‘We just started up our own team’: the force behind Australia’s road cycling success

Australian road cycling is currently riding high. In the past 15 months, Australians have finished on the podium across the trifecta of Grand Tours: Richie Porte at the 2020 Tour de France, Jai Hindley at the subsequent Giro d’Italia and, just last month, Jack Haig at the Vuelta a España. Emerging star Ben O’Connor won stages at both the Tour and the Giro, and finished fourth overall in France this year. With time on the side of Hindley, Haig and O’Connor, and a number of other young stars waiting in the wings, the future looks bright.

At his home in Tasmania, Andrew Christie-Johnston is half a world away from these triumphs. But he deserves much credit – and not just for staying up until the early hours to watch (although his bleary eyes betray that, too). Three of the four riders – Porte, Haig and O’Connor – came through Christie-Johnston’s domestic team, Team BridgeLane. In total, the team manager and coach has helped 12 Australians step up to the World Tour. Not bad for a two-decade-long passion project.

Such has been the endurance of Christie-Johnston’s work in Australian road cycling that he is not all that clear when it began. “We always say officially 2000,” he says. “I think our first season was actually 1998, but as far as the records people can find, it is 2000.”

Christie-Johnston was, he confesses, “a pretty ordinary cyclist”. But he was aware of the considerable talent emerging in Tasmania at the time and noticed the absence of competitive teams, other than the Tasmanian Institute of Sport. “So we just started up our own team,” he says. “It was really just a bunch of mates, and grew from there.”

Two decades on, BridgeLane – which over the years has worn names including Praties, Huon Salmon Genesys and Avanti – is undoubtedly Australia’s most successful domestic cycling team. Christie-Johnston’s outfit has won 11 consecutive editions of AusCycling’s National Road Series; his riders have scored individual and overall victories in almost every major race on the Australian circuit. Whenever a representative domestic team is named for World Tour races on home soil, such as the Tour Down Under, the team is essentially Christie-Johnston’s.

“Looking back from where we started, it is quite crazy really,” he says. “All we tried to do was provide pathways for others – first that pathway was just for Tasmanian riders to get to the mainland. Now it’s far bigger than that. It’s been a wonderful ride.”

In a domestic cycling climate where politics and rivalries can run high, it is hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about the Tasmanian. “There would not be an athlete who has gone through that team that does not absolutely love Andrew Christie-Johnston,” says John Trevorrow, an elder statesman of the sport and race director of several major domestic races. “He is all about what he can do for them.

“Richie [Porte] is the perfect example. He took him from a budding triathlete to a successful cyclist to a professional. He has done that for so many cyclists. He’s so keen for them to move to the next level – and leave his team!”

BridgeLane’s dominance of the domestic series – and increasing presence at races in Europe, Asia and the United States – has helped propel many careers, on and off the bike. Other riders to come through the team include Will Clarke, Nathan Earle, Steele Von Hoff, Nathan Haas, Patrick Bevin, Chris Hamilton, Chris Harper and Dylan Sunderland. But it has not always been easy. “There was a lot of hard work at the beginning – we were a small team, we got kicked around a fair bit, we weren’t much good to start with,” says Christie-Johnston.

The biggest, and ongoing, challenge for Bridgelane and other Australian teams is money. “In Europe, cycling is such a massive sport – but in Australia, you’ve got to compete with mainstream sports like cricket and football,” he says. “It’s really really difficult to keep the team running.”

The team has an annual budget of about $250,000. That sum is spent predominantly on travel – plus race, registration and insurance fees and payments for staff who help out the team. The riders are not paid. “We can’t afford anything like that,” he says. “They deserve it. But we don’t have the budget.”

Christie-Johnston’s involvement in the team is entirely unpaid. He estimates he spends 30 hours on it a week, and the rest of his time is spent overseeing a fast-food business he owns in Tasmania. “My business is my business – it provides an income – but the fun is the cycling side,” he says. “I’m proud of what we have been able to achieve.” Christie-Johnston has even poured his own money into the team – his business, Praties, was its initial sponsor. “Too much,” he laughs when asked about his total investment over the two decades. “I can’t mention it – my wife may read this.”

In 2018, the team merged with fellow domestic outfit Mobius-BridgeLane. It was a convenient marriage – Christie-Johnston wanted to step back and spend more time with his family, while Mobius’s sports director Tom Petty was keen to grow and benefit from the more experienced manager’s mentoring. “When you split the tasks up, you get a lot more done,” says Petty. “[Andrew] demands the best of everyone – which is a great environment to work in.”

But Christie-Johnston is not planning to retire from the sport. If anything, the pandemic-enforced absence from races has only reinvigorated his passion. “I’m missing it,” he says. “It’s been hard watching the races and not being there.”

Indeed, Christie-Johnston and Petty have big plans. Recently they began soliciting expressions of interest for a co-naming rights sponsor (in cycling, most teams are named after their sponsor – which is why names change frequently). Given the financial landscape for domestic cycling can be challenging at the best of times, the announcement left some worried that BridgeLane were in financial strife. But they pair say it is the opposite – they are seeking a new partner as they build towards pro-continental level (the step below World Tour racing).

“To be competitive, you probably want three to four million [in annual budget],” says Christie-Johnston. “It’s a huge, huge step. But it’s one that we’re heavily invested in.” The team is aiming to take that step by 2024. Once they are racing at that level, wild card entry in Grand Tours – such as the Tour de France – would become a possibility.

“The thing with pro-conti – it’s all just about being able to provide a better pathway for the riders,” adds Petty. “It is a hard thing to do, but the sooner we get there – you bring others up with you. Hopefully if our team can step up, it leaves a space underneath us for other teams to grow into that space. We have to keep growing cycling in Australia, and bigger teams enable more things to happen.”

While bigger things may beckon for BridgeLane, Christie-Johnston says his number one goal remains helping young Australian riders make it to the top. He remains in touch with his former riders and says their success drives him to find the next Richie Porte, Jack Haig and Ben O’Connor.

“Those messages that I get from those guys [following their recent successes] are just wonderful, it makes me feel great,” he says. “And it’s probably what drives me to find the next one. Hopefully we can keep pushing them through.”