BikeExchange Breakdown: In 2021 Team BikeExchange had its worst-ever season. Spencer Martin looks at what went wrong and why the Australian WorldTour team is in such a dire situation after its bold beginnings way back in 2012. Where did it all go wrong and what can they do now?
Who can forget…
Team BikeExchange, once the role model for overachieving teams, is coming off its worst-ever season and currently stands in stark contrast to the team that first took the road during the 2012 season. In fact, in its current form, the team is almost unrecognizable from the squad that burst onto the scene at 2013 Tour de France and took the race lead with both Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey.
Simon Gerrans in Tour yellow 2013
At the time, the Australian outfit punched above its weight at every race it attended and just seemed to exude an infectious winning attitude. They won a stunning four Monuments in its first five seasons and even successfully pivoted to a grand tour squad when it won the Vuelta a España overall in 2018.
Vuelta win in 2018
However, the team appeared to fall on hard times during the break from racing during the 2020 COVID pandemic, which forced them to cut riders’ salaries and even attempt a hasty, and ultimately unsuccessful, sale to a Spanish business group. While pay-cuts were a somewhat common practice over that time, looking at the team’s performance trends since 2012, they clearly emerged from the pandemic weaker than they entered it, which speaks to the outfit falling behind its peers financially and even a potential drop in rider morale.
This has culminated in the team finishing in a shocking 19th place in the 2021 UCI team rankings and tied their worst-ever Pro Cycling Stats points 15th place finish.
2021 UCI Points Team Standings
However, the team’s current struggles can’t be pinned solely on COVID and the ensuing financial crunch. If we look at the team’s PCS ranking over time, it had been slowly slipping since its best-ever 6th place finish in 2016.
Pro Cycling Stats Ranking 2012-2021
Of course, things have only truly fallen apart since the 2020 season, but my theory is that this is simply exposing the cracks in the organization that had formed years before.
The failed sale of the team in 2020, and the finger-pointing by team owner Gerry Ryan afterward, made it clear that communication wasn’t great between the team’s management and its ownership group, and perhaps even hinted that funding for the team had been substantially constricted since Orica had left as a sponsor following the 2017 season. Indeed, the fact that the team’s title sponsors since have been firms owned (or at least heavily invested in) by Ryan, Mitchelton, and BikeExchange, would indicate a struggle to find outside money.
Can Gerry Ryan keep funding the team?
Losing the Battle at Home
These suspected financial struggles, and the behind-the-scenes miscommunication that led to the mishandled sale, seem to have taken away the team’s biggest advantage, which was its fertile home recruiting ground. Despite being a small country where cycling is a niche sport, Australia produces a shocking amount of cycling talent. And until recently, nearly all of that talent would make the jump to the WorldTour via the BikeExchange (aka Greenedge) organization.
But, in recent years, their near-monopoly on local talent (I believe Rohan Dennis, Heinrich Haussler, and Richie Porte are the only major current Australian stars to have never raced for the team, and all went pro before the founding of the team) has been broken up, and major emerging talents like Michael Storer, Jay Vine, who was racing locally in Australia as recently as 2020, and Luke Plapp, a 20-year-old track cycling star, have all gone to foreign squads.
Plapp snapped up by Ineos for the next three years
As far as the country’s young stars, Ben O’Connor, Jack Haig, Jai Hindley, and Caleb Ewan all rode for the team in the past, but left in recent years and have gone on to experience massive success since departing.
This regression in recruiting and retaining top talent shows when we look at the top-30 Australian riders in the current Pro Cycling Stats rider rankings. While the team has 11 of the top 30 riders, they only count one out of the top seven in their ranks.
On a positive note, what also stands out is just how close to its Australian identity the team has remained during its time in the top-flight. Twelve out of the team’s 29-riders in 2021 were Australian, which is a highly impressive number for a team from a non-European country.
Australian through and through
Where They Go From Here
The good news is that team owner Gerry Ryan recently waved out an investment (or acquisition offer) from the investment group behind the Canadian company Premier Tech, and appears willing to double-down on the team to return it to its former glory. They have made noise in the press recently about signing Tom Dumoulin, who would be a perfect addition for them, from Jumbo-Visma, but in my opinion, the true key to success for the team in the long-term is to re-establish their dominance in the transfer market with Australian talent.
In the short term, the calculation is more difficult. If we go through their current roster, multiple years of losing top talent without replacing it have taken their toll. The team’s major star, Michael Matthews, has only won a single race over the past two seasons (and zero in 2021), and their main GC option, Simon Yates, simply isn’t a top-tier contender that can go toe-to-toe with sport’s best. Despite their struggles, the team has invested massive resources into both of these riders at the biggest races, which has yielded disappointing results.
Can Durbridge pick up stage wins?
To turn things around in 2022, the team needs to instead use its decent depth of talent to implement a ‘kitchen sink’ strategy and give riders such as Luka Mezgec, Luke Dubridge, Lawson Craddock (just signed from EF), and Amund Grøndahl Jansen the freedom to steal stage wins and one-day races from breakaways.
It will be incredibly interesting to see how BikeExchange fills out the remaining slots on its roster, and how they race in 2022. After such a disappointing 2021, I have to imagine the team will have no choice but to pivot away from its strategy of pulling moves back for Matthews, and instead, using DSM’s (aka Sunweb) 2020 Tour de France strategy of racing with a flatter on-road hierarchy and being constantly on the attack. A current major inefficiency in pro cycling is the trend of teams without a top-tier contender organizing behind and going all-in for their leader (i.e. Ineos at the 2021 Tour) instead of using their collective strength to sow chaos that disrupts the teams of the major favorites. BikeExchange has the combined strength to do it, it will just take some herculean internal diplomacy. But, if they can pull it off, a return to their glory days is still possible.
# Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns. #