IT’S BEEN another big summer of Australian cycling for the Mitchelton-Scott World Tour team, and now the bar is being raised even higher, writes RON REED:
THE GERRY RYAN juggernaut continues to dominate Australian cycling – and has extended its international influence. The Melbourne business tycoon and sports and showbiz entrepreneur owns the Mitchelton-Scott team, the first and only Australian outfit to compete at the highest level, the World Tour. On Sunday it won the country’s oldest stage race, the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, for the fourth time in five years, with Colombian star Esteban Chaves in the yellow jersey after the fourth and final stage at Kinglake on Sunday.
On hand to witness this, having flown in from his Hong Kong base the day before, was Chinese businessman and cycling enthusiast Adam Kwok, who has signed on for a “substantial” sponsorship and partnership with Ryan’s development team, Mitchelton-Bike Exchange, which is registered in China and competes at Continental level. Seven young Chinese riders will join four young Australians, two others from England and Colombia as they campaign in Dubai this week and Asia and Europe for the rest of this year. The new Colombian is Chaves’ younger brother Brian, 20.
China has never been a force in cycling, with a World Tour stage race in Beijing collapsing in 2014 after just four years. But Ryan has long believed that it is a potential powerhouse in a sport that has always been highly Eurocentric.
Mitchelton-Scott, which started life seven years ago as GreenEDGE, is a project of passion for the wealthy Ryan, who is also responsible for the continued good health of the 65-year-old Herald Sun race, of which his caravan company Jayco is the main sponsor. Without that commitment it is doubtful if the event would still exist because funding bike races is no easy task these days, as another famous local race is discovering, perhaps threatening its future. Watch this space.
Naturally, Ryan enjoys winning his “own” race and is making a habit of it.
Starting with Simon Clarke in 2014, Cameron Meyer the next year and Damien Howson last year, and now Chaves, his riders have religiously got the job done except for two years ago, when they were interrupted by no less a foe than triple Tour de France winner Chris Froome, riding for the British team Sky. Even in 2013, the race was won by a young Calvin Watson, riding for the Australian Institute of Sport development team, which Ryan also sponsored. “I had an each way bet that year,” he laughs.
Ryan – and the tour organisers, headed by race director John Trevorrow – couldn’t have asked for a better or more popular result than seeing Chaves snatch the yellow jersey with a powerful lone ride up the 20km climb to the top of Lake Mountain in the penultimate stage. With team-mates Meyer and Howson filling second and third places on the general classification, that meant only some unprecedented calamity on the final day could prevent Chaves from taking the honours. And that didn’t happen.
The stage was won by Australian Sam Crome, 24, the only home-grown rider to win a stage. He narrowly beat Meyer in a bunch sprint, with Estaban and Howson also finishing in the lead group, meaning the Mitchelton trifecta remained intact. Called on to present the trophies with his sponsor’s hat on rather than team owner, he gave each of them sparkling wine from the Mitchelton winery, which he also owns.
Mitchelton-Scott has enjoyed a massive Australian summer of cycling, with young gun Alex Edmondson winning the road race national championship, Caleb Ewan the criterium national crown and South African veteran Daryl Impey claiming the Tour Down Under, while Luke Durbridge was runner-up in the national time trial. In total the men’s and women ‘s teams claimed eight victories.
Chaves, 28, was the biggest name in the race, having finished second and third in two of the three Grand Tours, the Italian Giro and the Spanish Vuelta, two years ago. Injuries ruined his 2017 season but after a month spent training at Falls Creek, where the mountains suit the style he developed growing up in high-altitude Bogota, he is back in full force and hellbent on going one better at the Giro in May.
Winning a race in Australia is a dream come true for him. The JHST might be a fair way short of the big European marathons in importance, but Chaves calls himself the Colombian Kangaroo for a reason – he feels indebted to this country.
That’s because Ryan’s executives threw him a lifeline when he was so badly hurt in a race fall a few years ago that nine doctors told him he would never ride another race – luckily, he found a tenth one who begged to differ. As a result, he is now a household name in his own country and a popular presence in this one.
Much like Australian racing driver Daniel Ricciardo, he boasts a trademark toothy smile and because he is small enough to ride racehorses his impressive capacity to ride up big mountains attracts plenty of fans. He is also a pleasant and engaging personality to deal with. He gets a lot of social media feedback from Australia, and when he reached the line first in Lake Mountain, crossing himself and then holding up a two-finger victory gesture, the crowd of several hundred applauded loudly.
He may or may not have surprised himself, having told the Herald Sun the previous day that he did not believe he could make up the 45 seconds by which he trailed in the GC and wouldn’t attempt to do so, preferring to support Meyer and Howson who were closer to the lead.
But that appears to have been one more example of how this team likes to play its cards close to its chest. Before the TDU they said they were concentrating only on stage wins and not until Impey took out the title did they admit that had been the plan all along.
Celebrating his first win in 16 months, and only the second GC win of his career, Chaves said: “I am really happy to start the season in this form. It is a really nice feeling to win a race in the home country of my team. The team rode really well together…” He told the crowd he could feel their love for him and his team.
Asked if he could take the next step now and win a Grand Tour – he will race the Giro and the Vuelta this year but not the Tour de France – he said: “I will certainly try. It is a big objective and will be for the rest of my career. I went close two years ago so maybe I can win one, you never know.”
Ryan hopes so too. The team has fulfilled most of its ambitions except for one of the three big Tours and is putting greater focus on doing that now. “The Giro is a priority for Estaban and the signs are looking good. We’ll be putting a better team around him than in the past, too,” he said.
Mr Kwok was impressed by his first taste of cycling Australian-style and he couldn’t have had a more knowledgeable guide, having been picked up at the airport and driven to the race by the legendary Olympic gold medallist and Tour de France multiple stage winner Stuart O’Grady.
The executive director of Sun Hung Kai properties, he runs a major cycling event for charity in Hong Kong and he is convinced cycling has a big future in the region.
“One needs to look no further than the miracle story of Hong Kong producing multiple track world champions from such a small city to see what can be achieved on the road ahead,” he said.
“I hope to help future generations of cycling talent in China and my home city of Hong Kong, a country yet to have a World Tour contender and national hero on the world stage. In time, we hope to produce a World Tour winner.”
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.