It was just over two months ago that Jay Vine was confirmed as taking the leap from Australian team Nero Continental to the much-coveted spot on the Mathieu van der Poel-led squad Alpecin-Fenix. And now for Nero Continental’s next season expectations are again high for the Sydney-based squad, even without proven race-winner Vine present on the roster.
A training camp in the wake of nationals and leading up to the initial scheduling of the Melbourne to Warrnambool was a good chance for the team to evaluate where it will sit this season, with travel restrictions from COVID impacting international racing on offer and a different set of goals for 2021.
Australian Cycling Insider talked to team owner, vlogger extraordinaire and rider Chris Miller about the direction and ambitions for Nero Continental.
“Last year was very successful,” said Miller. “Individually and as a team it came together really well and we want to continue to improve and continue to build on what we’ve created. A squad that is able to fight across different disciplines, different types of tours and styles of racing. We’re really looking forward to it.”
“Consistency would be one of the goals, building on those 2020 results, there’s no two ways about that, but we’ve always wanted to be a team that’s not just about the results sheet. That’s always going to be the nature of us.
“We’re never going to be a big squad, we want to allow the riders to develop as athletes and young men. That’s important for us.”
Getting a rider to ‘go pro’ is an achievement of note within the Australian domestic scene, generally anywhere between 0-5 riders get the call from big money European and American teams during the year. While Jay Vine isn’t on a WorldTour team next year, there’s scarcely much difference between Alpecin-Fenix’s status as the best ProTour squad, achieving automatic entry to WorldTour events.
The cachet of being a team that has helped a rider take that step assists with signing others in future, occasionally a sponsor or two and creates a lasting link with the top level of the sport and the team. Miller described what the feelings were within the squad on hearing the news on the livestream.
“It’s a combination of things,” said Miller. “Firstly, relief. If he’d had the opportunities on the road, outside that we knew he was going to get we really felt that he’d ascend to that level anyway. It was a relief that he could do that through the Zwift Academy.
“It probably gives us a bit of confidence as well, spurred guys on who are probably 10-15 per cent less than him. Guys have learnt a lot from spending a year with him, the way he trains, etc. That’s helped a lot of guys with their confidence.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic looking like it will continue to impact international racing schedules and opportunities to race in normal stomping ground for Australian Continental teams – UCI Asian Tour races – limited, it creates a tricky situation for teams looking to plan ahead.
“We actually have a start for Taiwan officially, but will that go ahead,” queried Miller. “I’m not sure we have an answer for that.
“Domestically, we’ve never been in a better place. I think AusCycling has shown with getting the Tweed racing organised under those circumstances and pulling the Festival of Cycling out of the ashes of the Tour Down Under. Then nationals and Warrny with a live stream.
“This domestic space is going gangbusters so were supportive of AusCycling and what they’re doing. The collaborative approach with the teams is something we’ve never seen before. That’s giving us a lot of confidence when it comes to the domestic calendar.
“The drawcard of travelling overseas to Asian racing had been in response to what the National Road Series (NRS) was five years ago and maybe the domestic scene does fill that gap now.”
With an increased focus on the domestic calendar, Nero Continental will also have to face off against the other top local teams bringing their strongest squads to all the racing, whereas in the past teams would have been split between overseas squads in Europe, Asia or the US and an Australian-based team.
“We haven’t performed too well at the Classics, we’d like to change that,” said Miller on NRS goals. “Whether that be the Warrny, Grafton or Brisbane. One of Under 23s Cooper Sayers, is really targeting some exposure around the Nations Cup Under 23 selections for the middle of the year.
“We’re a UCI Continental team this year… do we think we’ll be racing internationally in the first six months of the year? Probably not, so the targets are going to be those domestic ones.”
Nero had just Vine and Bentley Niquet-Olden (Oliver’s Real Food Racing) depart their squad last year, with two new members coming in to fill their spots.
Iven Bennett – “Hopefully he caught your eye bridging across at nationals to the break with Kaden Groves,” said Miller. “He had a strong state year in South Australia and he certainly fits that bill of a rider that has that potential but maybe the motivation and the environment hasn’t been right for him.
“He’s a bit of a Jesse Coyle style rider, he’d like some wind and rolling lumps, and hopefully he’ll play a roll for us there.”
Jonathan Farley – “He’s actually the youngest rider we’ve ever taken on,” said Miller. “He’s coached by one of our coaches, Dan van der Laan, and he’s a really exciting talent with a really fast finish. He’s someone that has a bit of an X-factor. He’s really young and we want to put him in a few environments this year that will challenge him and give him an opportunity.”
It’s difficult to set definitive expectations for Nero in 2021, they always seem to over-perform with the riders that they start with at the beginning of the year. Sure, there might not be a Jay Vine this year to take on the role of favourite to most races with a climb, but names like Dylan McKenna, Cooper Sayers and Ben Carman – trusting that his recovery from that nasty crash goes well – are going to be riders up there in the mix for big race wins.
“We know going into every year that the guys we select are not necessarily the guys picked to win those races,” said Miller. “We work collectively to try and get our riders up for top results, but we know those results may be hard to come by. We could hope to get into the top three teams, but we’ll get far more out of specific race wins, so stage wins, race wins, rather than combined point scores.”
By Jamie Finch-Penninger