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Neil Van Der Ploeg (search2retain p/b health.com.au) celebrates his victory in Stage 5 of the FKG Tour of Toowoomba
Revolutionary deal continues to benefit Australian and Asian cyclists
The collaboration between the Singaporean OCBC Continental Cycling Team and the Australian search2retain p/b health.com.au National Road Series (NRS) Team is set to continue until the end of 2015. The arrangement is one that search2retain/health director, Peter Shandon, told Cyclingnews is "the most elegant solution ever" to keep costs at a minimum but at the same time deliver opportunities to young Australian and Asian riders. For the Australian team, they are afforded the chance to give their riders starts at UCI races in Asia, initially as stagiaires, with continental contracts on the table for those that impress. For the Singaporean team, it's the chance for their riders to tackle the hard and fast racing of the NRS that they see to their advantage.
"What they're looking for from us are Aussie riders from each year to stagiaire with them and if it all works out, to sign on with them," Shandon told Cyclingnews. "Over the next few years they'd like to secure some strong Aussies to come race for their team.
"They're going to send a couple of their guys in the first half and another two in the second half of the season to come and race in the NRS," he continued. "Which obviously gives those guys a level of racing they can't get in Singapore or even Malaysia […] and they really rate the NRS, so that's a tick I suppose for what John Craven has developed over a long time and what Cycling Australia is continuing with."
Two riders from the 2013 search2retain/health NRS squad, Cam Bayly and Eric Sheppard will go on to join the 2014 OCBC Continental squad. This year Sheppard took the stagiaire pathway with OCBC to ride the Tours of Japan, Kumano and Korea, taking two podiums in Korea and finishing third in the young rider classification.
"I think it is a good arrangement as it allows riders from both teams to get experiences in very different kinds of racing," Sheppard told Cyclingnews. "Longer road stages and tours for search/health riders, and shorter but more intense races around tighter circuits for OCBC riders. It's good to do a mix of racing so you can do some of what you are good at and some races that put you out of your comfort zone. In my case I would say I'm definitely excited to spend a season racing without arm warmers next year!"
Current OCBC rider, Loh Sea Keong won numerous races in Asia this season and earned a spot at the UCI Road World Championships in Florence representing Malaysia. Recently, however, he was busy putting his team's partnership with search2retain/health to his advantage as he raced the Melbourne to Warrnambool classic, with this weekend's Grafton to Inverell also in his sights.
"Racing in a new environment, it's like learning the ABC again from beginning," Sea Keong told Cyclingnews. "Learning again who the main players are, getting to know where my weaknesses lie … riding in the gutter for 260km, I get to work on some small things that hopefully will give me some benefits."
Keeping sponsors satisfied
Although handing over one's best riders every year to another team can put a dint in said team's ability to earn results, Shandon is insistent that the sponsors he has lined up are committed to his vision.
"There is not this obscene pressure to get results," explained Shandon. "Health.com.au want us to do well of course, but they are committed to development and cycling. Really … it's beautiful! We had their CEO and their head of sales out doing feeds with us at the Warny [Melbourne to Warrnambool]!"
Shandon was forthright in his support for the partnership, claiming the alignment of interests amongst both teams and their respective sponsors has put his team three or four years ahead of where it would otherwise have been.
"I really want to clarify … for people that aren't in the know, they just don't realise how big a leap this arrangement has been for our team," stressed Shandon. "As a team this deal with OCBC has put us three or four years ahead of where we would otherwise be in our development. From an equipment and rider perspective we have benefitted from sharing with OCBC, but in terms of red tape, we've bypassed all the bureaucracy [of continental registration] and our riders get all the opportunities without all the baggage.
"When we investigated going continental we thought, it's just going to be such a fight trying to get invites, we have to compete with the likes of Budget Forklifts, Huon-Genesys, and previously Drapac," he added. "To compete with them at our level would have been impossible. And because OCBC are the only Singaporean team they get invites to nearly everything."
The impetus to invest
As Managing Director of Australian external recruiting company search2retain, Shandon was first coaxed into sponsoring a cycling team when his daughter's boyfriend put the hard word on him.
"My daughter's boyfriend, Tom Donald, him and I used to dick around riding bikes a little bit and he sort of got more serious. He got together with a couple of guys and said, 'oh there's this thing called the Tour of Gippsland and we want to go and race it,'" explained Shandon. "Tom said 'would you mind just doing some logistics and following us around in the car?' And that's sort of how it all started, and next thing you know it sort of got bigger and bigger and bigger."
Having fallen into the management side of cycling from pulls of the heart strings as opposed simply to delivering commercial return, Shandon remains adamant, however, that there is value to be found as a cycling sponsor, even at NRS level.
"There's a little bit [of commercial return], if you were really hard-nosed about it, you'd say there's not enough," he said. "There are certain businesses that do quite well, but if you wanted a branding exercise then I can't think of anything better. Your name is associated with a bunch of fit, young athletes, all of our guys are pretty clean-cut and present the branding really well."
But it's with this in mind that Shandon firmly believes that an amalgamation of the Oceania and Asian cycling calendars would be best. He predicts it would deliver greater return for Australian teams with racing being more accessible, additionally, Shandon strongly believes it would revolutionise rider welfare for young Australians.
Search2retain as a company will also be offering management services for Australian and Asian riders next year. With one of his staff having already passed the exam set by the UCI in order to be certified as a rider agent, and Shandon soon to do so as well, he is hoping to improve the outcomes for riders who would otherwise "go to Europe with their hat in their hand, begging for a ride." Shandon wants to use his team's unique arrangement to make the Asian stepping stone one that is trodden upon by many more Australian cyclists in the near future.
Search2retain/health and OCBC are expected to finalise their rosters and equipment sponsors in the coming weeks.