Nothing to cringe about…

Once in a while one gets given an opportunity, a chance to catch a little glimpse – an insight – into the lives of others. In the instance of the evening of 10 December 2011, I could call it ‘my job’ or I could call it ‘enjoyable’.

By Rob Arnold

Often I write about cycling. I publish a magazine called RIDE Cycling Review. This is the first time I’ve offered a ‘Blog’ to Cycling Central – or any other website. Toby Forage, who manages the SBS site along with Phil Gomes, kindly declined my offer of a retort stating, “There’s no point rebuffing an opinion piece. You can just leave a comment if you like.” No thanks. Not enough space.

Instead, I’ll use my own site. Here are my ramblings and they come in reaction to a piece by Gomes which seems to suggest that there’s a reason to cringe about the culture of the GreenEdge team. Admittedly some parts of my response have been added later in what’s become a mix of tenses – present, past and with hints of what happened afterwards – but it was written in haste for want of being able to offer at least a retort to Gomes’ argument. It’s easy to be a critic, but a shame to criticise something one doesn’t fully understand.

Simon Gerrans.

Simon Gerrans.

But, back to the GreenEdge…

There are people involved in this exciting project that have only recently officially started their jobs. There were application processes that had not yet been signed off when the outfit began its maiden training camp. There were, certainly, opportunities to generate good PR but they could not be seized at a time when many of the people involved are still seeing out existing contracts with other organisations. There was a general request for riders to be wary of what was broadcast on social media sites for one ill-considered post could open a large realm of woes. This is a long-term project and while there is a growing chant from the public for as much detail as possible, some of that detail cannot yet be disseminated simply for legal reasons.

It’s a dire shame that gatherings such as the one in Canberra during the week prior to the Melbourne visit were not able to be broadcast on television, covered in the print media, or disseminated online. But that’s how it had to be. If we use the example of Trent Lowe this time last year alone, then we’re reminded that contractual obligations limit the opportunity to create good PR at every opportunity.

Indeed several interesting points were raised in ‘Hey, Hey it’s GreenEdge’ but perhaps Gomes’ rant is a little premature…

*****

It’s Saturday night in Melbourne. I find myself on a bus coming back from the MCG where the Australian Sporting Hall of Fame is on display and have just had a Christmas party with the GreenEdge team. Almost all of the riders are on board; a couple of Canadians decided to walk back to their hotel, but the rest of the guys piled into the Murrays coach to take a short drive through a rainy Melbourne night.

On the trip to the Grand Hyatt, some on the bus grab a microphone to sing a song at the prompting of one another. A cheer would go out and, as Michael Hepburn told me, ‘If they call your name, it’s hard to back down’.

Earlier that day, they had done a studio session with Molly Meldrum and recorded a song as part of a team bonding exercise. It was some harmless fun and was recorded by Dan Jones who will spent the entire season documenting the team’s first year in existence. His footage of the studio session was shown during a function at the MCG as were other grabs that included what promises to be a regular segment called ‘Bike Riders Can’t Cook’. It’s frivolous and very funny. But it’s not yet in the public domain. And, for some reason, this has raised the ire of Gomes and a few others who lament the lack of publicity that’s being generated.

Molly Meldrum.

Molly Meldrum.

Meldrum attended the same function as the riders, myself and about 200 guests who are – in one way or another – part of a larger family: the GreenEdge family.

At the party, I sat next to the Danish philosophy graduate who had become a PR representative and, by default, became a manager of a team that made its debut in the top-tier of world cycling ranked number-one at the start of the 2011 season. In Brian Nygaard’s only year as manager of Leopard-Trek – the only season it existed under it’s original guise – the team got second and third in the Tour de France. It also won the Queen Stage of that race. It won one of cycling’s ‘Monuments’… then it merged with another team and another stanza of professional cycling had come to a close.

Nygaard is part of the entourage of the new Australian team that received notification only a few days before this particular gathering that it was part of the UCI’s WorldTour. He’s back doing PR. And, for the short term, he’s got to integrate himself carefully with staff who have been working on the GreenEdge project for over a year. Stepping directly on their toes and undermining their efforts wouldn’t be an ideal way to start a new job. He told me, “I have to be patient. I’ve got ideas but I also realise there’s a time and a place to implement them.”

Patience, we are often reminded, is a virtue.

Later in the evening we sat through a series of performances by a bunch of mates of Gerry Ryan, the benefactor of the team who was the host of the party in a spectacular venue.

Overlooking the MCG where some of the greatest moments in Australian sport have taken place, we talked about cycling. I was in a room with a bunch of mates I’ve come to know over the years and it was a fun experience.

A few hours later, in my hotel room high above the streets at the top end of a beautiful city, on an evening when storms passed through and lightning filled the skies and rain whipped my window preventing me from sleeping and luring me to stay seated and recount the memories of what had just transpired.

I wrote some words in a train of thought as the lashings from the Melbourne storm – the climatic condition, I should reiterate, not the football team… in case I offend anyone with my oafishness – continued to taunt those exposed to the elements. I was compelled to put my thoughts down.

*****

Allan Davis.

Allan Davis.

From up here I can see the ‘G’ and the wealth of other arenas in this city that make sport so accessible to the public. There’s a lot on offer in Melbourne. You can find yourself in the heart of this hub of activity – a cultural centre but also a place where the inhabitants pride themselves on the manner in which they follow sport.

People are attending Christmas parties all over town and I doubt any even cared what we – as Gerry’s guests – got to see.

We saw a man dress up with a koala puppet on his arm and, as he sang from under the cover of a black cloth mask, he reminded us that he wasn’t a “f—ing bear”. The singing koala swore throughout his performance and some call it humour. Certainly there were laughs. There were plenty of foreigners in the room so perhaps it was the oafish Aussie accent that raised a giggle. Or perhaps some let the guard down a little and smirked at the foolishness of the situation. Either way, it was part of the show.

There were reports that even John ‘Iffy’ Trevorrow – the King of Larrikins – squirmed in his seat. He appeared to find it a bit too much for a “formal” function… but was it? Yes, there were guests who had travelled from afar. Some could even be called dignitaries but the purpose of this evening, as Gerry reminded us during one of his visits to the lectern, was to “a very special occasion: GreenEdge’s first Christmas dinner”. It wasn’t a convoluted chance to seek additional funding or inflate egos or pander to politicians. It was a function with an emphasis on fun.

After dinner, a reporter who was one of a few invited media guests tendered her critique on the evening and was scathing. The cringe at the lack of culture because of the singing koala was what prompted scorn from a reporter who started her career following AFL but had come to cycling late and realised its beauty. That’s what’s become of our sport: it’s now popular again in Australia. And people get to offer their opinions. But Gomes would, it seem, prefer to see it stay on the fringe… lurking behind other more popular sports as it once did. If that was the case, would there be a need for him to be paid to offer opinions? Probably not, but why not have a whinge? That’s what Australians are good at, right?

From my perspective, it’s good to see GreenEdge attracting attention but it’s a shame that some of it is scorn for the sake of scorn. Either way popularity means that there are more opinions. Thankfully I had the chance to enjoy the festivities, laugh at some of the jokes and cringe at others. But I’d sum up the evening as being a most impressive one with a room full of professional people from all walks of life. An absolute success. I return with a gift of a pair of cuff-links but, otherwise, no commercial alliance – other than knowing that a professional Australian cycling team is good for the business I’m in: publishing stories about cycling.

“Our” riders are successful and lauded. And many of them are now on the same roster and riding for a team that is proudly registered “Australian”.

Tom Petty's lyrics... bastardised by a team.

Tom Petty's lyrics... bastardised by a team.

At the function and, later, on the bus I got to witness some of the camaraderie of the riders on this team that had not yet competed in the GreenEdge colours that haven’t yet been revealed.

The seats on the bus were almost full and there were about 40 people on board. As is common, the tough kids went straight to the back; it was natural that Baden Cooke and his wife Kelly would be the first to take the back seat. Stuart O’Grady would soon join them. Just ahead of them was Matt Wilson and his new wife Meg.

I’ve been part of the Australian cycling scene long enough to have watched it morph from a third-tier sport to what it’s become today. I’ve ignored the many football codes and turned my back on cricket because, like Gomes, I don’t understand the fascination. But I’m a sport fan. And my sport is cycling.

I’ve seen Baden and Matt and Stuey all mature through the ranks. I knew all of them as teenage neo-pros and I’ve seen them through their successes – on and off the bike – and now I surprise myself when I acknowledge that they’ve become men reaching the end of their competitive careers. They could have given up many times over but they never did. They ride because they love it. Nothing wrong with that. And they still ride bloody well, no matter what the number that comes after the typical question on a survey form: Age?

They are battlers on the bike. And in the bus they were all part of a larger cast of comedians who all worked together to get laughs off one another. They are winners, and workers. There are veterans and young stars. But on the back seat alone was a pair of riders who have achieved more than one could have imagined possible 20 years ago.

O’Grady alone is an Olympic gold medallist, a Classics maestro – a champion of the Queen of all the Classics – he’s won Paris-Roubaix! He’s won Madisons and pursuits, led the Tour de France and set world records… he’s done so much but he’s at the ‘edge’ of his career now. Really, it’s coming to an ‘end’ but we now use the word edge in a different way. Over the prior few months we saw a barrage of headlines and references in the media which attempted to play on the words ‘green’ and ‘edge’ – or the combination of the two.

“GreenEdge” is a catchcry really. Just like “Slipstream” or “Highroad” before it – companies that were formed for cycling and founded on what a team can achieve. Traditionally the title of a professional outfit in cycling has been a brand. Sure enough, Slipstream became Garmin. And Highroad became HTC – or Columbia before that. But that’s gone now.

A new era has begun. GreenEdge is part of it. And I was part of the GreenEdge experience on the bus on a wet night in Melbourne. I feel privileged. It was a real honour to be on that bus and watch as one by one a name was called to the microphone and a person prompted to sing; it didn’t relate to riders alone, or acknowledgement of the bigger personalities in that confined space. It was the call of mates trying to integrate others and, already – before a single race – they appear to be part of a “team”.

There wasn’t preference for background or experience. There wasn’t any sense of ugly parochialism. There was humour, honour, encouragement and some truly woeful singing performances but when each person sang, they stopped and felt good about themselves. And there was genuine gusto that made me proud.

Not even the shy newcomer to this level of cycling, Daniel Teklehaymanot was ignored. He received perhaps the loudest cheers to perform a brief moment of song. “Daniel. Daniel! Daniel! DANIEL!” He stood, laughing. And that was enough to gain a great round of applause. It was fabulous seeing this Eritrean as part of this Aussie unit.

greenedge-061

Wes Sulzberger.

Is that what a GreenEdge is?

What is the Green? And what’s the Edge?

In truth, few of us are really interested in the meaning behind the name. It’s the concept that has intrigued us. Just getting this far, to the status of being part of the UCI’s WorldTour is an enormous achievement.

I’ve been part of many other failed ventures that have set out with a similar mission statement and there have been quite a few in the past 10 years.

It’s happening now for a wide range of reasons. An Australian has gone on to win the Tour de France but Cadel Evans wasn’t on the bus. He isn’t part of the team. He didn’t factor into the evening in Melbourne. His name wasn’t mentioned in any of the speeches but there was still plenty to gloat about. And it was fun!

There is a lot yet to do. There might not be a need for football personalities to be on hand to endorse the cycling vibe. There might be a sense of fading 1980s glam-rock that some commentators don’t prescribe to. There might be a website that isn’t yet fully active and integrated to entice viewers to return. But there is a group on a mission and they understand what statement it is that they’re trying to make.

Alas, Phil Gomes opts to start trimming a poppy but it’s not grown beyond a seedling. Give it a chance to bloom first, my friend. Don’t cut it down just because there are some elements you don’t agree on. Wait, observe. Respect what’s been done and what’s still possible. Enjoy. Celebrate the fact that GreenEdge has achieved what no other team has been able to before. Stopping hacking at the heals of those involved just because they’re not yet at full speed.

To go on the attack so soon is like saying a baby is ugly because it’s blue and covered in after-birth… ah, just after birth.

For now it’s about recognising something cohesive, an impressive cast of enthusiasts all coming together with a common aim: to become a successful cycling team.

In a little over 15 minutes on the bus, many got the chance to sing a line or two.

Nygaard eventually stepped forward and accepted the challenge from what was predominantly a crowd of riders and their wives. “Come on baby light my fire…” he started. And that was all it took for others to join – in full voice, entirely out of key, and in the sheer delight that can only come with the rare combination of relief and anticipation.

A couple of others had a moment with the microphone. Mitch Docker, of course, offered to show off his vocals. “I’m… having… the time of my life!” Oh, how he grinned. The others laughed, and finished the sentence with him, “…and I’ve never felt this way before!”

We had performances from riders, managers, mechanics and soigneurs. And then we pulled up in front of the Grand Hyatt. Matt White ended the journey by asking for a show of hands for who would be there for the seven o’clock ride on what was bound to be a wet Sunday morning. A few arms were raised in response. “Come on guys, you have the option of going out later but are you in? Who’s there for seven?” he asked again. By then the count of raised arms was closer to 20.

When I stepped off the bus, it was on the cusp of 11.00pm on what had been touted as one that might have become an epic night. And it may have kicked on but I left them as they stood on the footpath outside their hotel and walked back to my lodging. That’s where I found myself when I started to consider what had happened. It was a trip on a bus. But with good people that marked the end of a function and, to me, it represents the start of something much bigger than what many expect. Even without a win it’s a success, but this doesn’t strike me as a team that’s complacent about just being in the top league: now is the time to start something special with victory in races and, in so doing, taking cycling to the wider public. Thanks for doing that.

Taking in the scene from where I stayed on the evening of 10 December 2011 was a fabulous feeling. Soon enough it will be 2012. There’ll be a world championship contested just down the road. There’ll be an Olympic Games where riders clad in green-and-gold will be taking on the world. There’ll be an Australian defence of the Tour de France. And there’ll be an Australian team making its debut throughout the season. I’ll be part of the chorus-line of supporters. “And it’s never felt this way before. I swear, it’s the truth…” and we owe it all to you. Cheers cycling fans, enjoy the ride.

Rob Arnold (rob@ridemedia.com.au)

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