Australian domestic outfit search2retain powered by health.com.au enters their fifth season in existence with renewed confidence and a rider exchange deal with Singaporean Continental team OCBC which will see some of their squad take on the UCI Asia Tour.
Search2retain p/b health.com.au came agonisingly close to joining the Continental ranks for the 2013 season only to fall short of the required funding when a sponsor reneged on a signed contract. According to team boss Peter Shandon, the arrangement with OCBC Singapore more than makes up for any disappointment over the gut-wrenching turn of events.
"There are multiple continental teams in Australia, all fighting it out for the invitations to Asian races, and it's one spot," he told Cyclingnews at the team's season launch at Bikelab in St. Kilda. "It's an elegant solution. We know of instances where an Australian team has won a race and not got an invitation back the next year. That's crazy."
While the opening event of the 2013 Australian National Road Series (NRS), the Tour de Perth, remains some weeks away, there is a real sense that the team is very much on move, thanks mostly to a string of encouraging results towards the end of last season and over the domestic summer, along with some savvy recruiting.
Over January, Neil Van Der Ploeg finished second in the sprint classification at the Jayco Herald Sun Tour while the ride of Cal Britten really impressed, placing 15th on the grueling Arthurs Seat to launch himself into the general classification's top-20. The following weekend at the Cycling Australia Road National Championships, Van Der Ploeg came very close to upsetting some of the nation's finest WorldTour exports, claiming fourth in the men's road race, while Cam Bayly had been set to take the KOM jersey only to be controversially pulled from the road with just laps remaining.
Transferring that momentum into podiums and wins over the coming domestic season will be a challenge, admitted Shandon, with the events of January more the result of the team's hard work at the back end of last year.
"The first race of the year will be a test for us, we don't know what it's going to look like," he said.
Coupled with the rider exchange, search2retain on paper at the very least, should be better placed to take on bigger budget, larger, rival squads. Joining established team members Bayly, Britten, Van Der Ploeg, Tom Donald and Matt King will be former New South Wales under 17 cyclist of the year Tim Guy who returns after a two-year break from the sport; 2011 Tour of Indonesia winner and runner-up in the 2012 Australian under 23 road race Eric Sheppard; Jayco-VIS graduate Stuart Smith; Angus Tobin who had a stint in the Belgian amateur ranks last year; and Alistair Donohoe who at just 18 is the youngest member of the squad with a strong track background and is chasing a spot on Australia's under 19 team for the UCI Road World Championships.
While search2retain earned sixth place in the 2012 NRS team rankings, and the same result on the rider index through Van Der Ploeg, you had to look as far down as 57th to find their next representative, Bayly. It is hoped that Sheppard, Smith and Tobin will help close that gap, giving the team more options when it comes to GC, rather than the situation last year where the majority of the team was working for Van Der Ploeg.
"We've recruited well this year and we're hoping the new guys will add some fire power to our roster," sports director Mark Isaacs told Cyclingnews. "We won jerseys last year, but with the added strength and depth, we'll be expecting stage and GC results in 2013."
Whether the new additions make Isaacs' job more difficult remains to be seen with roster quality not always equating to results.
"I'm hoping it makes my job a whole lot easier," he laughed. "Already I'm looking at specific goals for each of the riders. Those that perform well here in Australia will have the opportunity to flex their muscles on the UCI Asia circuit."
Starts at the Tour of Iran in May and Tour of Singkarak in June make up part of the 50 race days that are on the table for the rider exchange between search2retain and OCBC Singapore with the Conti outfit over-committed on their calendar and therefore requiring the personnel.
"That experience is invaluable for our riders that are looking at taking the next step in their career," said Isaacs.
The flip side of the arrangement means that OCBC Singapore will send their developing riders to join search2retain in certain NRS events. Under Cycling Australia regulations, guest riders "may compete with a team providing they are not registered with another team in the series. Guest riders will not be considered in the calculation of team ranking points; ie, they will not be considered as one of the 3 riders contributing to time points and will not be awarded bonus points."
Given that search2retain's roster and management staff are in it simply for the love of cycling, with the team unable to run to a salary, there is more than just results at stake in 2013.
"I don't like to make predictions," Shandon said when asked what the outcome would be if the team was to have a successful season. "I know what I want. From my perspective, taking the sponsors out of it, what I would love is to push four guys, maybe five into paid rides."
Read more about some of search2retain's 2013 roster on Cyclingnews later in the week.