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News earlier this year that a new Pro Continental squad was in the pipeline for 2017 seemed significant primarily because it would be Ireland’s first team at that level. However in recent weeks the full scale of the project has become apparent. Rather than making a quiet entry to the sport, the Aqua Blue Sport setup has inked deals with some very solid names.
It’s clear that it will mean business from day one of next season.
On Monday the team confirmed that current British National Road Race champion Adam Blythe (Tinkoff) was joining those already announced, along with former BMC Racing Team and IAM Cycling rider Larry Warbasse.
Also coming on board is sprinter Andy Fenn (Sky) plus the Team Wiggins duo of Mark Christian and Daniel Pearson.
Their signing completes the roster for 2017 and will see the team compete with 16 riders. The five new additions join 11 others previously made public: these include 2015 Tour de Yorkshire winner Lars Petter Nordhaug (Team Sky), Clasica de Almeria and Tour des Fjords stage winner Leigh Howard (IAM Cycling), teammate Stefan Denifl, 2012 Olympic omnium champion Lasse Norman Hansen, 2013 world omnium champion Aaron Gate, 2013 world scratch race champion Martyn Irvine and former Herald Sun Tour winner Calvin Watson (An Post Chainreaction).
These and others should ensure a solid first season for the team and put it on the path to achieving much bigger goals down the line.
“Our ambition will be to get starts in the Amstel Gold, Milan San Remo, Tour of Britain, Tour of Yorkshire and Eneco Tour next year,” states team owner Rick Delaney to CyclingTips. “We won’t get any Grand Tours, but obviously in 2018 we would like to get a Grand Tour start. And obviously the other one day Classics, some of the lesser known Tours.
“It is going to be a very strong team. Our team will win races.”
Chance encounter changing lives
Delaney is a newcomer to pro cycling but he’s someone who is used to achieving big. Hailing from Cork in Southwest Ireland, he built up his fortune through alcohol distribution (the Aqua Blue brand) and property. He now lives in on the Cote d’Azur and that location plus a long-term interest in cycling combined to lead him to where he is now.
“I am just a cycling enthusiast who has been cycling for many years,” he explains. “I live in Monaco. I have the luxury of cycling with some of the world’s best cyclists in Monaco, and I thought how it cool it would be to have an Irish professional cycling team.
“And that is really how it started. The idea was discussed between myself and Leigh Bryan, who is our head of performance. We thought we’d research it, give it a go, see who we could get on board and it just snowballed from there. And we are where we are now.”
Bryan, an Australian also based in Monaco, has a long-running involvement in the sport. He has aided riders such as Matt Goss, Simon Gerrans, Mark Renshaw, Theo Bos and Richie Porte with training and support during their careers.
He will play an important role in 2017 and beyond, and has contacts that will doubtlessly help the team as it grows.
However, looking further back, Delaney’s involvement with cycling teams began in the amateur ranks. Several years ago he was training in Cork and met a group of local riders. One of those was former Irish international Tim Barry, who got into conversation with Delaney during the ride. That chance encounter would change both their lives.
“We had a conversation one Sunday morning many, many years ago,” Delaney recounts. “He asked me if I would throw some money at the team. And I said, yes, sure. I put my name on the jersey and it went from there.”
The amateur Aqua Blue squad had considerable domestic success in Ireland, including shining in races such as the UCI-ranked An Post Rás. That helped encourage Delaney to think big, and also had longer-term consequences for Barry.
Because of that chance encounter years ago, the latter is also moving into pro cycling.
“I have had an interest in cycling with Tim and co ever since,” says Delaney. “Hence his involvement as a directeur sportif now. To be fair, I think Timmy Barry has given an enormous amount to Irish cycling and this is a fantastic, just reward for him.”
Although the biggest names are all foreign riders, there will be an Irish element to the team in 2017. In addition to Irvine, Delaney has also signed multiple national champion Matt Brammeier, who has raced with Dimension Data, Etixx QuickStep and HTC Highroad in the past, plus Conor Dunne (JLT Condor).
The team is completed by two Dutchmen, Michel Kreder and Peter Koning.
Delaney, Bryan and others have spent recent months speaking to riders and also recruiting staff members. Getting the logistics necessary to run a team has also been a priority and, as part of that, Aqua Blue Sport bought the Tinkoff team bus and several other vehicles.
Delaney said that he will initially back the team but intends it to be self-financing over time. The mechanism for doing so is via the upcoming Aqua Blue Sport website, which he sees as becoming like an Amazon for bike sales.
If that goes as planned, he believes there will be ample funds to keep the team going indefinitely. He describes such a model as much more solid than the current sponsor-driven approach. Providing that works out, it will mean he will remain involved in the sport longer than other rich businessmen such as Oleg Tinkov.
Aiming for the Tour
In terms of timing, Delaney has put his team together at the right moment. The cessation of squads such as Tinkoff and IAM Cycling has meant that there are more riders on the market than there might otherwise be, and he has been able to use this to snap up some strong competitors.
He describes himself as delighted with the lineup they have gathered. “When considered alongside the support system we have put in place around them, we believe we have the ability to make an impact from the outset in 2017. We are getting very excited about the start of the season.”
Before then, the 16 riders and the staff will meet up at a training camp in or near Monaco in December. After that there will be an official team launch in Ireland in January, and then the racing will begin.
Delaney is an ambitious person and wants things to progress relatively quickly. That includes a ride in the Tour de France and, before the end of the initial four-year period he has committed to, to stepping things up to the next level in the sport.
“I suppose like anything from my own business background, when I start something I like to try to be the best,” he states, making that ambition clear. “To try to excel. This is no different. I want this team to perform.”
However, he does see that there will be a learning curve to competing in the professional ranks. “We all need to learn, so obviously I am depending on a lot of people with a lot of experience. Rather than try to jump in at the high end, we go in at the Pro Conti level, try to perform and make our mark.”
After that, moving higher is a priority. “The the plan will be in three to four years to apply for a WorldTour licence. Before then, we will be aiming for a wildcard invite to the Tour de France.”
Aqua Blue Sport for 2017:
Adam Blythe (Tinkoff)
Larry Warbasse (IAM Cycling)
Andy Fenn (Team Sky)
Lars Petter Nordhaug (Team Sky)
Matt Brammeier (Team Dimension Data)
Mark Christian (Team Wiggins)
Daniel Pearson (Team Wiggins)
Leigh Howard (IAM Cycling)
Stefan Denifl (IAM Cycling)
Calvin Watson (An Post Chainreaction)
Lasse Norman Hansen (Stölting Service Group)
Aaron Gate (An Post Chainreaction)
Michel Kreder (Roompot–Oranje Peloton)
Peter Koning (Drapac Professional Cycling)
Conor Dunne (JLT Condor)
Martyn Irvine (returning from retirement)