Mitchelton-Scott’s Gerry Ryan: ‘I hope our riders remain safe’ | Kieran Pender | Sport

Ordinarily, few things can stand between Gerry Ryan and the biggest cycling race in the world. It was roadside at the 2010 Tour de France that Ryan, a wealthy Victorian businessman, decided to establish the first Australian World Tour team, Mitchelton-Scott. He has attended every Tour since, alongside frequent visits to the Giro d’Italia, Vuelta a España and other major races. But when the 107th Tour begins on Saturday, Ryan will be a notable absentee.

“I am in lockdown in Melbourne,” he says. “This will be the first Tour I have missed for a good decade. But even if I could go, to head out and quarantine, then come back and quarantine, that would be four weeks. I have commitments – I can’t be galavanting around following a bike race, when my leadership is needed here.”

2020 has been an eventful year for Ryan, who owns caravan company Jayco Australia alongside extensive entertainment and hospitality interests. Interviewed by Guardian Australia in January, he spoke of his desire to “wind back” his business involvement and “enjoy” his sporting passions this year. In addition to Mitchelton-Scott, Ryan is involved in the NRL’s Melbourne Storm, St Kilda in the AFL and basketball club Dandenong. Covid-19 disrupted those plans, and is causing much turbulence across both his commercial and sporting endeavours.

In February, Ryan – who sits on the board of Visit Victoria, a state tourism body – was advised by government officials about the likely magnitude of the impending pandemic. He was promptly on the phone to Europe-based Mitchelton-Scott, helping the team plan for what would come next. “So in a sense I was prepared for what was going to happen,” he says.

The global cycling calendar came to a screeching halt, with Mitchelton-Scott – guided by Ryan’s foresight – among the first teams to put a pause on racing. From early March to late July, the businessman’s riders and staff sat idle in their homes in Spain, France and Italy, on vastly-reduced wages. “Most teams did the same,” Ryan says of these cost-cutting measures.

Just as a possible return to racing appeared on the horizon, Mitchelton-Scott was thrown into chaos by reports of a possible foreign takeover. The story was bizarre: an unknown Spanish non-profit foundation was announced as the team’s new title sponsor, replacing Mitchelton Wines – a Ryan-owned brand which had sponsored the outfit since the departure of chemicals company Orica in 2017.

It had been no secret that Mitchelton-Scott was seeking a new sponsor, but the team’s press release was vaguely worded and rumours soon emerged that it was more than simply a sponsorship deal. Eventually, Ryan walked away from the tentative agreement – but not before much conjecture about the team’s future.

“Shayne [Bannan] and Alvaro [Crespi, both senior figures within Mitchelton-Scott] were dealing with a third party, who were negotiating with the Spaniards,” says Ryan. “I thought it was going to be a sponsorship, and then some negotiations went further. When I became aware of that, and looked at what was happening, it did not fit with my vision for the team and its culture.”

No Australians have been named in Mitchelton-Scott’s Tour de France team this year. Photograph: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

While off-road drama is not unusual in professional cycling, the saga was out of character for Mitchelton-Scott, which, since being founded by Ryan a decade ago, has been noteworthy for its professionalism. It is evident that the owner remains displeased by what transpired, even if he is careful with his words. “Put it this way – I was disappointed,” he says.

Ryan insists that there is no bad blood between him and Bannan, the general manager who helped establish the team and has recently exited. “Not at all,” he says. “I was just talking to Shayne about his football team the other day. He has gone on and is looking at other opportunities – and I have given him a reference.”

The sponsorship drama was interpreted by some as an indication that, after spending tens of millions of dollars on Mitchelton-Scott, the owner was ready to call it quits. Ryan denies this. “I am committed,” he says. “I first got into cycling in 1992 with Kathy Watt going to the Olympics.” The cyclist wrote to Ryan asking for $10,000 to train at altitude ahead of the Barcelona Games; she subsequently won gold – and Ryan has been the sport’s primary financial backer in Australia ever since. “My commitment to cycling is as strong as ever,” he says.

With Ryan’s reaffirmed support, Mitchelton-Scott are gearing up for the 2021 season, and just last week extended the contract of star rider Simon Yates. “In the coming weeks we will have more announcements,” he says. “All I can say is watch this space. Exciting things are going to happen.”

First, though, there is the small matter of a packed remaining 2020 World Tour calendar, with all three Grand Tours crammed into the next few months. The excitement is evident in Ryan’s voice, although he is quick to preface his comments with reference to the broader context. “The most important thing is that my staff are safe and well and the community does not suffer too badly,” he says. “It has been pretty devastating for a lot of people.”

Yet Ryan knows the Tour’s symbolic significance to millions of cycling fans around the world. “Everyone has been waiting for this,” he says. “It is the biggest annual sporting event in the world. The amount of interest is astronomical.” Mitchelton-Scott won four stages at last year’s edition, but Ryan is coy about the team’s ambitions. “I hope that the race completes and there are no positive Covid-19 tests, and our riders remain safe,” he says. “Beyond that, a stage win or two would be excellent.”

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