Sport

How Mitchelton-Scott, Australia’s only World Tour cycling team, is scaling the heights of road racing. By Kieran Pender.

Australian cycling team’s world stage

Mitchelton-Scott cyclist Simon Yates celebrates winning a stage of the 2018 Vuelta a España.
Credit: Miguel Riopa / AFP / Getty Images

Today it is one of the best cycling teams in the world, but Australia’s Mitchelton-Scott can trace its origins to a postcard and a missing flag. In 1992, Victorian road cyclist Kathy Watt needed additional funding to train at altitude ahead of the Barcelona Olympics. A friend approached caravan magnate Gerry Ryan, a known philanthropist, asking for $10,000. “I received a postcard from Kathy on the Friday before the Olympic road race, saying that she was going to win gold for me,” Ryan later recalled. “On the Sunday she did.”

Almost two decades later, the Melbourne businessman was spectating at the 2010 Tour de France with friend John Trevorrow. Chatting with the former national champion, Ryan suddenly noticed the absence of an Australian flag as each competing team’s car zoomed past. “I could see French, Italian, Spanish, British and American flags,” said Ryan. “We had 12 Australians riding the tour that year – I thought, surely we should be able to put our own team together.”

World Tour cycling is a complex, multimillion-dollar endeavour, with long-term contracts and high barriers to entry. But within 18 months, Mitchelton-Scott was on the road as the first antipodean team admitted into the top echelon of the traditionally Eurocentric sport. The outfit’s January 1, 2012 debut – under the name GreenEDGE – on the streets of Geelong marked a seismic moment for Australian cycling.

Talent can be bought or nurtured. Ryan is wealthy – in 2018 his personal fortune was estimated at $487 million. Yet the businessman and his advisers, long-time national team high performance director Shayne Bannan and former rider Matt White, knew they would struggle to purchase immediate success.

“You can go buy a champion, but you also need a team that can back them up,” White tells The Saturday Paper. “That takes time. For a brand new team to try and assemble a stage-race winning team straight off the bat – we just didn’t think that was a wise decision. We wanted to develop from within.”

New kids on the block Team Sky, backed by James Murdoch, had been spending big since 2010 to achieve their stated objective of winning the Tour de France within five years. Sky exceeded expectations with Bradley Wiggins claiming victory in 2012; the team has subsequently won five more. Ryan and co avoided grand pronouncements, adopting a more measured approach in the pursuit of glory.

The World Tour season runs from January to October each year, with teams and their riders having diverse objectives. Some target stage wins or general classification victory at the many multi-stage races that dot the global cycling calendar. For others, success in single-day “classic” races, including the five iconic “Monuments”, are particularly important. Most significant, though, is triumph at the three 21-stage Grand Tours – the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España – and the pink, yellow and red jersey respectively that comes with such success.

Mitchelton-Scott made a strong statement in their first few years on the road. In 2012, Simon Gerrans won Milan-San Remo, a prestigious Italian Monument. In 2013, the team won two stages at the Tour de France (and, famously, saw their bus become stuck under a finish-line gantry). In 2014, they won the Tour Down Under, Tour of Turkey and Tour of Alberta.

But Grand Tour jerseys seemed a world away. While team budgets are not made public, in 2016 French newspaper L’Équipe estimated Mitchelton-Scott was spending $20 million a year, about a third of Team Sky’s annual expenditure. How could they compete at the highest level?

In 2016 Colombian Esteban Chaves did just that, shocking the peloton to almost win the Giro d’Italia, ultimately placing second. “That was a real surprise,” admits White, Mitchelton-Scott’s head sports director. “It was the first time we’d had a strong general classification campaign at that level.” Two months later, Briton Adam Yates finished fourth at the Tour de France. His twin, Simon, was also shining.

Mitchelton-Scott’s rapid progression was testament to its development approach and inspired, sometimes bold, rider selection. The team had signed Chaves despite doctors telling him he would never ride again following a bad crash. They plucked talented but inexperienced English brothers from the advances of Team Sky. Then they developed the trio into Grand Tour contenders. All without the cash of Sky or other World Tour heavyweights. As The Guardian put it, Mitchelton-Scott “boxes clever”.

Twelve months ago, it seemed these smarts were going to be rewarded. At the 2018 Giro d’Italia, Mitchelton-Scott won five stages, with Simon Yates wearing the pink leader’s jersey from day six to 19. But three stages from the finish, Yates cracked and an elusive Grand Tour victory slipped agonisingly from the team’s grasp.

The loss was heartbreaking for Yates and his colleagues, but they did not have to wait long for redemption. Three months later, the Bury boy took the Vuelta’s red jersey after stage eight and, other than a brief tactical concession, held the lead to Madrid. It was the first time an Australian-registered team had won a men’s Grand Tour (the Mitchelton-Scott women’s team triumphed at the Giro Rosa, a female equivalent, earlier in 2018).

“There was a great sense of satisfaction,” says White. “Everyone behind the scenes puts in a lot of work to give the riders the best opportunity to succeed. It was great for Simon, after the Giro disappointment, to turn that around.”

This weekend, Mitchelton-Scott begins their latest attempt at the gruelling Giro d’Italia. Despite two recent unsuccessful pink jersey campaigns, White insists “we have no mental demons here – the Giro has been a very happy hunting ground for us”. Led by Simon Yates, and with the support of Chaves and an experienced roster, the Australian team is among the favourites.

Winning the Giro would be no mean feat. The 2017 champion, Tom Dumoulin, is returning for another attempt, while Slovenian Primož Roglič is in red-hot form. “It is probably the best field I have ever seen at this race,” says White. But Mitchelton-Scott’s 2019 eggs are in this Italian basket. “Realistically, winning the Tour de France is a stretch at the moment,” the team’s head sports director admits. “But the Giro has been our target since the end of last year, and we know we have the talent to win it.”

While some fans argue that the Giro is harder than the Tour, no one doubts the French race’s status at cycling’s pinnacle. “[Four-time Tour winner] Chris Froome won’t be around forever,” White comments. “There is a new generation of riders coming through; Simon and Adam Yates are part of that change. If we can win the Giro, the Tour would be the logical next target – to complete the trio.”

A common refrain at Mitchelton-Scott is that they are a global team with Australian DNA. Of the outfit’s 25 male riders in 2019, just 10 are Australian. The leading role of three non-Australians – the Yates twins and Chaves – has drawn criticism from those who would rather the team develop domestic riders. But White points to 25-year-old Queenslander Jack Haig and 23-year-old Victorian Lucas Hamilton, two of their rising stars.

“If we can take kids like Jack and Lucas through our development team and then through our pro team, and turn them into some of the best riders in the world, that is pretty special,” says White. “We have done it with foreigners, and in Jack and Lucas alone, we have a very bright Australian future.”

Barely a decade since Ryan’s fortuitous roadside observation, Mitchelton-Scott has transformed Australian road cycling. “Without this team,” White muses, “Australia wouldn’t be sitting where we are towards the top of world cycling.” For that, cycling enthusiasts have a postcard to thank.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "Saddle soaring". Subscribe here.

Kieran Pender
is a London-based freelance writer.