Canadian Content to Cycling’s World Tour

Gary Kingston, July 13, 2014 (Metro Vancouver) — Seated on a folding chair under a small tent behind the announcing stage at the Tour de White Rock criterium, Mark Ernsting is talking about being at a far bigger cycling venue in 2020.

Six years from now, if everything goes right in his bold, ambitious plan, the B.C. Superweek race director and director of the amateur H&R Block Elite U23 development team hopes to be in some place like Besancon guiding a Canadian-supported team of mostly Canadian riders in the Tour de France.

“Honestly, since I was 12,” he says with a smile when asked how long it has been his dream. “But really, to try to put something into place, I’ve been giving it a lot of thought over the last five or six years.”

He is 41 now, a road and track cyclist through the 1990s and early 2000s, an event management director for several years and now the CEO of M1 Pro Cycling.

Ernsting caused quite a stir in the spring when he and his advisory team, which includes top business leaders and cycling greats such as Alex Steida and Ron Hayman, revealed plans to start a UCI Continental team, ideally for 2015, and a UCI World Tour squad in five to six years’ time.

“We’re building that foundation … having the legal and accounting teams in place,” says Ernsting, who is also working closely with Cycling Canada and provincial bodies.

“We’re creating a very solid business platform so that in the long run it becomes very financially sustainable. We’re not looking for a team that just comes onto the scene for two or three years and then, unfortunately, has to fold. We want to create a program that’s in place for years to come.”

Ernsting’s announcement was made 16 months after the Steve Bauer-led Team SpiderTech, which in 2011 became the first Canadian team to receive a UCI Pro Continental licence, announced it would not field a team in 2013.

At the time, Bauer, an Olympian who wore the Tour de France’s yellow leader’s jersey for 14 days in the 1988 and ’90 tours, said he was re-organizing and trying to put together a World Tour team for 2014.

That didn’t pan out, primarily because of a lack of sponsorship, and Bauer now heads a company organizing cycling tours of Europe.

In the mid-2000s, Symmetrics Pro Cycling, based out of Langley, was hugely successful racing as a Continental team in North America and helped further the careers of B.C. riders Svein Tuft and Christian Meier, both now racing the Tour de France with Australia-based Orica-GreenEdge, and future Canadian champions like Zach Bell, Ryan Anderson and Will Routley. But it, too, folded in 2008 because of a lack of sponsorship.

A UCI Continental team can include pro and amateur riders racing in North America. There are currently two Canadian teams in that category — Quebec-based Garneau-Quebecor and Silber Pro Cycling — and 10 such teams in the U.S., including Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies, which employs B.C. riders Anderson and Routley, and Canadian women’s star Leah Kirchmann.

A Pro Continental team is the next step up. It must employ at least 14 riders, two team managers and at least three support staff. United HealthCare, which dominated the mid-week criteriums during Superweek, is one of two North American-based teams in that category.

Ernsting said Team H&R Block has “given us the green light to use our infrastructure and the sponsors already in place” to kickstart a men’s and women’s Continental team. The budget for the first year will be between $1.5 million and $2.5 million.

Ernsting was coy about repatriating the likes of Anderson, Routley and Bell, who currently races for Team SmartStop out of the U.S., but says he believes “they would all like to come together again and ride as one team. That’s a given.”

A World Tour team requires a yearly budget of close to $20 million, but Ernsting, who has consulted with Bauer, is undaunted.

He said the success of riders like Victoria’s Ryder Hesjedal, who won the World Tour’s Giro d’Italia in 2012, and the increased TV coverage in Canada of big European events is creating more opportunities for corporate sponsors.

The successful Superweek, an increase in UCI races in Quebec and the introduction of the UCI-sanctioned Tour of Alberta, plus the growth in public participation events like Gran Fondos, have all elevated the profile of cycling in Canada.

“The (return on investment) is very good,” Ernsting says. “Plus, cycling lends itself to the personal touch — companies having staff members integrated into teams, the use of these professional events for VIP engagements.”

Ernsting said a Continental team would not morph into the World Tour team, but would remain in place as a feeder system.

“We feel now is the appropriate time (to start a Continental team) because … we have the athletes starting to develop and attain (the) results that are required to be successful at this level.

“Right now, our athletes have to go primarily to the U.S. to race at the Americas level. That void needs to be filled in order to provide the growth strategy that’s required over the next four to five years to be able to then jump and develop a Pro Continental or World Team for those athletes.”

Andrew Pinfold, a former pro cyclist who was part of the Symmetrics program for four years and who now coaches young riders in Vancouver, said he’s enthusiastic about the plan for a professional team in Canada.

“Being on Symmetrics and seeing what that did for the riders — I mean we’ve got two of our alums at the Tour de France — that is really something that is missing right now,” Pinfold says.

“Cycling teams kind of come and go, but there’s certainly some take-home learning points from (Symmetrics and SpiderTech). Maybe third time is lucky.” Ernsting doesn’t want to leave anything to luck.

“We’re building the right foundation of individuals … with the right advisory board,” he says.

“And part of it is creating the right business structure in place and not taking too big of a jump without the financial means in place.”

So, if he is at the Tour de France in 2020 with a Canadian team, what would it mean?

“Being able to reflect back on days sitting at the Tour de White Rock criterium and having this discussion, I would just wish that everybody behind the project now could join us in a moment like that,” he says.

“We’re definitely going to remember the people that helped support us in achieving those goals, so we can all have fun as a country together.”

gkingston@vancouversun.com