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Making waves and breaking boundaries: Ireland’s Aqua Blue Sport ready to make history

Erik G

TUCKED IN A little off the paradisal Côte d’Azur, Arles is a French commune of considerable history. Its Romanesque monuments have been previously listed as World Heritage Sites and this small city, forked by the river Rhône, was once the home of Vincent van Gogh.


The Aqua Blue Sport team for Vuelta a Espana.

Source: Karen Edwards

One of the most famous and influential figures in the history of Western art, van Gogh’s legacy within the boundaries of Arles is evidenced at every corner; schools, bridges and fountains are named after him.

If you’re visiting, there’s a good chance you’re here to see one of the many landmarks associated with his work, even if he only resided in the south of France for a solidarity year between 1888 and 1889.

It was here where he made his artistic breakthrough — those 12 months are widely-regarded as one of his most prolific periods of his career — yet he once described the city as a foreign country, remarking: “The Zouaves, the brothels, the adorable little Arlésienne going to her First Communion, the priest in his surplice, who looks like a dangerous rhinoceros, the people drinking absinthe, all seem to me creatures from another world.”

Over a century later, wandering through the quaint streets, which lead you into the most quintessential French town square via L’espace van Gogh, you wonder what he’d make of this place today. It has changed quite a bit, naturally, but the creatures from another world may just come in different forms now. There are no French army regiments or brothels but tourists, van Gogh pilgrims and, on this particular week, cyclists.

***

As Conor Dunne eases his considerable frame into one of the poolside chairs, a little stiff from the massage he’s just come from, life goes on outside the bubble. Two kids are splashing in the pool under the late afternoon sun and the couple sitting one table down have just sipped on their first absinthe.

Once our conversation opens up, Dunne begins to relax and even slumps a little in his chair. The initial uneasiness at which he approached the interview has quickly been replaced by a calm, relaxed and casual demeanour. It’s now just a chat, rather than anything formal. It’s just good to be out of the hotel room, talking to some new faces. Something to occupy the free time, even if it’s for half an hour.

Because life as a professional cyclist can be a difficult existence. You live in a world in which your every movement is recorded and even the most normal of things, like swimming in the hotel pool to pass some time or cool off, is off limits.


Conor Dunne.

Sleep, train, eat, rest, eat, sleep, repeat. They live in another world, largely separated and removed from everything else that is going on around them. A controlled environment, the riders creatures of the sport; but that is what’s required at this level.

And the sport — professional cycling — is a circus. Teams travel in convoy, often pitching up at the same hotel as each other and in this particular one, an unassuming Ibis on the edge of Arles, there are three teams knee-deep in preparation for the third and final Grand Tour of the year, La Vuelta a España. They’ve based themselves here for a few days and then they’ll pack up again today and move to another city and hotel. It’s a constant cycle.

Swiss team Katusha–Alpecin and UAE Team Emirates, who yesterday signed Dan Martin, have been here all week alongside Aqua Blue Sport, Ireland’s first ProContinental team, for whom this is all new territory.

Half an hour north, in the town of Nimes, they will make history later today as their team of nine riders roll down the start ramp for the opening time trial stage of the 2017 Vuelta.

They will become the first Irish team to compete in one of cycling’s big three events, the other two being the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, while Dunne will become just the 15th Irish rider to compete in a Grand Tour race in its 114 year history. It’s a hugely significant day in more ways than one.

Because, less than 12 months ago, there was no such thing as Aqua Blue Sport, rather an ambitious and grand idea in the head of Cork-born businessman Rick Delaney. That idea was to create a self-sustainable cycling team capable of changing the face of a sport largely driven by sponsorship-based models. To make waves and make people stand up and take notice, but most importantly to survive in a volatile industry.

When Delaney, now based in Monaco, began to put the wheels in motion of this unique project last summer, he set out a series of goals, one of which was to race in a Grand Tour event. He just didn’t envisage it to be within the team’s debut season, yet here they are at the start of the third-biggest stage race in cycling.

“We’re the first ProContinental Irish team, the first professional Irish team in a Grand Tour. So that’s a pretty big deal and it’s really cool to be part of that,” Dunne says, with a smile, giddy with excitement, although given the week that’s in it, the mood within the team has been remarkably relaxed.

There are seven nationalities within the nine-rider squad for the gruelling three-week, 21 stage Vuelta and although they’ve all come from various different levels and come with different degrees of pro cycling experience, they have all rowed in behind this venture together, creating a feel-good and genuine atmosphere and ambience within the camp.


Source: Karen Edwards

There is no separation between management, staff and the riders. No hierarchy which dictates who eats dinner first or no divide which often exists within other teams. The relationship between each staff member is genuine and natural rather than anything forced.

And already that no-pressure, less stress environment has yielded outstanding results. The team’s breakthrough moment came in June when Larry Warbasse’s stage victory at the Tour de Suisse opened Aqua Blue Sport’s account. A couple of weeks later, Warbasse became the American national champion before Stefan Denifl’s overall victory in the Tour of Austria in July.

“We’ve a really good ambience here it feels like you’re just going racing with your buddies, so that’s pretty cool,” Warbasse, who had waited seven years for his first pro win, says.

“We don’t have many big pressures or stress from the management, or anything like that so it’s really nice and it’s a good way to perform.”

Warbasse is one of 16 riders on Aqua Blue’s overall roster and it’s clear Delaney identified and recruited a certain calibre of personnel, including a team behind the team which includes two sporting directors, two performance directors, a general manager, a team doctor, a press officer, mechanics, soigneurs and, for the next three weeks, a chef — and that’s just the team on the road. He doesn’t do things by half, although try and find anyone who lives in Monaco who does.

Even with the resources behind this team and Delaney’s guarantee of funding for the first few years, the progress made, as well as the considerable success on the bike, has exceeded all expectations.

For many of the riders, several of whom have raced at this level before and came from established World Tour teams, it was a step into the unknown by joining Aqua Blue at the start of the year — but that leap of faith has paid almost instant dividends.

“I definitely didn’t expect to be at the Vuelta this year when I signed for the team,” Warbasse added. “I guess I wasn’t sure what to expect just because you never know with a new project but it definitely exceeded my expectations — because you can’t really ask to come to a Grand Tour in the first year of a new team. I think it’s a pretty big honour.”

Warbasse is the most experienced Grand Tour rider in the ranks, with five of the nine making their debut today, but former British champion Adam Blythe knows exactly what it takes at this level. He’s back for the first time since 2013 and is the most realistic hope for an Aqua Blue Sport stage win.

“Everyone’s a bit more at one with each other as such,” he said when asked to compare this team with his experience at Tinkoff, who collapsed and withdrew from competition after the Russian entrepreneur bankrolling them pulled the plug on sponsorship last year.

“Everyone’s got a bit more of a personable relationship with each of the staff which makes it a lot better. We’ve worked with the same people most of the year which has been good. I guess it’s just different, we’re here to get stuck in and get results. When I was with Contador at BMC there was so much stress and it’s a nice place to be when it’s going well but when it turns bad it’s just an awful stressful place to be. It’s different in a good way.

“I was only there [at Tinkoff] for a year and he just got fed up spending all his cash and went and bought a yacht, I think that happens in a lot of teams. They just come and go but Rick’s idea, if he can get the website up and running we’re going to be here for a long, long time and it’s not going to come out of his pocket but from everyone else’s pockets.”

The hope is that Aqua Blue Sport will become entirely self-sufficient within two years as the considerable costs of running a pro cycling team are shifted to a new e-commerce business operating under the same name. The online marketplace allows retailers to sell their cycling goods to customers from all over the world, with Aqua Blue taking a percentage of the transaction and putting every cent back into the team.


Rick Delaney.

There will be no dependance on sponsors, with the e-commerce side of the business supporting the cycling side — and that’s the thing, the two go very much hand-in-hand. Results both on and off the road are equally as important. If one side of the business fails, the other goes down with it and vice versa.

“Some of the media are writing stuff and they’re just not getting it,” Delaney said of the model. “They are writing that Aqua Blue Sport is an online bike store and they’re the sponsor and they’re just not getting it, so we decided about three or four months ago to push the e-commerce, because if the e-commerce fails the team fails. Because it’s all the one group, we don’t have a sponsor, there is no sponsor, it’s Aqua Blue Sport. You’ve got the riders, the e-commerce, it’s the same organisation, they’re all paid by the same people so there is no sponsor, it’s the first of its kind.

“It’s working, the e-commerce side is working, we’re gaining traction, we’re getting the hits, it’s not working as fast as we would have liked, but maybe the team [on the road] has worked much faster than maybe we thought. So the e-commerce is trying to catch up, but we’re getting there. We’re getting more and more products and retailers so yeah it’s working. Sixth months ago I would have (only) said ‘fingers crossed’ [that it will work] but I’ve no doubt it’s working now.”

Delaney has 15 staff working on the e-commerce business back in Cork but there is very much a correlation between the two teams with general manager Kevin Keating on the ground in France this week ahead of a website relaunch to coincide with the Vuelta. The vision for Aqua Blue Sport is clear and the riders are fully aware of it.

“It’s not just you riding for a team,” Dunne admits. “If we can make it work we’ve got a really sustainable model we can grow into the future. So anything I do is helping the team stay into the future.”

For now, however, the focus is on the next three weeks. The training load over the last few days has been light with the focus on fine-tuning race tactics and preparing the body, both mentally and physically, for what is to come. This is the biggest race in the team’s short history and in many of the riders’ careers, and the operation reflects that.

Three brand new Land Rovers, registered in Monaco, arrive two days before the race to join the convoy of team vehicles while new equipment providers are announced off the back of the launch of a special limited edition Vuelta kit. The costs associated with keeping a team competitive at this level are incredible, although there has been no expense spared by Delaney.

“I suppose the aim is just to go and represent ourselves as best we can,” the owner says of his hopes for the Vuelta. “To do ourselves proud. To do the jersey proud and, saying it quickly, trying to win a stage. I think we are capable of doing that.

“The likes of Larry, obviously, is coming into some great form. Stefan is coming into great form. Adam Blythe is producing great numbers at the minute. And Peter Koning too. They are very, very strong, so it is very doable. We need luck but it’s doable. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t.”

From the first day, Delaney and Aqua Blue haven’t arrived to make up the numbers. They haven’t just settled in and put their heads down at the back of the bunch. They have animated races with breakaways and sprint finishes and race organisers have taken a liking to that, as evidenced by the wildcard invite received for the Vuelta.

When his riders roll out from the start house in Nimes later, it will be an incredibly proud and surreal moment for Delaney and all his staff. At the start of the year, there was no Aqua Blue Sport team and being here today would have been seen as an unrealistic target.

Under the shadow of the Arena of Nimes, the Roman amphitheatre, Aqua Blue Sport will take the next step on this ambitious, bold and venturesome journey and while Rome wasn’t built in a day, this team and project has gone from nothing to quite something in eight whirlwind months.

“Larry’s win in Switzerland, you’ll always remember the first one. It was special,” Delaney says when asked for his highlight so far.

“But hopefully our best race is the one over the next three weeks,” he adds, with a wry smile. Lofty ambitions, big plans and high hopes.

You get the sense this is only the start for Aqua Blue Sport, even if the big challenge is to stay afloat in this game.

‘Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.’ Vincent van Gogh.

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