Australian Continental team African Wildlife Safaris enjoyed its most successful season in 2015 as it finished third on the National Road Series (NRS) team standings, had the second ranked rider on the individual standings in Michael Schweizer, enjoyed a handful of stage wins and defended Sean Lake's Grafton to Inverell title.
In the days leading into the final race on the 2015 NRS calendar, the Grafton to Inverell, the team announced it would not be continuing into next season, unable to secure a new title sponsor for 2016. The team's unsuccessful search has become a familiar story in professional cycling with teams being forced to fold when a sponsor announces its withdrawal from the sport, something team co-founder, team manager and head sport director Steve Waite experienced personally last month.
"It is ironic coming off our most successful year, where we have influenced races, riders and hopefully the future of the sport in Australia, that we are facing a sponsorship issue for 2016. Success doesn’t always produce success in our sport, we see it so many times. So, surprised at not landing a new title sponsor, no, disappointed, very much so," Waite said of the situation.
Cyclingnews spoke to Waite about his time with the team, the joy of having Sean Lake become the first rider to win back-to-back Grafton to Inverell titles and what the future holds.
Cyclingnews: Can you describe the kind of sponsor you were looking for, i.e, bicycle company, commercial company, etc?
Steve Waite: We looked for companies that can gain value from the amazing community around cycling. The cycling fan demographic spread is really broad, filled with driven people, on the early adopter's side and typically with some level of disposable income. This makes it suitable for so many types of companies. We also looked for a shared passion for the sport and companies that could take advantage of the team delivering unique activation's as it raced all over the country (and possibly abroad).
CN: Can you describe what it felt like to finish off the season with Sean Lake's Grafton win in the team's last race?
SW: As a team we have a great love for the Grafton to Inverell and a short but rich history there. So yes it was very fitting for the team to perform so well as a unit and produce a dominant near perfect result. Cyrus Monk's coming of age, Lane's leadership and the unity and commitment of the team was as satisfying and rewarding as Lake's amazing solo win.
CN: I Imagine there was lots of mixed emotions for riders and staff on the Grafton race day, what was it like preparing for the team's last race that morning?
SW: We were super focused on the job at hand. We knew we had a strong unit and cards to play and the race and conditions would play towards our favour. Everyone was committed to the common goal, we had no mixed emotions, just focus.
CN: Was there the opportunity with AWS continuing its sponsorship of the team next season without a Continental licence?
SW: Opportunity, yes sure, but with the level where it is domestically, the Conti ticket is a key draw card to attract the level of riders you need to succeed. AWS has delivered a lot to the sport over an extended period, creating a lot of opportunities along the way. They have fulfilled their strategic plan in cycling and their brand is well known in the sport for it, it's a good junction to exit, on a high note, proud.
CN: Do you have any regrets at all about racing under a Continental license?
SW: It was an amazing opportunity and experience to race Cadel's race and the Herald Sun Tour. However, it's an expensive and difficult process to go through to only compete in the Australian events. It's disappointing we didn't get off shore to race other UCI events and add that experience for the riders.
CN: How would you describe the state of cycling as a sport in Australia today? Are there immediate changes that could be made to the NRS for example you would like to implement?
SW: Our beautiful sport is on a precipice in Australia in my view. The governing bodies need to really focus to contain all the positive momentum, before it evaporates. 2016 could be a very interesting landscape. It's a tough and thankless job running the show I'm sure and I wouldn't like to be filling that seat. I have my one sided view from team life and some radical ideas, but opening up communications between governing bodies and teams, riders and officials has to happen. There is a sustainable model that can be crafted together, hopefully in time.
CN: What will your involvement in the sport be next year?
SW: I'm fighting hard to continue the momentum I have behind me in the sport. Some great people are supporting and encouraging the search for a partner to rebuild a squad. It will need a little luck but I might be building a team for 2016 in December. I'm not looking past this option for now but I'll be around in some form either way.
CN: Sean Lake has signed for Avanti, have other riders found rides for the 2016 season as well?
SW: We have a lot of riders stepping up into 2016 to teams with great programs and great chances for them to progress further. Some domestically and a few overseas. We are working with all our riders to help them move on and pursue whatever is next for them. It's rewarding to see and be a part of, it takes the edge off ending this chapter.
The announcements over the coming months will be exciting and proud moments.
CN: Finally, what was your personal highlight from your time with the team?
SW: The big wins were nice and I'll never get tired of that but it's the rider's development and bonds we have formed that doesn't necessarily get seen or reported that really fills your cup. I've worked with some amazing people over the life of the team and that's where the true highlights have been.