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As Simon Yates strutted to the podium to receive the adulation of the crowd and all thoughts turned towards the overall GC at the Giro d’Italia, and the ramifications of Yates’ statement victory on stage 2. This was a huge win, both in terms of the season and the here and now and the complexities of the Giro’s overall standings.
But while the media circus fixates on the few seconds won and lost here and there, BikeExchange-Jayco owner Gerry Ryan stood back from the podium, and simply savored the moment of seeing one of his riders on the top step. Even for a man who has seen his team pull on yellow at the Tour, win at the Vuelta, and take countless other victories, this was a special day.
Ryan has not been with the team on European soil since the 2019 Tour de France, so this has been a long time coming. The pandemic scuppered his hopes of seeing either the men’s or women’s team in action for almost two years, and but for a brief chance to see some of his riders in Adelaide at the start of the season, the 71-year-old has been socially distancing himself from his pride and joy.
“What I love about cycling are the people,” he told VeloNews in a rare interview earlier this spring.
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Ryan’s footprints in cycling are well-documented and can be traced back to the early 1990s. From speaking to anyone associated with his teams or sponsorship over the years, cycling in Australia simply wouldn’t be in the healthy state it is now without his passion and funding. Ryan has single-handedly kept men’s and women’s WorldTour teams afloat for a decade, and while there have been challenging times, he remains as committed as ever.
“I’ve been in a number of sports but I started sponsoring Kathy Watt back in 1992 and then went on to have the Jayco team that raced in Australia and America. Then I decided to get into cycling more by sponsoring the Victoria Institute of Sport, which has certainly brought in some champions, like Cadel Evans, Baden Cooke, Simon Gerrans, and Matt Wilson. They all came through that system. I sponsored a lot of groups but one day I was sitting in Paris watching Cadel win the Tour and I said, ‘next year we’ve got to get a team together.’ It took many years to get to that point, we didn’t just rush it because it’s a hard process and you need the right people.”
Creating the right culture
People and culture seem to be central to almost everything Ryan does in cycling. When asked if his relationship with the sport comes down to passion or business he answers in a flash.
“Passion. Put it this way, I didn’t get into cycling to make money. I got into cycling because of my passion. I wanted to have an Australian team in the Tour de France but we are an international team with international staff working around the globe with a great group of riders.”
‘It gives me a lot of satisfaction but I get a lot of joy seeing riders on the men’s and women’s side grow and develop. I grew up in a very humble setting. I had to work hard to get where I am today and in the organization I work at, to see people come from the factory floor, or from the stage on theatre, and run productions around the world, it gives me a lot of satisfaction. I love seeing people take an opportunity that they’ve been given.”
The BikeExchange squad has always stood apart from other teams in terms of their culture and environment. Few leave the camp with a bad word to say about the team, while the popularity from their early Back Stage Pass video has evolved into their recent On the Wheel Series, where fans are taken behind the scenes and into the real lives of the riders involved.
The culture and ethos starts with Ryan, who admits that not every decision he’s made in regard to the cycling team has been the right one. He won’t talk about this specifically but the whole Manuela Fundación experience in 2020 left a scar and lead to a management overhaul, while the team struggled for wins all throughout 2021. It was one of their worst seasons to date but part of that was down to the fact that the team needed time to make significant structural changes.
Brent Copeland was brought in to steady the ship, while Matt White remained in charge of directing the riders on the ground. The pair have struck up a strong working relationship with rider recruitment and development being key to the improved success. The late signing of Dylan Groenewegen in the off-season, coupled with the development of Kaden Groves, helped to offset the departure of Adam Yates last year, and some of the budgetary constraints the team is up against when competing with financially stronger squads.
Ryan admits that although he owns the team, he gives his management staff room to breathe and make their own decisions.
“Matty White, Brent, and the directors discuss things like rider recruitment, and then it’s Matty’s recommendation to Brent and then to me. I look at the financial side, the motivation if the person will fit with the culture and the type of person they are. When it comes to ability there’s no point in me making those decisions because one I’m hiring smarter people than me, and you’ve got to leave it to them,” he said.
Culture is a word that keeps cropping up in conversation with Ryan.
“It’s not just about cycling, it’s about every organization, and I’m involved in other sports as well other businesses but it starts with people having the same values, work ethic, and culture.”
“We’ve not always got it right but we want that culture where we all respect each other. It’s been tough for the last couple of years. I hadn’t been with the team for two and half years because of COVID. Brent has taken over the team, set a path, and re-engineered the team. We’re confident that what we did over the winter in 2021 has brought some of our values back and some of the riders who I saw at the start of the year said that they’re loving the atmosphere and that it’s back to where it was four or five years ago.”
Successful chemistry off the bike lends itself to success in the saddle, and the men’s team has already won as many races in 2022 — nine to be exact — as they did during the entirety of last season. The women’s team has been a bit slower out of the blocks but they endured a huge roster overall over the winter and lost key riders to several rival teams. The arrival of Ruby Roseman-Gannon, however, suggested that Ryan could have another major road star on the horizon, while the likes of Amanda Spratt and Kristen Faulkner will be hoping to find form in the second half of the year.
Improvements do take time, however, and COVID certainly seemed to hit the squad harder than most.
“We just lost our way on the rider front. Brent and the top management have been focused on our future, and where we want to be. We just didn’t gel like we have in the past in 2021. COVID was part of that and mentally I think that COVID really affected performance,” Ryan said.
“COVID was the biggest factor. It was okay to sit around on Zoom but to be able to be there, to sit there in a room, it gives you a better feel for the direction that the team needs to move in. Brent has brought in a new structure, and we had to bring in some new people. We’ve probably had one of the least turnovers of staff and maybe riders but you need to look ahead and Brent has been key in that.”
It looked as though the team’s sponsorship search in 2021 liked to be successful with a result ending in a happy conclusion last year when Premier-Tech reached a late stage of negotiations with Ryan. The deal looked to be nearly complete with just signatures needed but at the last minute, the Canadian firm pulled back and eventually partnered with Israel Start-Up Nation.
That episode was a clear indication of two things. First, Ryan’s desire to find a long-term partner to help the viability of the team but also the fact that any prospective suitor had to meet his highest standards and requirements. Ryan had nothing but praise for Premier-Tech when discussing them, however, and pointed to only logistical issues rather than financial or cultural differences.
“Premier Tech, it was just about how to fit one and a half teams into one. They were very respectful people but at that stage, to try and fit everyone into the roster and the budget, it didn’t fit in the end.”
But the episode begged the wider question around the legacy of the team, and how to go forward. Nothing lasts forever in cycling and at some point, the team will need to supplement Ryan’s support with outside help. Giant’s appearance on the jersey certainly helps in that regard but when it comes to a long-term vision Ryan isn’t in the mood to talk about stepping away from the sport. He and his management are already on the hunt for new signings for 2023 and bringing in riders on two-year deals.
“My aim is around financial stability,” he said.
“If there was a partner who came in and fit… but I’m committed and enjoying it. I didn’t realize just how much I missed it until when I was in Adelaide at the start of the year.”
“I’m looking forward to enjoying every year that I’m involved. I don’t have a one- or a two-year plan, but I want the team to continue and for the team to be viable as a platform for success. I think that we’ve got a good roster, maybe not to win a Tour de France but maybe a Giro with Simon.”
The specific question for Ryan though is whether he sees a finish line for his involvement.
“There isn’t one. While I’m able to travel, I’m enjoying it, and able to provide for the team, I’ll keep doing it. As I keep saying to people, this is no dress rehearsal, so you’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing.”
“I’ve enjoyed this journey so far. When I sat around with the women’s team after they won in Adelaide, to hear their stories and their banter, it was incredible. We had two riders there who were really young and they were hanging on every word, and I turned to them and said, ‘hey you’re the future.’ I thrive off this, and so do these young riders. You asked me what impresses me and I remember Robbie McEwen before he was a champion. He never changed as a person, he won so much, came back and just remained the same person. He gave something back and so many others did, even when they didn’t have to.”
Maybe that’s Ryan’s legacy. Not just creating a successful pathway for several generations of riders but setting an example for those that come through, and ensuring that even if he does eventually stop one day, there will be countless riders and ex-pros well aware that giving back to the sport is one of the best ways in which it can grow. That’s a pretty impressive legacy.
For now, though, the focus isn’t on the long-term, it’s on the Giro, and by the look on Ryan’s face as Yates stepped on the podium, there should be many more happy days to come.