They used to be known as Nature Valley, providing a launch pad to the likes of a certain Patrick Bevin who is now one of the most successful New Zealand riders on the World Tour. In their current guise Team Skoda-Fruzio have been in place for the last four years and have continued to proudly stick to their long-standing mission of supporting New Zealand’s young up and coming talent towards success internationally.
It is a philosophy and approach that has paid dividends in the likes of Robert Stannard now with Mitchelton-SCOTT, Connor Brown at Dimension Data for Qhubeka, Corbin Strong at St George Continental Cycling, Campbell Stewart and Harry Waine in the New Zealand track squad and mentor rider James Oram (ex ONE Pro Cycling), the triumphant junior men’s team pursuit quartet at the World Championships last year; and most recently one of their own became a world record breaker in the form of Finn Fisher-Black.
The secret to longevity
Together with the likes of Mike Greer Homes Women’s Cycling and SBS Ricoh New Zealand, Team Skoda-Fruzio can lay claim to being not just one of the most successful teams on our shores but also one of the longest lasting. Stick around in cycling for any length of time and it becomes crystal clear that longevity is the biggest challenge. Teams fold for a whole range of reasons, often financial, but Brad Tilby and Scott Fairbairn have been part of a team that keeps on building forward. We asked Scott what was behind their longevity.
“For us what was always important, and one of our strategy lines early on was creating something that is sustainable. So we haven’t been a bit of boom-or-bust and spent our money. As marketers we’re trained to add some value for money to our sponsors. We don’t pretend that we’re returning all of their investment, but trying to give them something that they can hang their hat on and bring them into the mix to make them happy and continue their interest,” Scott told us.
“We’ve got a number of contracts that are just one year, and so each year we have to work harder and harder to get them to re-sign; and we see that as a measure of our success that it’s relatively easy for those companies to come back and support us, so that’s really important. And it’s all about relationships with these guys, from Skoda who are fantastic and support us all the way through to some of the other smaller companies who help us out.”
“We also deal with international companies as well. So with Vittoria, we work with CycleSport (the New Zealand distributor), but we also deal with Vittoria in Italy. Same with Trek, we deal with them in NZ and Australia; so it’s all about trying to add that value all the way back. Local distributors often don’t have enough resources to support us but when they can have their International partners help it really helps us; which is exactly the case with DT Swiss.”
The part-time passion demanding full-time commitment
Team Skoda-Fruzio are one of the most internationally well-travelled New Zealand teams of any given season over the past few years; last year their travels took them to China, Australia (the team is the only NZ team registered in the National Road Series (NRS), even Wales. Every time we’ve met them they’ve had the look of professionalism and of a team that holds itself to a very high standard. However, speaking to Scott we become aware of the fact that it’s very much like a duck on the water; looking calm above but paddling furiously below. This is not a full-time profession of team management for the duo that have led the team for so long by any stretch of the imagination.
“This is not a full-time job as much as it potentially takes up that much time,” Scott explained. “For us it is a labour of love that we do in our spare time; and it takes away from our own riding or our own families.”
“We don’t make any money out of this, we don’t have cash reserves, I don’t work for Skoda, we both have our own private jobs and we have to do this around the edges of them.”
Making support for their riders work then takes the form of providing kit, helping with entry fees, but it also has a very powerful international dynamic that comes back once again to relationships. “Around the international aspect it really is about building relationships internationally with teams, with agents, with races so we can get these guys exposure. It’s all very well winning out the back of Cambridge for example, but the real results are trying to get these guys recognised internationally and noticed. So getting to races like the Tour of Quanzhou Bay (UCI 2.2 China), Junior Tour of Wales and getting to the NRS Series where we do have a big impact and we have these teams and race organisers coming to us and asking about riders and opportunities; that’s where we see the real value for us.”
“It is a part time job though, like everyone in the sport we do it for love. And yeah, I get to drive a nice car occasionally but it’s a small compensation for the effort and everything else we put in.”
The evolution of NZ cycling development
Over the years cycling on the road in New Zealand has naturally evolved and there have been a lot of positive steps taken that make progress for New Zealand riders on the international sphere more and more possible, practical and realistic. For Scott and Team Skoda-Fruzio that development towards international success actually starts on our own doorstep with the great work done by races around the country.
“The races like the Dynamo Events Team Championship, Calder Stewart Series, Tour of Southland, Gravel and Tar and the New Zealand Cycle Classic. Every year these races are about being better and better, and we’re trying to do that within our team not just with support, but with our culture and the riders.
“Having more time racing together is key. It’s not just about putting a matching jersey on, rolling around the block on your own and doing the same thing you did last week; it’s actually about riding properly together as a team. And when you go overseas that’s what people expect when you go to their team, that’s what other teams do. So you have to do that to get anywhere, and I think that the more team element and team focus is a big thing for cycling in New Zealand.”
Scott sees the growth, simply in numerical figures, of riders emerging on our shores that naturally draws an ‘insane’ level of talent to the fore. This is not just talent that is being asked to stand solo anymore either. Events like the Team Championship, Gravel and Tar Classic, the Tour of Southland, New Zealand Cycle Classic, Calder Stewart Series and many more are providing a healthy and highly competitive environment in which riders can be free to ‘practice team’.
A case in point came courtesy of the Mike Greer Homes Women’s Cycling squad at the Elite Road National Championships and Gravel and Tar La Femme where their exceptional team-tactic approach led to a resounding win for Georgia Christie in Napier, and 2nd and 3rd for Jenna Merrick and Rylee McMullen respectively in the Manawatu; the biggest UCI events on New Zealand soil for women. These team tactics had been honed throughout the season on both sides of the Tasman but notably at the Calder Stewart Series which the team has frequented for the past number of years.
The wish list going forward
From here then, as 2019’s summer season in New Zealand comes towards an end, the Calder Stewart Series gets underway and so too does the international calendar; we approach the future knowing that there remains plenty to do to go alongside what has already been done in regards to the growth of developing New Zealand cyclists onto the international arena. Team Skoda-Fruzio and Mike Greer Homes Women’s Cycling are two of the big players in terms of domestic teams leading the charge; but the issue is one that no two teams can enduringly face alone.
For Scott, having greater backing and support from cycling’s governing body in New Zealand would be a big next step in the pursuit of New Zealand cyclists making it around the world. “I think [cycling teams like ours] working closer with Cycling New Zealand would be the next thing,” Scott told us. “We’ve continue to talk to Cycling NZ, attending Cycling New Zealand AGMs, representing team owners etc, but at the moment [there are things like] trade teams pay $250 so you can wear your kit at elite nationals . . . but there is no real attempt to lift the standard of teams or support to them. There is a lot more that can be done….
“The next step is finding a way where we can coordinate that and get more opportunities for our teams, not just us, but all our teams so they can get more riders on the world scene, more riders in races and at a greater risk of getting UCI points and opportunities, making Kiwi riders more attractive to teams and hopefully improving the riders and New Zealand’s rankings and getting more chances for riders into bigger teams and races.”