At first it seemed to belong to the realm of fairy tales. When New Zealand's first professional cycling outfit was launched last year, the men behind Pure Black Racing talked of a vision of one day competing in the Tour de France.
While there have been a number of Kiwi individuals who have performed with distinction in the legendary race, the idea of a fully fledged team from this part of the world hurtling down the Champs-Elysees seemed hard to imagine. There is still a long way to go but Pure Black Racing have had an impressive start to their life, meeting most of their key milestones, and their success has been predicated on some good ol' fashioned New Zealand virtues.
Last week on the Tour de Beauce in Quebec, the team took their first international road stage win at a UCI event - the achievement heightened by the fact that there were three Pro-Continental teams in the field.
That followed a series of top 10 finishes and stage wins all around the United States, highlighted by a sixth place in the prestigious Philadelphia Classic in June.
Like many sports, there is a clear and defined hierarchy in professional cycling.
At the top of the tree there are the 18 UCI professional teams, including Astana, Saxo Bank-SunGard (Alberto Contador) Team RadioShack (Lance Armstrong's former team now featuring Saw Bewley and Jesse Sergent), Garmin Cerevelo (Julian Dean), HTC Highroad (Mark Cavendish) and Rabobank. They race on the UCI Pro Tour events, almost all in Europe and centred around the classic events in France, Spain and Italy.
The next tier down is the Pro-Continental tour, which has four teams based in the US and 19 others spread across Europe, who compete in events in Europe, Asia and the US (but mainly in Europe). These operations employ at least 14 riders, plus a myriad support staff, on a full-time basis for the entire year. Pure Black Racing sits at the next stage down, competing on the UCI continental tour. It is run on a regional basis, with separate tours based across Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Central and South America, and Oceania.
At this level are over 60 teams out of Europe and 10 based in the US, as well as South American teams, Asian teams (including seven from China and four from Iran) and seven from Oceania. These teams vary from professional to semi-professional to essentially amateur; some will compete in only a few events and exclusively in their region and many riders are employed on a seasonal basis.
Pure Black race against mostly American teams across the US - it's highly competitive, well funded - and a step above the standard in Australasia. But what they achieved in Quebec, by holding their own and indeed winning a stage against Pro-Continental teams, is the equivalent of an NPC rugby team knocking over a Super rugby side, or a team from English football's Championship taking down a Premier League outfit.
Pure Black Racing was the brainchild of former Olympic and America's Cup sailor Carl Williams. He had spent long periods on the bike for cross-training during his yachting career, and time spent in Valencia between 2006 and 2007 saw him catch the cycling bug. "I realised just how big the sport was in Europe," says Williams, who was a Star class yachting world champion.
"I started to wonder if we could achieve something from New Zealand." Back in New Zealand, Williams dived full-time into meeting potential backers and selling his dream to investors and sponsors.
Wellington-based technology entrepreneur Greg Cross became a business partner and Avanti has since come on board as a principal sponsor. The team was launched in July 2010 and their first event was the tour of Southland at the end of last year.
From humble beginnings, there are now 12 riders in the professional squad, including Olympians Tim Gudsell and Glen Chadwick. This number will grow to 16 next year and underneath the top level they have a development squad of nine under-23 riders.
As the goals get bigger and the climbs get tougher, Williams will recruit some international riders - though he stresses they will have to fit in with the culture and that there will always be a Kiwi spine to Pure Black Racing.
The team has been based in Boulder, Colorado, since March and will return home for the Australasian season in September. Williams reports that the team's uniqueness, as well as some renowned Kiwi touches, has seen them make quite an impact on their first year away from home. "We have become crowd favourites over here," says Williams, partly due to New Zealand's popularity as a country but also because of their aggressive style of racing.
"The guys are very popular - they don't hold back and people like them because they punch above their weight. "I will never forget racing in Alabama - where it is probably not a great idea to be called Pure Black Racing' - and watching the crowds line the streets and wildly cheer us on." Showing some New Zealand initiative, the team has also avoided hotel meals and the temptations of fast food by installing a large barbecue on to their race trailer, where they have barbecue meals at the end of each race day. Cross says that while the financial barriers remain formidable, they are far from insurmountable.
He estimates they need an annual budget of $12 million-$14 million to compete at the Tour de France and other events of that level - big money in New Zealand terms but a fraction of the cost of an America's Cup team, an endeavour they are often compared to. "We hope that companies will see us as a great marketing platform on the world stage," says Cross. "Everybody realises how big cycling is in Europe and the States but it is also growing in Asia and will only get bigger."
Williams, who is based in the US as team operations manager and sporting director, says the logistics behind the squad have been one of the bigger challenges. "We have 20 riders, 50 racing bikes, over 100 sets of spare wheels - and then there is all the other equipment and supplies. It is a never-ending challenge." Williams and Cross talk about reaching Tour de France level by 2015 and having a Pro-Continental team based in Europe in 2013.
They are convinced New Zealand has the depth of talent, and the greatest challenge is getting the infrastructure together. "It is very achievable and we think we have broken it down into bite-size pieces," says Williams. "Just like rowing, cycling seems to suit the physiology of New Zealanders. We are providing another pathway which can only encourage more youngsters to stay in the sport and lead to long-term benefits for us as well." Eventually, the dream will be to entice established professionals like Hayden Roulston, Greg Henderson and Julian Dean into the Pure Black jersey. At the moment this is a long way off - they would be reluctant to leave their well-paid job at some of Europe's biggest teams to race one or two tiers below - but Williams is not one to dwell on negatives.
"They may join us, they may not - but I hope that the next wave of riders of their calibre will see us as the best option for their career."By Michael Burgess Email Michael