Bennelong SwissWellness team manager Andrew Christie-Johnston is accustomed to spending January at the Santos Tour Down Under watching his riders take wins and animate the race. In 2018, Christie-Johnson takes on an official role in the race as the sports director for the UniSA-Australia wild card team.
As the top National Road Series (NRS) team for 2017, Bennelong SwissWellness qualified its top five riders for the UniSA-Australia team in a change from previous years regarding team selection. While four of Christie-Johnston's trade team riders will line out at the Tour Down Under this coming week with UniSA-Australia, a miscommunication regarding a change in the UCI anti-doping testing and whereabouts pool regulations resulted in the ineligibility of several of his riders in a pre-race blow.
"It was a surprise when I arrived at nationals to hear that we had a bit of an issue with the selection," Christie-Johnston told Cyclingnews at the Tour Down Under team presentation. "Something I didn't really want to hear. We had to accept it and I know Cycling Australia over those next few days at the nationals did a lot of work to try and get dispensation from the UCI to allow the minimal time that we had but that it was probably never likely.
"For me, it is all about the development of our riders. Some of our riders have known that they were likely to get a start probably three months before nationals and they had done a lot of work. That was the biggest disappointment. To be able to tell those guys that unfortunately we don't have six weeks notice for CA to put you on a doping pool list."
Local Adelaide rider and bronze medallist at the nationals, Chris Harper, one such rider to miss the race as a result.
While there is no hiding the disappointment of Christie-Johnston and his riders regarding the issue, he has moved on with the focus now squarely on enjoying the race and taking the opportunity with both hands.
"That was hard but at the end of the day, we rallied together and said 'let's just have a good race' and we also have a big season planned," he said. "We've chosen the best team that we could here from a very small list which makes it tough. It is what it is and these guys are ready to go. We'll get out there and give it a red-hot crack."
The riders and sports directors of UniSA-Australia team have chopped and changed over the years but stage wins and visits to the podium have remained consistent. The 2017 approach of the team was a slight diversion from the norm with a young squad overseen by Brad McGee targeting and winning the team classification.
Due to the administrative bungle ahead of the race, a GC focus won't be the aim for Christie-Johnston. With the likes of 2015 stage winner Steele von Hoff for the sprints and Nathan Earle and Tim Roe for the overall, Christie-Johnston has riders at his disposal to animate the race and look for stage results.
"It will be a bit different because we have to work with the riders we have and while we have a couple of good climbers here, we don't have enough solid climbers to go for the jersey or leading team classification they went for last year," he said of the tactical approach to the six-stage race. "We will be looking at the race on a stage-by-stage basis and who it best suits and giving opportunity there. It is a little bit complicated but at the end of the day, there are two or three good stages that do suit the characteristics of the riders we have so we'll go out there and give it the best we've got."
Of the 133 riders on the Tour Down Under start list, 11 have come through Christie-Johnston's Continental team. While four of those are wearing UniSA-Australia kit this week, he is looking to get the better of the other seven, including defending champion Richie Porte (BMC) and overall contender Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin).
"It is nice to finally be involved in it," he said. "We used to watch it over the fence and catch up with five or six or however many guys we had here. Now, I hope we beat them."