In 2018, the Australian Cycling Academy Continental team will provide a pathway into the professional ranks of young Australian riders. Created by former professionals Ben Kersten and Matt Wilson, the primarily U23 development team is backed by the University of the Sunshine Coast and Sunshine Coast Council for a minimum of three years. The team will be known as ACA-Ride Sunshine Coast.
Former WorldTour rider Leigh Howard will captain the team which also includes current team pursuit world champions Sam Welsford and Kelland O'Brien on a 13-rider roster. The team's race programme will include the National Road Series (NRS) in Australia with the aim to also compete aboard, including across Asia.
For Kersten and Wilson, the team is a realisation of a dream years in the making that was always about providing a pathway to a professional contract for young riders. The team also pays tribute to their shared father-in-law, the late Garth Prowd.
"Matt and I spoke about it for years about how we would do a development team if we did one ourselves and everything just came together at once," Kersten told Cyclingnews of the team's genesis. "We decided this might be the perfect opportunity. At the same time, Cycling Australia was going through a crisis and at the time we didn't know what they were going to do. But you could see the road was going to be scaled back and the institutes would be scaled back. It as really the ideal time."
While helping the project, Wilson remains fully committed to his role as a sports director on Orica-Scott with the ACA Kersten's 'baby'. Through his role with the New South Wales Institute of Sport and its now-defunct Continental team in recent years, Kersten knows the depth and quality of the Australian cycling scene as well as anyone. When it came to putting together a roster, Kersten explained it was an easy decision to focus on youth with a number of his NSWIS riders also making the move across to the new team.
"I think that is where the biggest gains can be made for Australian cycling. At grassroots and young level," he said of the focus on development. "The scaling back of the WorldTour Academy team with Cycling Australia meant there was less and less opportunity for good young Australian riders. The only option really was to go into small NRS teams or go by yourself into Europe unless they were the top tier but the top tier is always going to be ok. They will always find spots but it's the second tier of guys who need a few more years."
With the focus on development and youth, the team isn't just concerned with results and performances on the bike but is also ensuring its riders understand the necessity of thinking and planning their future post-cycling.
"The reality is with those second tier guys is that they will have to have a career once cycling finishes," Kersten added. "Even if they do make a career out of cycling, they will probably not be the top earners and able to retire [off cycling]. We wanted to create a model that at the end of their cycling career, the world didn't end. They would have something to fall back on with a job or idea when they stop."
With the University of the Sunshine Coast connection, the opportunity exists for the team riders to study. While Kersten won't 'force' anyone to study, he and team management "strongly recommend it and will educate our riders on the importance of it and present them with the opportunity and it's up to them if they take it or not."
For Kesten and Wilson, the team proposal was built around the university and council and ambition for the region to become "the destination of choice" for high-performance sports. For the duo, the team could only exist with sponsors aligned with their development goals. And in the two major backers, Kersten and Wilson have the foundation for the project that they both hope will lead to long-term success.
"Sustainability of this model is everything. We are looking at this as a ten-year plan," Kersten said. "The council and university have agreed to three years at this stage so there is that stability there for the moment. As far as thinking of Pro-Continental level, that is so far down the track we couldn't really think about now. We want to concentrate on doing this as best as we can and that is about as far as we can see at the moment."
Currently the team name suggests a solely Australian focus and for now, it will be 100 percent Australian, but "it is not something we will close off for the future," added Kersten who is looking to set a solid foundation before committing to any grand statements.
The team will make its race debut at the Australian national championships early-next month in Ballarat and is then aiming for a start at the 2.1 Herald Sun Tour in February. From there, the team is aiming to balance an Australian and Asian racing programme but with his previous experience on the NSWIS squad, Kersten is aware of the race calendar uncertainty at Continental level. Whatever the race schedule, the focus remains squarely on providing opportunities for the riders and ensuring everything is accounted for in their development to pursue their dreams of a professional contract.
Australian Cycling Academy 2018 roster: Leigh Howard, Kelland O'Brien, Sam Welsford, Cameron Scott, Daniel Fitter, Mitchell Wright, Michael Potter, Amarni Gates, Elliot Schultz, Aidan Kampers, Toby Orchard, Ashley Mackay and Alistair Mackellar.