, which has supported the project since its inception. McGee explains, "FDJ has been one of the youngest trade teams in Europe. It's always had this push for supporting young riders."
As for the team's goals in the near future, "What we'd like to do is to take McGee-NSWIS to small expeditions to Europe or even America, doing more racing in the espoirs division. We could actually go over and race as a team," says McGee with a glint in his eye, and it's clear that he means to pursue his goals with this project until they come to fruition, as he has done so many times on the bike himself.