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‘We’re not the retirement home’

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Things are changing at Israel Premier-Tech. Criticised for bad managerial decisions and spending big budgets on riders past their prime, the last few years have been turbulent for the team. The demotion from WorldTour to ProTeam level at the end of the 2022 season was a result of consistently underperforming – even the cries and complaints of the team’s billionaire owner, Sylvan Adams, wouldn’t stop the UCI from bumping the squad down a level, meaning they would not be guaranteed entry into WorldTour events for the year ahead. Action was needed to get things back on track.

Speaking a few days before the Tour Down Under, George Bennett (one of the team’s new signings for 2024, formerly of Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates) told Rouleur that repairs are being made in rapid time. “When they got relegated, it seemed like that was the catalyst for change. I’ve stepped into an environment where I’ve already done a huge amount of tests with special equipment. We’re doing the same, if not more than, Jumbo spec,” he said.

The New Zealander explained that the team has been through a “mindset shift”, constantly implementing new procedures and using special equipment. “We have these high-end protocols in place for performance, nutrition, aerodynamics, equipment, training, altitude, everything.”

It’s not just in technology that Israel-Premier Tech are believed to be making plenty of progress. Their rider scouting has been impressively intuitive in recent seasons, as they look to invest in younger, up and coming riders in order to strike the balance between youth and experience on the team. It’s no longer about looking at past results in order to build a strong roster, but instead there is a focus on the future generation.

“We’re not a retirement home. You can have all this special technology but you then need the talent to apply all these things. We’ve got a really talented team,” Bennett said. “We’ve got seven guys here Down Under that are very switched on. They all know what they’re doing and they’ve got Daryl [Impey] and Sam [Bewley] in the car keeping them calm.”

It hasn’t taken long for the team to reap the rewards from the shift in mentality that Bennett references. The Tour de France stage win from Mike Woods last year was validation that Israel-Premier Tech can still perform at the highest level on their day, and their most recent win at the Tour Down Under is a sign that there’s plenty more to come. 

Speaking after Stephen Williams’ took an emotional win atop Mount Lofty in the final stage Down Under , the team’s sports director, Daryl Impey, argued that their line-up for the race allowed for age and youth to successfully coexist within the team.

We’ve got a lot of experience here in the group. I’ve won this race before and Simon [Clarke] has been riding Grand Tours and defending leader’s jerseys, George Bennett’s been doing the same, [Nick] Schultz has been doing the same,” Impey said. “I think we’ve got a really good wealth of experience here but then we also have hungry bike riders that are young guys like Derek Gee, Corbin Strong and Stevie Williams. All of them have been contributing and wanted to do well here.”

Impey added that as Israel-Premier Tech is no longer part of cycling’s WorldTour, they had no financial support from the organisation of the Tour Down Under to help them cover the costs of getting to the event. He explained that the money which the team had put behind coming to the race meant there was pressure on producing a good performance.

“The key thing was a lot of guys knew how important it was going into this race because we had to pay our own way to get here. We weren’t coming here to not get points and we came out with a bagful and we’re happy,” Impey said.  “We’re not complaining about paying our own way but just saying we knew the importance of coming to this event. We wanted to put it on a big show here. We came with big ambitions and that’s what happened.”

Having former riders like Impey and Bewley in the team appears to be essential to the light-hearted, friendly atmosphere within Israel-Premier Tech that has been clear during the Tour Down Under. Williams is a rider who the team says is happiest in a relaxed environment, something that helped him secure his first ever overall victory in a WorldTour stage race – a big moment for both him and the team.

“It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation. If you win, does the culture become good, or if you have a good culture, do you start to win? I’ve always believed that you build the culture first, then everyone is happy to work for each other and be around each other. Through good times and bad times, the spirits are still high,” Sam Bewley, Israel Premier-Tech’s sports director, explained. 

“They’re all good mates. Especially for Stevie, he needs guys around him, he needs his friends around him, he needs people to keep him calm, relaxed, and to give that belief. The way this group is off the bike has been a huge factor in their success.”

Nick Schultz, a key domestique for Williams in the Tour Down Under and a talented climber in his own right, echoed Bewley’s comments that the team environment has been imperative to their success over the past week.

“I think we did the talking with our legs. The critics can say what they want but this team has such positive momentum,” Schultz said. “We’re making brilliant signings across the board, we have an amazing support group with staff, soigneurs, mechanics, management, coaches and a great group of riders within the team. I think that has shown really well this week and it’s only going to get better.”

The friendship between both staff and riders in Israel-Premier Tech shines through in Schultz‘s answers at the end of the Tour Down Under, as the Australian rider explains that himself and Williams have a brotherly bond.

“Stevie is a great teammate and a great guy, he’s a comedian, he’s actually hilarious, I think the interviews at the end of the races don’t necessarily give away his personality because he’s so quiet and composed, but he’s a brilliant guy, a pleasure to work for and he’s a really good friend of mine which makes it all that bit better,” Shultz said. “We have dinners together outside of team stuff and I couldn’t be happier for him.”

Having teammates and staff who are passionate about seeing Williams perform is crucial to the British rider’s performances. According to Bewley, it has been a key aim of the team to ensure that Williams is aware of his own talents.

“He’s a really calm guy. Sometimes he doesn’t back himself, and we’ve been trying to instil in him that he should. I think there’s going to be a big shift in his confidence, and that’s going to take him a long way for the rest of his career. He’s a really unassuming guy and he just gets on with it. He doesn’t like to overcomplicate things, he spends his evening watching old NBA highlights and listening to Drake. He’s a relaxed guy and he just wants to get out there and race his bike,” Bewley said.

As for Williams himself, he admits that the Tour Down Under win has the potential to be transformative for the rest of this season. While, as Schultz points out, the 27-year-old is reserved and quiet in interviews, the emotion after he embraced his teammates at the end of today’s stage was a sign that the Welshman values the relationships he has with those around him. If they think he can do it, he does too.

“Cycling is funny, [wins] don’t come round so often, once you get a victory like this, you have to make sure you enjoy it and take it in. For me to win a WorldTour GC, at this point in the season, is really important for my development,” Williams said after the stage. “I think the calibre of riders we had here as a team, we were backing ourselves to come here and perform. We weren’t here to make the numbers up.”

If the likes of Bennett and Bewley believed that momentum was building in Israel-Premier Tech before the 2024 season began, their victory Down Under will only accelerate this process. The combination of fresh-thinking and innovation when it comes to equipment, combined with a roster that now nurtures young talent as well as experienced, and, importantly, the positive atmosphere within the team are all the ingredients that the team needs to continue performing. According to Bewley, the sky’s the limit.

“Next step is the Tour de France,” he said with a grin.

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