Last month during the 2013 Grafton to Inverell Classic – depending on who you talk to, the greatest or second-greatest one day race in Australia each year – it occurred to me as a little odd the top domestic cycling team in the country, Huon-Genesys, wasn’t there.
Huon-Genesys’ NRS rivals Budget Forklifts were the victors in Inverell with Jack Anderson, just as they’d been 12 months earlier with Peter Herzig. But where were the Tassie boys?
Given the fact G2I is one of Australia’s most important and time-honoured races and Huon-Genesys is without doubt the country’s top continental racing team boasting the top two riders of the 2014 season – young gun Jack Haig and the Team Sky-bound Nathan Earl – it seemed a strange place to pull a no-show, on the surface at least. But convinced there must be a very good reason I started making enquiries to understand the thinking.
Off the record, a few branches on the NRS grapevine had some none-too-complimentary things to say about the star team’s absence. To get an official response I contacted Huon-Genesys directly for a statement and had a most enlightening conversation with Team Owner, Andrew Christie-Johnston, recently returned from the 7-stage Tour of Southland where his charges were the top placed team and took second on GC with 22-year old kiwi, Taylor Gunman.
Whilst Huon-Genesys did race the year’s other epic one-day Classic, Melbourne to Warrnambool, Christie-Johnston explained that Grafton to Inverell was simply a bridge too far after more than 100 race days in 2013 both domestically in the Subaru NRS and also in Asia at events such as the Tour of Borneo.
“We’ve had a massive international program this year, and we’d already committed to do the Tour of Southland,” says Christie-Johnston of the New Zealand stage race, starting just a week after G2I. “We almost didn’t get to Warrnambool either – but after that, where we really worked hard along with Drapac, we struggled to get riders; the guys were absolutely knackered.”
Given one of the team’s major supporters is kiwi bicycle manufacturer, Avanti, it’s not hard to understand why they went the way they did from a commercial perspective. All the same, Christie-Johnston admits it wasn’t an easy decision to skip such a major race as G2I. “I’ve been associated with this team in its various forms for 13 years now, and this is the first time we’ve ever missed Grafton to Inverell. It wasn’t an easy decision, but it’s unfair on the riders – there’s a point when they’re just stuffed. There’s no point taking on such a difficult race if you can’t compete.”
It’s a fair point. Having spoken with many riders – past and present – who’ve done it, G2I is no place for the feint-hearted. But imagine if Sky chose not to send a team to Roubaix? OPQS ignored Liege-Bastogne-Liege? Or BMC ducked Sanremo? Of course, these are situations that would never happen if for no other reason that contractually WorldTour teams are obliged to race at all WorldTour races. A couple of people actually suggested that perhaps it’s time the same rule applied in Australia where top-tier NRS teams like Huon-Genesys, Drapac and Budget Forklifts must turn out at every race? I put this to Christie-Johnston and he was far from convinced, suggesting it would cause a lot more problems than it solves.
“Seriously, very few teams could do it. Just look at 2013, hardly anyone has raced at every event. With flights and accommodation and entry fees, it costs us between $10,000 and $15,000 to send a team to most NRS races,” he points out. “We have one of the healthiest budgets in the NRS, but we still run out of money at the end of the season. Most of the international races are fully funded, however. In fact with a race like the Japan Cup for example (famously won in 2011 by then Genesys Wealth Advisers rider Nathan Haas, now with Garmin-Sharp), we can actually come back with money.”
The other issue Christie-Johnston points out is that even for Huon-Genesys – the top domestic team in the land for the past four seasons – the only people who are paid are the riders. Everyone else is a volunteer. “We all have day jobs too, it’s very difficult to fit things in when you have such a long season.”
So is 2013 a sign of things to come, or more of an aberration? “Our intention is always to do every NRS round of the year, we tick every box on the schedule,” says Christie-Johnston. “Next year should be fine, especially given that Grafton to Inverell will no longer be the last race on the NRS calendar.” Somewhat ironically, the 2014 season is slated to end with Huon-Genesys’ home race, the Tour of Tasmania won in 2013 by Jack Haig.
As we talk, every point Christie-Johnstone raises makes total sense. All the same I still can’t quite shake the feeling that – whatever the reasons – it’s a pretty unfortunate situation when the top team in the land is absent from one of the top races in the land. Fingers crossed Christie-Johnstone is right and things work out better for the Huon-Genesys lads in 2014.
Yes, the standard and depth is improving all the time. But surely the NRS still needs the best teams racing in the best races?