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With his team currently riding its first Grand Tour, Aqua Blue Sport founder and owner Rick Delaney has looked further down the road and spoken about the future of the squad. Talking to CyclingTips in recent days, the Irishman has said the team is lobbying hard for the Tour de France, and wants to do it sooner rather than later.
“Our aim is to be WorldTour by year four,” he said, referring to 2020. “A Grand Tour was targeted for year two, and that has already happened in the first seven months.
“Our dream was obviously to do our first Grand Tour, but thereafter to try to do the pinnacle, which is the Tour de France. If that means we will have to become a WorldTour to get that, then I suppose that is what we have to do. But if we got a wildcard in the coming years, that would be pretty spectacular. And it is not impossible.”
Asked if there was a chance that the team might do the Tour de France as early as next year, Delaney wasn’t ruling it out.
“I think anything is possible. I think we have proved that,” he said. “I think the answer to that question is that I genuinely don’t know. Obviously we are lobbying very hard. The ASO like us, race organisers like us.
“I think if we keep going what we are going, I certainly think we are going to be around the shortlist…”
The team has had an impressive programme of races in its debut season. Getting a Vuelta invite in year one was a big achievement, and so too securing rides in races such as Flèche Wallonne, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Tour de Suisse and other such events.
The team had a series of high placings, with Larry Warbasse landing double success when he took a stage of the Tour de Suisse and then won the US road race championships. Stefan Denifl secured its first overall stage race success, winning the Tour of Austria.
Delaney wants to step things up in 2018 and said he would consider a Giro/Vuelta programme if it was on the cards. “If we got offered the very first Grand Tour and the last Grand Tour of the season, that might work,” he stated. “But I think if we got the Tour, then that would be our year [focus] for sure…”
Breaking new ground in year one
Lining out in the Vuelta a España made Irish sporting history, as it marked the first time a team from that country had ridden a Grand Tour.
Delaney is hugely passionate about the sport, having decided to set up a team after meeting pros out training near his base in Monaco. He was effusive about having his team in the Vuelta so soon, and about the historic significance for Irish sport.
“It means everything. It is a great honour,” he said. “It is a dream come true. This time last year it was an idea, and 12 months later we are here. It is fantastic, just fantastic.
“The goals for the race are for us to represent us as best we can. 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 [Warbasse], obviously, is coming into some great form. Stefan [Denifl] is coming into great form. Adam Blythe is producing great numbers at the minute. Peter Konig too. They are very, very strong, so it is very doable. If Lady Luck is on our side and the stars all align, it is possible…”
The squad started out with a very respectable result, placing 13th out of 22 in the opening team time trial. It beat multiple WorldTour outfits, showing that it was on a level to take them on in the race.
Blythe then went close on stage two, netting third. Since then the team has ridden aggressively and been prominent in breakaways. And while Warbasse unfortunately crashed out on Friday’s stage, the team will continue chasing a victory.
While that is by no means certain, the riders will do their utmost to achieve that goal in the race.
What may help is the ability to focus completely on the task at hand. Each of those on the team were offered two year deals last autumn and so, with that job security, they have no distractions other than trying to have the best possible Vuelta.
Next season the team will look much as it does now, but Delaney said that there will be some additions. These include this year’s Under 23 Tour of Flanders champion, who has a lot of promise. “Eddie Dunbar is going to be coming on board, which is fantastic for us,” he states. “I think Eddie is a remarkable talent, and you couldn’t be any more Irish than Eddie. I think it is a marriage made in heaven. And I think he will be a superstar, I really do.
“In the coming weeks there will be another two or three riders that we will announce. We are still looking.”
Securing future budget via a new financial model
Whether a team is chasing new riders or working to hold onto those it already has, budget is crucial. Delaney has approached this in a different way to most. When the team was launched, he said that it would not seek title sponsors; instead, the aim was for it to become completely self-sustaining over time.
The Aqua Blue Sport website is a platform for retailers to sell all things connected with cycling, and the team said it wants it to become an Amazon for bikes. In effect the team website is the product. It is an approach that Delaney sees as crucial to the team’s future.
Months down the line, he is pleased with its progress.
“The website is going very, very well,” he said. “Obviously at this time last year Aqua Blue Sport was nothing. It didn’t have a name, it didn’t have a logo, it had nothing. We are getting 45 to 60 thousand hits on the site per week. Multiple transactions now, more and more retailers joining. All of that wouldn’t have been possible without the team.
“If I was to perfectly honest with you, the team has been more successful than the e-commerce site just because they have got some spectacular results, and obviously getting to the Vuelta. But the site is catching up rapidly.
“Because of the interest in the team, people are jumping to the site. People want to be associated with the site because it is associated with the team, and because of the fundamentals of the team and the site. And every time somebody buys something or becomes a retailer or a brand owner, they are contributing to the team. So it is working. It is working.”
Interestingly, though, he seems to have revised the notion that it will eventually cover the entire budget.
“That is very ambitious,” he states now. “But if I can get it to 50, 60 percent in four years, I will be very happy.”
So, does he now believe the team will need to look for a sponsor to fill the gap? “No, we will never do that,” he answers. “The day we will look for a sponsor, we have failed. It is not a sponsorship team, it is a company-driven team. I keep beating that drum.
“We don’t have a sponsor, and we won’t have a sponsor. If we have to have a sponsor, well then I will bow out. They can get a sponsor and I will have failed.”
The implications of that is that Delaney will himself plug the gap. “I am making up the shortfall, yeah,” he says, laughing, while also sounding completely at ease with the situation. “That’s fine with me. If I can keep this going and top it up, I am very happy to do so.
“What is more important is that I see success with both the team and the e-commerce site. As I said to you, it is working. In seven months we have gone from zero to where we are now. I think it is a fantastic credit to everybody involved.”
Delaney is a successful businessman who made his money through alcohol distribution and property. He appears fully committed to the project, and also to be thoroughly enjoying where he is at with it.
He’s psyched by the progress and also by the feedback.
“The media has been very good. Other teams have been very good, and other race organisers,” he says. “Everybody seems to like us, for some reason. We are not trying to do anything intentionally, we have just become popular.
“Even internally behind closed doors, it is a fantastic atmosphere. And that is starting to shine through.”