Patriot Games

Will Cavendish's transfer to Sky boost his chances at the Olympic road race?

Patriotism and professional cycling are becoming more intimate bed fellows. The demands of the sponsor, previously seen as more pressing than satisfying the vagaries of national pride, are becoming increasingly aligned with a team’s cultural identity.

Increasingly it seems, professional teams are being created as much to embody a national identity, and to showcase the nation’s elite cycling talent, as to attract the funding required to race in the first instance.

While sponsors have never shied from the obvious benefits of backing a homegrown hero, the key attraction for sponsors of most ‘trade’ teams has traditionally been performance, ideally victories resulting in column inches. And while the latest generation of corporate backers will no doubt demand the highest competitive standards, the trigger for their involvement appears to be the opportunity to be seen supporting the cycling hopes of a nation, rather than selling a few more laminate floors/caravans/satellite TV subscriptions.

The latest embodiment of the trend is Australia’s first WorldTour team, GreenEDGE, who today announced an all-Australian line-up for their home race, the WorldTour season opening Tour Down Under.

Backed by Australian businessman, Gerry Ryan, managed by former head of Australian cycle sport, Shane Bannan, and featuring the cream of Australia’s cycling talent (more than half of the squad is Australian) GreenEDGE is Advance Australia Fair on two-wheels. It unites a galaxy of Antipodean talent from veterans like 39-year-old Robbie McEwan and 38-year-old Stuart O’Grady with the latest green and gold sensations, such as 23-year-old Cameron Meyer (overall winner of the 2011 Tour Down Under) and his 22-year-old partner in the rainbow stripes of world madison champions, Leigh Howard.

GreenEDGE appear to be continuing a trend set by Great Britain’s Team Sky in 2010, after national cycling performance director, Dave Brailsford, had gained the backing of British Sky Broadcasting (ironically, a divison of Australian Rupert Murdoch’s media empire) to create a professional road team with the stated intention producing a clean British winner of the Tour De France within five years – the lifetime of Sky’s rumoured £30m investment. In the absence of an HTC-Highroad constrained Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins was acquired from Garmin-Slipstream to lead the team, and Ben Swift similarly ‘liberated’ from Russian squad Katusha (more of whom later) to join a body of British Cycling Academy graduates in a team with a very British feel.

Team Sky operates a unique partnership between a major commercial sponsor and the UK’s national cycling federation, British Cycling. Brailsford, the Sky team principal, is also British Cycling’s performance director, and draws a salary from each. Unusually for the man at the head of a WorldTour outfit, Brailsford does not own the team. Sky Pro Cycling is owned by a division of the Murdoch empire. For a team embodying a nation’s cycling identity, Sky’s high profile acquisition  of Britain’s world road race champion, Mark Cavendish, was the most logical transfer of the year.

GreenEDGE’s trump card may be the same as Team Sky’s, where Brailsford’s leading role with Britain’s national performance programme gave him unprecedented access to the nation’s brightest cycling talent. Bannan, in securing the likes of 22-year-old national road race champion, Jack Bobridge, to ride alongside youthful talents like Howard and Meyer, may have repeated the trick.

Evidence of cycling teams embodying a national identity can be found elsewhere in the WorldTour peloton. Russian outfit, Team Katusha, is the highest-profile achievement of the Russian Global Cycling Project foundation, and backed by Russian utilities companies, including GazProm. The Russian rider, Denis Menchov, will lead the team in 2012. Euskaltel-Euskadi, with a squad of Basque, or riders raised in the Basque country, enjoys backing from the Basque government and a Basque phone company. And Kazakhstan’s Team Astana, fielding a team including 11 Kazakh riders and led by national hero and fledgling politician, Alexander Vinolourov, enjoys backing from, among others, the Samruk-Kazyna company which runs Kazahk state assets such as rail, postal, and gas services.

The emphasis on national identity is not quite so obviously stated at the newly formed Belgian squad, Omega Pharma-Quick-Step (created from the ashes of Omega Pharma-Lotto) but with two Belgian title sponsors, a team led by national hero, Tom Boonen, and including 10 Belgians among a squad of 30 riders, the team has a heavy national influence.

With riders preparing for a season in which they will race for their countries at the Olympics and the world road race championships, months of racing alongside their countrymen for professional teams could provide an advantage. Nations who witnessed Great Britain’s dominance of this year’s world road race championship in Copenhagen and their victory in the London-Surrey Classic Olympic test event, with Mark Cavendish the beneficiary on both occasions, must shudder at the prospect of the Manxman’s transfer to Sky. Perhaps GreenEDGE, with its host of track stars and established road men, will hope to derail the Cavendish sprint train when it changes its livery to red, white, and blue.

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