How Nero went Continental: Asian dreams on limited means

Ryan Miu sits down with Chris Miller, founder of Nero Continental, who added the ‘Continental’ to their name in the offseason as they took the leap from National Road Series squad to registering with the Union Cycliste International (UCI) as a Continental level team.

On a sunny Saturday morning in eastern Sydney, an endless stream of cyclists circles the main promenade of Centennial Park.

The four-kilometre circuit is a mecca for Sydney bike riding, where hundreds of triathletes, casual cruisers and pedal-pushers congregate for their weekly dose of two-wheeled pleasure.

On the sidelines, car drivers – for once finding themselves in the minority – queue fruitlessly, awaiting a miraculous gap in this perpetual lycra parade.

Hiding among the colourful horde is Chris Miller, founder and director of the Nero racing team. Ordinarily, the lean, trim 38-year-old would be showing off his team’s distinctive purple and gold stripes – but not today.

Today, he could pass for any other weekend warrior: Miller rides incognito in a plum-coloured t-shirt and black shorts from clothing sponsor Rapha because, he explains, so far they’ve only supplied him with two team jerseys, which he must keep pristine for racing.

It’s a visual metaphor for the team’s new life as Nero Continental – stepping up a level, but facing all the realities of running a cycling team with limited resources.

Going Conti? “Go to hell!”

Nero Continental is the latest Australian outfit to join world cycling’s third division, having registered for UCI Continental status in 2020. It takes its place alongside other Australian continental squads including Team Bridgelane and St George Continental.

According to Miller, the team only decided to make the move late last year after securing a string of unexpected results.

“If you’d asked me 12 months ago [about going Continental], I’d have said, ‘Go to hell!’” says Miller. “Not worthwhile.”

By Miller’s own admission, at the beginning of 2019 Nero had achieved nothing of note. After launching in 2017 (essentially to market his clothing business) and achieving YouTube notoriety through Miller’s vlog, the team still had no National Road Series wins to its name.

“I’m not joking,” says Miller. “If you’d actually sat down this time last year, you would have said ‘oh, that Nero team have literally done nothing.’

“We got some top-20s in NRS races. You looked at our roster last year and thought, ‘If they’re lucky, they might podium a crit in an NRS race somewhere.’”

But in 2019, suddenly the results started flowing. First, a podium for Jay Vine at the New Zealand Cycle Classic was a sign of things to come. Next, an invitation to Nero’s maiden Asia Tour race, the UCI 2.2 Tour de Filipinas, yielded two consecutive stage wins.

The riders carried their form back to Australia for an overall victory, teams classification and two more stages at the Tour of the Tropics, which came with an NRS leaders jersey for Vine. That was followed quickly by more success at the Tour de Tweed, before an NRS stage win for Jesse Coyle at the Tour of the Great South Coast.

Nero’s riders began to believe that they were competitive enough for UCI racing – though not all though the elevated status was necessary.

“Results wise, between what we were doing at UCI level and what we were starting to do domestically, it was becoming increasingly obvious that we were capable of doing it physically,” says Miller.

He says the question of going Continental was put to the riders for discussion. There was no consensus, but there was enough support to continue investigating a possible move.

“It was pretty split. Some of the guys … said, ‘Why do we need to? We’re getting these [race] starts; let’s just keep it the way it is.’”

As with most things, the major concern was money. A UCI Continental label comes with a hefty price tag. On top of annual registration fees of $11,600, teams must pay for riders’ insurance at around $1,000 per rider and lodge a $32,000 bank guarantee with the UCI.

In contrast, the NRS registration fee is just $1,000 per year.

Going Continental is also a sizable administrative undertaking, with rider and staff contracts, registration forms and insurance policies needing to be completed and brought up to UCI standard. To this end, Nero staff member Luke Manion has stepped in as director of operations.

“You cannot run a bike team without someone who is willing to effectively give full-time to administer your team. That’s just the truth of it, especially when you’re dealing with the UCI,” says Miller.

With enough riders on board and the administration taken care of, financial viability was the final barrier. A partial solution came in the form of a new bike sponsor, Devel, whose ambitions aligned with Nero’s.

“The third piece of the puzzle was the money,” says Miller. “That’s never answered, really – that’s always up for debate – but the thing that tipped us over the edge was the relationship with Devel, being a start-up Filipino brand that was willing to support us with our equipment completely.

“And the fact that they’re Asian; we want to race in Asia. We’re going to be their marketing for the next two years. They’ve got some pretty big dreams of becoming the next Giant. And we’re going to be their marketing, so we thought, ‘If there’s ever a time to try and do this, it’s now.’”

Your Name Here

Noticeably, Nero Continental does not have a naming rights sponsor. Like “GreenEdge” at its launch nine years ago, “Nero” is a placeholder that screams “your name here” to prospective advertisers.

Several financial partners have chipped in to defray running costs, and the team has some savings to draw from, but the lack of title sponsor certainly squeezes its operations.

That fact is betrayed by the team’s small roster of 11 riders and the discontinuation of the under-19 development program it instigated last year.

“Obviously, budgetary constraints mean you can’t have an enormous squad. Certainly initially, you have to have a pretty limited squad size,” says Miller. “Our goal was to choose a really diverse squad: diverse in age, diverse in skill set … and certainly diverse in terms of the runs that they all had on the board. You’ve got anything from guys who have podiumed in UCI races to guys who have just, as of late last year, started riding A-grade.”

The team has had to strike a balance between filling essential roles and providing opportunities for young riders.

“We’ve kept the essence of a development-style squad, while also being realistic that every person in this team now has to pull their weight and could be called up tomorrow to race at a UCI level,” says Miller.

For Nero Continental, the need for versatility extends off the bike. The team is literally a product of the YouTube generation, and when it comes to rider qualities, a marketable personality is non-negotiable. That shows in its recruitment process.

“It’s far more than just selecting guys based on their watts per kilo and their promise in terms of physically what they could be. We video-interviewed every single rider,” says Miller. “There’s a reason for that: the brands involved with us want riders with personality. These guys have to be articulate; they have to be engaging people.”

At Nero Continental, more than most other teams, the commercial realities of cycling are laid bare. In its YouTube and social media presence, the team makes little effort to disguise its function as an advertising platform for its sponsors.

Miller believes that in order to justify financial support, the team’s riders can’t just be athletes; they’re salespeople.

“The days of saying, ‘I’ve got a podium photo, here it is…’ Who cares? That’s not selling the groupset. You need actual, real content; engaging content.”

Miller hopes that with Nero Continental’s marketing appeal, combined with broader exposure acquired through Continental status, the right title sponsor will come on board, as has been the case for other teams.

“The reason we are ‘Nero’ is because we want to ensure the value of the naming rights sponsor is maintained. We had opportunities to call the team something different this year, but we feel that the value of what we bring is worth a certain amount.

“To be sustainable, it has to be worth that amount. There’s only so long that you can beg and borrow and steal and sort of scrape by. To be sustainable you need the Olivers [Real Food], you need the Bridgelanes to come along and go, ‘you know what? It is worth that – go for it.’

“What we’ve learned is that the sponsorship thing is not something you start looking at in August or September… it’s all year round, basically. We’ll go to the Herald Sun Tour and we’ll try to schmooze and network. We will do the same when we go to Japan. That’s just what it is.”

Still Sydney’s team

For 2020, Miller is being realistic. The threshold challenge is to secure invitations to races on the Asian circuit. Aside from this week’s Herald Sun Tour, the team intends to return to the Tour de Filipinas and pursue race starts in Japan, but nothing is assured.

“Being a first-year Continental team, it’s [about] what you can get. You don’t have the runs on the board, so you tender for races, send in a proposal document about how good you guys are and you hope to hear back. That’s really the way it works. Being Continental doesn’t guarantee you anything.”

As for longer-term ambitions? Despite signing Japanese rider Daisuke Kaneko and the Hong Kong-born, USA-licensed but Sydney-based Leo Yip, Miller says Nero Continental plans to remain firmly connected with its geographical home, providing a pathway for Australian riders to race in Asia.

Indeed, Miller’s hometown of Sydney is deeply integrated into the DNA of the team, whose new colour scheme evokes the city’s vibrant jacaranda trees and colonial architecture.

“When I first registered the team with Cycling Australia … you had to call them up and give them your credit card details,” recalls Miller. “I was on the phone and I was looking at the backyard, where there was a jacaranda tree which had done its complete unloading [of flowers] on the ground.

“I can just remember thinking, ‘Oh God, I’m going to have to clean this up.’ I just have this image of being on the phone with Cycling Australia, and the payment being confirmed, and looking out it’s just purple, everywhere. I’ve got a photo of it, and that’s my lasting memory of the establishment moment of the team.”

“And the gold strips – that is the exact pantone of Sydney sandstone.”

So, even as Nero embarks on its Continental adventure – advertising Filipino bike frames to overseas audiences in foreign countries – it won’t be straying too far from leafy Centennial Park, where, every Saturday, the cavalcade of cyclists will resume its interminable parade.

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By Ryan Miu

Ryan Miu is a cycling writer and photographer from Sydney. He also works for Cycling NSW, which assists in organising the Grafton to Inverell and L’Etape Australia. Find more of his work at http://BGradeCyclist.com and follow him at @RyanHMiu (Twitter) and @ryan.miu (Instagram).