What does Drapac’s partnership with Cannondale mean for its existing team?

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Last week, American WorldTour squad Cannondale Pro Cycling and Drapac Capital Partners announced a rider development partnership that would begin in 2017.

The venture will see the two organisations join forces to create a new Australian-based Continental team that will spend part of its year racing in Europe. Far from being a traditional development setup, the new squad will only include riders that are enrolled in university courses or apprenticeship programs.

This requirement can be seen as a natural extension of a philosophy team owner Michael Drapac has long espoused: that riders (and indeed sportspeople in general) should be treated as more than just expendable assets for a team, and that teams have a responsibility for holistic rider development; to prepare riders for life after cycling.

“I’ve seen too many great people dedicate their lives to cycling and they’ve totally ignored everything else,” Michael Drapac said in last week’s press release. “And then something happens, a crash or they aren’t able to move up in the ranks, something. And they have enormous difficulty recovering as human beings.

“We seek to prevent that. We seek to prevent athletes being used as disposable assets.”

This philosophy has been a guiding force for Michael Drapac throughout the life of the now-Pro Continental squad bearing his name, and while the application of that philosophy has sometimes come into question, there’s little doubt the team’s founder believes in his message.

Why it makes sense

Drapac’s recently announced partnership with Slipstream Sports makes sense for several reasons, not least because of existing links between the two organisations.

For several years now, Michael Drapac has been friends with Jonathan Vaughters, the manager of Cannondale’s parent company Slipstream Sports. Indeed, Vaughters has helped Drapac with the expansion of his real estate business into the U.S.

There are also links between riders and directors. Dutch sprinter Wouter Wippert, Drapac’s most successful rider in 2014 and 2015, joined Cannondale in 2016. And Cannondale team manager Charly Wegelius and Drapac director sportif Tom Southam are old friends, having raced together, including for Great Britain at the World Championships in 2005. Southam also co-wrote Wegelius’ book, “Domestique”.

While Drapac’s quest to support younger athletes is well known, Vaughters, too, has invested time and money in this space. The first team the former pro managed and backed was the junior development squad, 5280-Subaru.

The Cannondale/Drapac partnership could also be seen as a pre-emptive move to ensure Cannondale complies with a requirement WorldTour teams might face in the years to come.

Under the UCI’s proposed WorldTour reforms, all top-tier teams would need to be aligned with a development team. The partnership with Drapac and the recently announced Continental squad would ensure Cannondale complies with this rule.

But while a partnership between Cannondale and Drapac makes sense on some levels, it also raises a number of pertinent questions.

The unknowns

As it stands, Drapac already has a development pathway in place with Pat’s Veg Cycling, an Australian National Road Series team (i.e. not a Continental-level team) comprised of riders enrolled in full-time study or apprenticeships. Michael Drapac’s sons Patrick and Damion both race for the team and the setup bears the name of Patrick’s organic produce company.

Is the Continental team that Drapac and Cannondale have announced simply the Pat’s Veg setup with a Continental license? Or will there be a separate team, in addition to Pat’s Veg? The press release doesn’t make this clear, as Pat’s Veg is not mentioned1.

And there are bigger questions, too, regarding the existing Drapac Pro Continental squad.

For several years, Michael Drapac has made it clear that the big goal for his team — beyond holistic rider development — is to race at the Tour de France. In 2013, in the months before the team’s promotion to Pro Continental status, the goal was the 2016 Tour de France. That goal has since been pushed back by a year or two.

Setting up a Continental team as a development pathway for Cannondale doesn’t seem to get Drapac any closer to racing the Tour de France, unless that development team is only part of the partnership Drapac and Vaughters have planned.

In the months prior to last week’s announcement, rumours of a Cannondale-Drapac partnership had been circulating in the Australian cycling industry2. Such rumours suggested the partnership would take the form of a merger between the two organisations, with the Drapac Pro Continental squad being absorbed into the Cannondale WorldTour squad.

While there’s been no official announcement to confirm such plans, this direction has some logic to it.

While Michael Drapac has long planned to have a team in the Tour de France3 his Pro Continental team, now in its third consecutive season at that level4, is yet to attract the sort of results that would make it a likely target for a wildcard invite to the world’s biggest race.

In 2014 and 2015 Drapac finished second from the bottom of the Pro Continental rankings and while the squad has started 2016 in promising fashion, it it still in the second half of the table and unlikely to force its way into the Tour ahead of other Pro Continental squads, particularly those from France.

Merging with Cannondale would presumably put the Drapac name on a WorldTour squad that, unresolved UCI and ASO spat aside, will likely race the Tour de France in 2017.

For Slipstream Sports, a merger with Drapac would provide much needed financial support and stability for a team that has had something of a revolving door of co-title sponsors, including Chipotle, Transitions, Cervélo, and Sharp.

Again, no official announcement about a potential merger has been made, and both Drapac and Vaughters have declined to comment on the issue when asked by CyclingTips. But it’s worth noting that last week’s press release doesn’t mention the existing Drapac Pro Continental squad, and doesn’t outline a plan for its future.

This seems odd when announcing a development pathway between a new Continental squad and a WorldTour team, when Drapac already has an existing Pro Continental team. It would seem that the Pro Continental team would be a logical stepping-stone for promising riders in the Continental development team, particularly given such riders will only be racing part-time as they balance their riding with study or an apprenticeship.

Unless, of course, the Pro Continental team will be absorbed by the Cannondale WorldTour team from 2017, as rumours suggest. Or if the existing Pro Continental squad is stepping down to become the recently announced Continental squad.

If a merger does eventuate, what of the riders on both teams, particularly those with Drapac?

Several Drapac riders are on contracts that extend beyond this year, including neo-pros Brendan Canty, Jason Lowndes, and Gavin Mannion. Would these contracted riders automatically be incorporated into a combined Cannondale-Drapac setup?5

It’s not hard to imagine that, in the merger of a Pro Continental and WorldTour team, it would be the WorldTour team that would make up the bulk of the combined team’s rider list. And if that’s the case, what might become of the majority of riders currently racing for Drapac?

It’s still several months until we find out further details about the partnership between the two organisations and whether rumours of a merger between the Pro Continental and WorldTour teams turn out to be true. No doubt Vaughters, Drapac and their respective management teams are currently working through the details.

We’ll continue to watch with interest.

CyclingTips’ U.S. editor Neal Rogers contributed to this report.

Footnotes

1. The press release simply stated “More information about the partnership will be released in late June.” Drapac and Vaughters have declined requests to elaborate on the partnership, for now.
 
2. The Drapac/Cannondale partnership announcement came just days after CyclingTips approached both Drapac and Vaughters for comment on rumours of a joint venture.
 
3. Both Michael Drapac and his team’s general manager Jonathan Breekveldt attended the Tour de France in 2015 to, according to Breekveldt, “learn how to get the team that big and what it means”.
 
4. The 2014 season wasn’t Drapac’s first at Pro Continental level. The team had a brief stint at Pro Conti level in 2007 when it raced as Drapac-Porsche.
 
5. In the Garmin-Sharp/Cannondale merger of 2015, contracted riders from Cannondale were accommodated in the combined team, meaning some Garmin-Sharp riders were left out.

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