How does Wiggle Honda continue to grow while other teams struggle?
Now boasting a roster of no less than 15 riders with room for one more, Wiggle is the biggest World Tour level women’s cycling team. And now at least a third of the roster is listed among the Top 25 in the UCI’s most recent ranking.
Meanwhile world-class teams like Velocio-SRAM –with 10 riders –struggled year after year to secure financial backing before folding at the end of this year.
How is Rochelle Gilmore’s Wiggle Honda team able to attract and afford some of the top riders in the world?
It’s all business, says Gilmore.
A pro cyclists turned team owner and manager, Gilmore credits her team success to her unique combination of business savviness and pro athlete experience.
“The [financial] success of our team is because I studied business and worked in the business world practically since I was 15 years old,” explained Gilmore. “I have a really good understanding of how companies can get return on investment.”
“I think it’s pretty evident that we put a lot more time and money into PR and marketing than most teams,” continued Gilmore. “I think teams need to activate their sponsorships as much as the sponsor does. It is not just a manner of signing a sponsor hoping that they’ll receive the return on investment they seek via TV coverage because that doesn’t exist in women’s cycling.”
While Gilmore, the businesswoman secures financial stability, Gilmore, the athlete, creates an environment and team riders want to ride for.
“It’s an advantage that I haven’t been out of the competitive side for that long and therefore have a good understanding of what the athletes need as well,” said Gilmore. “When I started out the team three years ago I wanted to build an environment that is professional so the athletes can function at their highest and I think we have done that. I can give athletes a good director who puts a lot of effort in communication and will go to any length to help them get the results they want.”
“I think that it is important for an owner or manager of a cycling team who’s making decisions to not come only from a business background or only from a competitive cycling background,” continued Gilmore. “The mix of the two is really important. There are a lot of ex-pro cyclists that may struggle with the business side and vice versa, business people who step in and really do not have the understanding of what it takes to run a women’s cycling team.”
In addition to her own business savviness, Gilmore and her staff spend a lot of time educating their riders on the business side of cycling as well.
“We educate our athletes on how the business world works and what interest our partners have in paying money to support salaries and their careers,” said Gilmore. “I think my athletes have a really good understanding of how everything works and how their image helps our partners.”
And clearly it’s working for Gilmore. Just last month she was able to renew contracts with existing sponsors while attracting new ones to make sure her team is set for the coming years.
“It’s been a very exciting time for me and I’m happy to have financial security for the next three years in place,” said Gilmore.
Meanwhile, it seems like riders are lining up to be part of Wiggle. With the recent additions to an already stacked roster, it seems like Wiggle could almost have two teams.
“On paper, yes, 16 riders looks like a lot. But in reality you always have some injured or sick riders or riders that may have a family commitment. When we plan our program, it doesn’t work out to be a really large number. I know other teams operate with a lot fewer riders. But maybe we do a complete program and more races than other people,” said Gilmore. “We have filled all but one position [for 2016]. And I’m not even sure if we will fill that position; only if the right rider comes up.”
Since the start, Wiggle Honda has operated with the philosophy to provide its athletes with the environment they need to get the best performances out of themselves.
“I think we have successfully created that environment and can help [newly signed] riders like Amy Pieters and Emma Johansson to achieve what they haven’t been able to achieve yet,” said Gilmore.
At the time of her signing, Emma Johannson stated that she wanted a new challenge and an opportunity to use her final years in pro cycling to complete the goals thus far left unfulfilled.
“I’m confident that Wiggle Honda Pro Cycling Team is the best place for me to continue to learn and grow, even in my final season, so that I can call close to my career at my very best,” said Johansson with an eye on Olympic gold and World Tour glory.
“It’s important to me to cater to the athletes’ dreams,” said Gilmore. Even when those dreams are not in road cycling.
Australian national road champion Peta Mullens for example joined the squad despite her focus on mountain biking.
“The purpose of signing Peta was that she was the Australian National road champion and I have supported Peta the last six, seven years. She developed a big dream to go to the Olympics on the mountain bike and so we knew her focus wouldn’t be on the road this year. But with the off chance that she will return to the road after the Olympics, I wanted to remain in contact with her. And all of our partners are well connected to her and like to work with her image,” said Gilmore.
Image is a key focus for Gilmore and one that she will particularly focus on in the near future.
The future: making cycling and its stars mainstream
“What I want to do now that we have built this team, is to really build the profiles of the individual athletes. The purpose of that is to inspire more women to take up our sport on a grassroots level,” said Gilmore. “I don’t think our athletes are well-known enough with the general public to be able to influence a significant amount of women to get into the sport just yet. What we need is a really strong campaign to build profiles and build these athletes into recognisable people in and outside the sport.”
The team already has fulltime photography and PR staff and Gilmore intends to grow her staff.
“The main objective over the next three years is to connect with the general public and inspire women to get into the sport,” stated Gilmore. “Hopefully they will be able to inspire women to live the life they live through sport. We are working on how we are going to do that now.”
Reflecting on her first three years as team manager and owner, Gilmore said she’s proud of what she has achieved but has nowhere near reached her goals.
“It has been three years now. I have learned a lot and I still believe I have a lot to learn from a lot of different people,” said Gilmore. “But I am excited about the next three years with this team and our partners.”