Ambitious African Wildlife Safaris Cycling Team aiming high in 2014

Having announced its application for a UCI Continental licence in order to race the Jayco Herald Sun Tour and provide more opportunities for its expanded roster, Cyclingnews sat down with director sportif Joel Pearson along with team manager and co-founder Steven Waite to talk about the team and the 2014 season.

Cyclingnews: When making the application for a Continental licence, did you have a five year plan or long terms goals in mind?

Steven Waite: The original charter is to develop riders so they go off and sign professional contracts. The five year plan was to get to Continental level, so we’re certainly ahead of schedule, but our plan is to be a development team based out of Melbourne that rides that full National Road Series (NRS) calendar and supplements that with riding the Continental component further down the track. Whether we take that a step further with our five-to-ten year plan will probably be when we really look to accelerate the process.

As a start up team, you have got five years of catch up, what have Drapac been at it for? 15 years, more? It takes a long time. We skipped ahead a long way with securing Joel Person’s services which was crucial to that. His experience added to what was a pretty green infrastructure at the start and I think we are now ahead of schedule.

CN: With your emphasis on development, how holistic is your approach this year?

Joel  Pearson: A few years ago Drapac made it compulsory to have studies alongside racing but they proved that couldn’t be done. These days you have to be occupied and have something to do and studies are spot on as it’s not as demanding as standing on your feet all day but in terms in going down the road, making university compulsory with riding is difficult if you want to be a professional rider.

For us the main objective is getting these kids who are lost, floating around doing club races or doing a little NRS here-or-there, and to bring them into a family that builds them and matures them and teaches them the skills that they need for being a bike rider.

CN: What was the selection process for the new recruits? Did you contact them? Did they contact you?

Joel: It was a little from column a and column b to be honest.

Steven: When we said we were running a training camp, that was the drive for us getting fifty serious candidates. We only invited a handful, we really did vet them pretty heavily. I like to spend a week with people before we buy them for the whole year. It’s very intimate to be away all season, staying in small accommodation you obviously put yourself to the sword on the bike together.

Joel: we see if a rider will fit into our group or whether they disrupt the harmony we’ve got. I’m against poaching riders, I don’t believe you should go and hunt down other riders.

Steven: We’re certainly not stealing from other teams.

Joel: If a rider sees the world in us, they’re worth having but if we go chasing them it’s a little bit unfair. If it was good team like Avanti, if they came and asked my about my riders, I’d be happy with that.

CN: With the nationals taking place, what is the aim in the U23’s considering how many young riders are in the squad?

Pearson: We’ll race it as a team but if someone’s really got their sight set on a result you can’t begrudge them for that. Amongst our riders we have four guys who are capable of going ok so they’ll take leadership roles and the others will give service such as keeping them out of the wind for as long as possible or fetching bottles. We don’t really have a rider who can go with the big hitters for the last two laps or so.

The U23s will probably be out best chance, young Trevor (Spencer) is all class. There is defiantly a podium chance for us.

CN: What differences did you anticipate in moving up to Continental level and what will be your team aims now you can participate in wider range of races?

Joel: From NRS to Continental, it isn’t that much different except for more paperwork and expense. Especially in Australia as it doesn’t really allow you to do much than you can do anyhow as there is only one race in Australia that it opens the door for you to and that the (Jayco Herald) Sun Tour.

Steven: We’ve done it primarily and almost solely for the Sun Tour. If there are opportunities that present themselves thereafter, we might look at them.

Joel: Throughout my career I raced through Asia, Europe, everywhere with NRS teams and Continental teams like Genesys and there are always little races, like 2.2’s throughout Asia were all you have to do is pay your airfare and they look after you from the moment you get there. That sort of thing is attractive to us a team because we can give all the guys a bit of a bolstered up roster. The NRS races interstate have six riders so you’re leaving half the guys at home sometimes so if we can pick up a few 2.2 invitations, I’m sure the riders will be happy to pay their airfare to get to Asia.

CN: Although you’re an Australian team, some people think that you are actually an African team.

Steven: It’s a common misconception, we get that a lot actually. African Wildlife Safari is a 30-year-old Australian company born-and-bred in Melbourne. Their major product is taking Australians to Africa so it does get lost a bit in the message but it's based out of South-Melbourne with a staff of 30.

Joel: When it started out, he (CEO Steve Cameron) was just taking people out camping in Australia.

Steven: Obviously Africa is on everyone’s bucket list. What do you want to do before you go? I want to see the lions in Africa. Every Australian has own a house, have kids and go to Africa on their list. We are very much Australian and Melbourne based and we are sticking to that core of racing in Australia until we might decide to jet off overseas in the second half of the year.

CN: Do you see the NRS as a prime pathway for developing young Australian riders?

Joel: Back when I was U19 you had to go over to France and Europe to get the racing but now there is a path here to become a professional bike rider. That’s why there are so many teams popping up going neck-to-neck and its more and more competitive and there will be less and less need to go overseas soon.

Steven: The NRS consistently pumps out professionals and we’ve see that the last few years to when Richie Porte came out. I think from 2009 you can say that consistently there has been one or two professionals come out of the NRS. It’s a good pat on the back for the series. I think the last two years the series has gone out of control, its really stepped it up a significant level and that is from Cycling Australia’s point of view and the teams like ourselves coming into the market strengthens it as have Drapac and international riders coming back to Australia.

You can’t just jump in from club level now and roll around. Four years ago you could and you'd be dropped on the last significant climb but the races are really selective from the beginning and the talent pool has gone up significantly.

CN: What are your aims for 2014 NRS season?

Steven: We really want to get a high team aggregate and get right up there with the higher budget teams.

Joel: The majority of our riders are gc riders and there are a lot of points up for grabs in the team classification so our selection has revolved around that. I might be dreaming a little bit, but I think we can finish in the top three.

CN: Will there be particular NRS races that you’ll target?

Joel: The harder the better for us, Tour of Tasmania would be good one.

Steven: It's the standout race in the calendar and our roster is very much built around that climbing side so even the flat stages there you’re climbing every day and last year we showed signs of life down there. The last few years the race has been seen as the premier event on the calendar so it's attractive in that sense.

CN: What about one-day races such as the Melbourne-Warrnambool? Are there riders that could challenge for a podium place?

Joel: In terms of riders getting recognised, if you do well in that one, you’re a good bike rider. It will be a motivation for us to get our guys in good condition for the race and do well there. The Warny’s a difficult one as we don’t really have the guys who can deal with long distances and once you go over 200km it’s a different bike race. We’ve got Nathan Elliot who has proven that he can race at the level, he came third at the Grafton to Inverell last year.

The rider from our team who I think is a contender for the Warny is Darcy Wolley and he’s a Warrnambool lad. He was the last man by Rhys' (Gillett) side last year and we put Rhys as team leader, you don’t really go back half way through a race who that is, but looking back Darcy should have been the leader as he was stronger on the day.

Steven: In coming years Darcy can win that race, he’ll be an out-an-out contender. He’s still very young and he loves that style of riding. The kid's got heart and he's stubborn as a bike rider but it'll take while to finesse him. In two to three years he'll really come into it as a contender. This year we'll really be targeting the Grafton and take a really strong team there.

Joel: In my mind it’s the hardest race on the calendar, the Warny is iconic but the Grafton is a true road race.

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