The beauty of cycling is that it’s possible to win big without paying big. Or in the case of Budget Forklifts, not paying at all. You just need the brains to do it, writes Anthony Tan.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

The past two seasons, they've won more National Road Series events than any other. And, in the space of a fortnight, having captured the Melbourne to Warrnambool and Grafton to Inverell, they took the two biggest one-day events on the calendar.

All without paying any of their riders a salary. Not one cent.

Not bad, is it?

He doesn't have the profile of Huon-Genesys team manager Andrew Christie-Johnston or Drapac sport director Agostino Giramondo. But the last two years, having guided Budget Forklifts to ten wins out of twenty-five NRS races – three more than Huon-Genesys and five more than Drapac – you'd have to say Cameron Watt is the real deal.

In 2009, in his final year as a pro triathlete, Watt competed in seven major Ironman events around the globe, and was first off the bike in all seven. But a nagging injury saw him fade in the run each time. "My injury was really only affecting my running; to lead all those major races for six or seven hours of the race, (then) to falter in the last hour or two because of injury, was mentally quite distressing."

Having quit the sport before his twenty-first birthday, Jeremy Betts, a friend of his from Queensland who had been managing the Budget Forklifts team since its NRS debut in August 2008, asked him to come along for the ride at the 2010 Tour of Gippsland. "On the team, at that point, there were a lot of guys my age – Cameron Jennings and Glen Chadwick and Peter Herzig… I related to them, because we were roughly the same age. We'd grown up (with) similar types of lives, but obviously two different sports, kind of running parallel with each other. After that first tour, I kind of loved it... it filled that competitive void after I retired from racing myself." Watt also had a daughter, who was two years away from starting primary school. "I had my time. It was time to settle down."

Betts was trying to manage the dual roles of being Budget Forklifts' Queensland operations manager and manager of the cycling team, which was becoming increasingly untenable as his responsibilities in both expanded. In February last year he resigned from the company, thus ceding full control of the latter to Watt.

Having not won a NRS race in two years, suddenly, Budget Forklifts found themselves on target, on the podium, and on a roll. With Mark O'Brien, they won the first three races on the 2012 calendar – Mersey Valley, Toowoomba, and the North Western tours. Luke Davison and Peter Herzig notched up the Tour of Murray, Goulburn to Sydney and Grafton to Inverell, making it another three more, Davison also finishing the year atop the individual NRS rankings. Buoyed by success, seven of their riders would go on to try their luck in Europe and elsewhere in 2013 – which, if you didn't know their ethos, is exactly what the team wants.

"What we're trying to do is develop cyclists so they can go to the next level, and then go and earn a salary and sign on to a pro team," Tim Leunig, the team's primary benefactor and owner of Budget Forklifts, a Perth-based business his father established in 1968, told me in an interview last month.

It's always nice to win, but you must get a real kick, beating teams like Huon-Genesys and Drapac who do pay their riders, I suggested to him.

"Oh, very much so… And there's a real team spirit about us. The team's very close, you know, and Cam (Watt) knits a real close atmosphere. We try and provide very good conditions for the riders, but without paying salaries as such."

I ask Watt: why is that?

"One is obviously the budget. And we just feel that's the level of our team. If you're at a level you can get a salary, then that's a good indication you've outgrown our team. Luke Davison and Mark O'Brien, last year they had such good years, we wanted to push them to that next level, because obviously we couldn't pay them a salary. It's a good encouragement for them to move on to the next level."

Rebuilding a team that loses its best-performing riders is never easy, as happened at the end of last season. Though clearly, Watt relishes the challenge – and this year, he didn't just meet the challenge, but overcame it. "It's personally what I get a kick out of – grabbing a new bunch of guys, and building a team (of riders) who have never met each other before. I really revel in that challenge. Obviously, we're in it to win, but that's what really motivates me."

Boasting four NRS victories, Budget Forklifts was second only to Huon-Genesys in terms of race wins, and Jack Anderson, winner of the Tour of Gippsland and last weekend at the season-ending Grafton to Inverell – a guy who, at the end of last year, contemplated retirement following a mediocre sojourn in Europe with UK-based team Endura – is now Pro Continental bound, as Drapac step up in 2014 with a view to bigger and better things, particularly in America and Asia.

"Jack came (back) to our team pretty much despondent from his previous two years in Europe, and he wanted to take a massive step back. He just wanted to come back to our team, have some fun, and have a sort of mentoring role for the younger guys. That's the kind of role he says he sees himself in for another year or two before he retires," Watt, just a month ago before the start of the Tour of Tasmania, told me. "But things change. And just because you say that at the beginning of the year doesn't mean you're locked into those goals and plans for the rest of your life. He's had such a good time this year and he's sort of regained his passion for racing. He's only young – he's only 25 years old – so there's no reason why he can't go overseas and have another crack." Earlier this month, on October 2, when his move to Drapac was announced, Anderson said: "A GC win somewhere would be nice and I definitely think I have that in me now. I've improved my climbing a lot and it shows in my results this year."

"It was very hard to back up from last year, but when you're coming up against guys like Nathan Earle… even with the benefit of hindsight, I think we've done as good as we possibly could have, against a rider of that calibre," Watt said, when asked to evaluate the team's season.

"Nathan Earle, on paper, has been unbeatable, and he's proved that in the results. But the morale and the mood in the team has never been one of defeat. You'd think if you're up against an unbeatable opposition, it's very easy just to give up and race for second place. And I think a lot of other teams have done that. Not once has that attitude crept into our team. Not once have we laid down arms. We've fought to the end. Which is a good thing to be part of."

Demonstrating his commitment to the job, the day before his eldest daughter Amelia's eighth birthday, Watt was talking to me from the team car as his men were doing a recon of Mount Wellington; for the past three editions, the team time trial parcours for opening stage of the Tour of Tasmania.

Aside from being up against Earle and the precocious climbing talent that is Jack Haig, who were both in top nick, sickness and a heavy crash prevented the team from making their mark, as they did the previous year with O'Brien, who, after losing nearly two minutes in the TTT, finished second overall to Lachlan Norris by just 17 seconds. But with Kiwi Sam Horgan, a full-time mechanical engineer, and Anderson, currently working full-time as a bike shop manager, Budget came back with a bang to dominate 'the Warny' and for the second year running celebrate success in Inverell, both riders also ending the season in the individual NRS ranking's top five.

Harbouring ambitions to race more UCI events on the Asia Tour in 2014, one suspects Watt will be away from his family for more than the estimated twenty-two weeks he will be this year (the team begin their final race, China's nine-day Tour of Taihu Lake, this Saturday). "(This year) I pretty much applied to every single race on the Asian calendar. I had Cycling Australia write to every single race, recommending us, for a start. It's been very, very hard (…) which is why we've got to accept any invites we get. Every race counts, so we can build our reputation.

"We're more and more confident that we'll be able to get those starts next year. We did four this year, so we might be able to get six next year. I base that on (the fact that) we've got a few results now, so that should open some doors, but also Drapac going Pro Conti, I think that's going to open (more) doors for us, because I'm assuming there's only going to be two Continental teams next year in Australia – just us and Genesys. I can't see there being a third."

Balancing his riders' ambitions and keeping them motivated without paying them; keeping his riders' other employers on side – "a massive job of mine and the boys is to keep the employers happy"; liaising with seven other coaches; as a sport director at races, always instilling a never-say-die attitude; applying for race starts in non-English speaking countries; and being a husband (his long-time partner is former professional triathlete Melanie Mitchell) and father to three children under ten years old. "The key to getting the most out of our team is taking everything I've learned in the world class programs I've been part of, and using (those elements) which apply to our specific level of racing, the NRS.

"The key is what I keep and what I discard. Treat everyone as an individual, make everyone happy, and if everyone is happy then that creates a happy team… A happy team is a harmonious, well-functioning one, and that creates results."

For the last two years, it's what Cameron Watt has been prepared to do. And for that, not just the team and its current and former riders, but Australian cycling, should be very grateful.