New sponsorship casts doubt on whether Australia still has a World Tour cycling team

For the remainder of 2020 GreenEdge Cycling will be labelled Team Manuela Fundación

Ever since the formation of GreenEdge Cycling in January 2011, its key personnel have stressed the Australian connection. It was the first Australian-registered World Tour team. It was owned by an Australian, wealthy businessman Gerry Ryan, and run by Australians, Shayne Bannan and Matt White.

Its roster would be predominantly Australian: initial signings included Simon Gerrans, Robbie McEwen and Stuart O’Grady, while the team later developed the likes of Amanda Spratt, Michael Matthews and Jack Haig. Even as GreenEdge became more international, signing star riders from England, the Netherlands and Colombia, Ryan was insistent that it remained “a global team with Australian DNA”.

Perhaps no longer. Last week, the team – known until recently as Mitchelton-Scott – announced the signing of a major new sponsor. For the remainder of 2020, GreenEdge Cycling will be labelled Team Manuela Fundación. Its green kit will be replaced by a blue and purple outfit.

Confusion has reigned, even among those close to the team. Manuela Fundación, a Spanish non-profit, remains at an incipient phase – it is launching later this year. The foundation’s sole backer, Francisco Huertas, owns car dealerships and construction companies in southern Spain.

Manuela Fundación’s stated aim, according to the GreenEdge press release announcing the sponsorship, is “to help create a more supportive world”, including through “an overly ambitious project in aid of social work”. Local efforts in Granada assisting economically-disadvantaged people are purportedly already taking place, with wider initiatives commencing shortly. How sponsoring a World Tour cycling team assists those ends, before such work is substantially underway, remains unclear.

The uncertainty does not end there. The press release indicated that the agreement was “long-term”, but stated that the new name was only for 2020. Huertas was quoted as thanking Ryan “for all of his work and contribution so far”, hinting that the Australian’s involvement may be ceasing. A GreenEdge spokesperson confirmed to Guardian Australia that the agreement was for sponsorship, and did not represent an acquisition of the team. But a representative of the foundation told Cycling News that GreenEdge will become “a Spanish team”.

A press conference scheduled for 1 July may provide a fuller picture. For now, at least, GreenEdge remains in Australian hands – governing body the UCI must sanction the transfer of a World Tour licence, and there is no indication the team has sought approval.

But the situation is unsettling for Australian fans. For the past decade, GreenEdge has been one of the nation’s most successful sporting teams. The men’s team won stages at the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, along with most of the iconic one-day Monuments. In 2018, GreenEdge’s Simon Yates claimed the Vuelta red jersey, marking the team’s first overall classification victory at a Grand Tour. While repeated attempts on the Tour de France’s yellow equivalent fell short, securing that holy grail of the sport seemed only a matter of time. The women’s team has been equally successful, with Spratt and reigning world champion Annemiek van Vleuten consistently collecting wins.

The team’s impact has been far deeper than merely the results on the road. Its social media and video engagement revolutionised the World Tour, with YouTube series Back Stage Pass earning millions of views, thousands of new fans and spawning a feature-length documentary. While many cycling teams are famously cagey with the press, GreenEdge made a point of their transparency. In 2017, Guardian Australia was granted unprecedented access to the team for 24 hours at the Tour de France. Positive relations with the press, the team thought, was good commercial sense. Ryan has often quipped: “We are in the business of entertainment.”

More fundamentally, GreenEdge has consolidated a deep love of road cycling among Australians. Capitalising on Cadel Evans’ Tour de France victory and broadcaster SBS’s long-term commitment to the sport, GreenEdge offered Australians a team to cheer for in an otherwise Eurocentric cycling landscape. It also prioritised developing Australian talent, in a move which is already bearing fruit with the likes of Haig, Lucas Hamilton and Lucy Kennedy. Most of the current generation of Australian cyclists credit SBS for sparking their love of the sport; the next generation will no doubt credit GreenEdge.

It is premature to write GreenEdge Cycling’s obituary. In a best-case scenario, Manuela Fundación’s backing offers real if peculiar support in a time of need. Like all sports, cycling has been rocked by Covid-19. GreenEdge riders are currently on about 30% salary as they await the restart of the World Tour season. Ryan’s personal wealth, estimated last year at about $400m, has certainly been hit – in addition to caravan company Jayco, he owns a theatre production company, hospitality businesses and several other sporting teams, none of which are pandemic-proof.

But Manuela Fundación’s involvement presages a bleak future, one without an Australian World Tour team. Having invested between $10-20m per year in GreenEdge for a decade, no-one would begrudge Ryan’s exit. He has already done more than most for the sport. But cycling in this country will be significantly worse off if GreenEdge loses its Australian DNA.


Kieran Pender

The GuardianTramp

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