How a father and son duo are turning a passion project into Women’s WorldTour potential

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Three years ago, printing business owners Bob and Tom Varney got hooked on women’s cycling after a successful season as sponsors of the British domestic team, Corley Cycles-Drops. Recognising the difference they can make for developing riders, the father and son duo set out “to create a happy and supportive environment where riders can develop and reach their true potential”. Investing in their own venture, they founded the Drops Cycling team.

The British team finished 15th in UCI rankings in 2017, after seeing the standout striped kit on the podium at Setmana Ciclista Valencia , Women’s Tour and Tour de Feminin. A development team at the core, the team’s WorldTour appearances gave an opportunity for young riders like Alice Barnes and Anna Christian to be seen and notch top-10 placings in the WorldTour young rider competition.

Looking ahead, in 2018, the Drops Cycling team owners are hoping to step up their game by signing experienced riders like Tayler Wiles and Molly Weaver, while recently retired pro Loren Rowney will join the staff.

We caught up with the Varneys to talk about their passion project and lofty goals.

Team manager Bob Varney at the Women’s Tour of California. Photo by Jeff Kennel

“Two years ago, the team didn’t exist and this year we finished the season 15th in the UCI rankings, we won our first UCI race, podiumed at Women’s WorldTour level and had two U23 riders up there in the Women’s WorldTour young rider rankings,” team manager Bob Varney told Ella CyclingTips.

“It’s a bit of a passion project that has surpassed our wildest dreams.”

While new to women’s cycling, the Varneys previously ran the Team Keyne-Trek development team some two decades ago, which was a youth development programme that most notably included Ian Stannard. Their commitment to rider development continues with Drops.

Recognising their limited experience on the women’s side of the sport, the Varneys brought on retired Dutch cyclist Marijn de Vries to teach the young riders all the tricks from the trade, while bringing in a feminine viewpoint along with it. In 2018, the team will bolster its staff by adding Australian Loren Rowney as a sports director.

After a 10-year career, Rowney retired at the end of 2016 and spent some months as the DS of the Australian Roxsalt team in 2017. In 2018, she’ll bring her knowledge to Drops full-time.

“Loren is employed full-time by the team and will also be providing advice on and off the bike to the riders,” said Tom Varney, team director. “She has already had some great ideas about teaching the riders to learn other skills to be ready for life after cycling.”

“Loren will also be helping myself with the media side and also some logistics too,” Tom continued. “I’m not sure why or how, but we underestimated the work that was needed behind the scenes to make a full professional team, so Loren’s role will be split with some media and logistics, but her main role will be DS-ing and rider development.”

De Vries will continue to be involved with the team as well, but the exact nature of De Vries’ role in 2018 isn’t clear yet.

“Marijn has recently become a mother, so we’re taking a relaxed approach with her,” Tom explained. “She’s always welcome to the team and she’s done a great job as a rider mentor the past two seasons. I’m sure we will continue to have a good relationship with Marijn, but I’m not sure in what capacity after she recently entered parenthood.”

Zorzi
Susanna Zorzi wearing her new team outfit during team camp on Mallorca. Photo by Russ Ellis.

A British team bolstered with foreign talent

After finding their footing in 2016, Drops added three bigger named international riders to its roster this year: Martina Ritter, Ann-Sophie Duyck and Susanna Zorzi.

“A big reason behind bringing in international riders was to enhance the development of our British riders, both on and off the bike,” Tom explained. “A theory that was sound on paper, given their experience, but Bob would agree with me when I say that we found it harder integrating new personalities and cultures into the team than we anticipated.”

And that sentiment was felt on both sides, eight riders did not return to the team this season, some with bitter feelings.

“I really liked the team, the riders and the staff, who were working so hard – sometimes unpaid. But there were promises that were broken,” a former rider, who wished to remain anonymous, told Ella CyclingTips.

These promises, the rider said, included proper equipment, riders having to cover some transportation and lodging costs themselves, and even a share of the prize money.

Tom was quick to retort these comments however.

“I’m not sure where those stories come from, to be honest,” he said. “We have paid all riders’ expenses all season and this is part of being on the team, it shouldn’t cost the riders anything. Of course, there’s been times where the riders have booked things for themselves, but they are paid back straight away, like any other business.”

“This may actually have come about from the prize money,” he continued. “We have paid our prize money in one lump sum at the end of the year, rather than throughout the season. This was slightly more delayed than we wished due to the several race organisers not paying us on time – we still haven’t received money from some early season races.”

Still, Tom admitted that some mistakes were made and those will be addressed next year. In terms of budget management, the team will make the switch to focus on quality over quantity in 2018, reducing both the number of riders on the roster and the number of race days.

“We have decided to take a more focused and targeted approach,” Tom said. “We will have a smaller squad and race slightly fewer race days. Having 16 riders and racing over 70 days was a heavy strain on both time and budget.”

“Also, all riders and staff will be getting paid and we will no longer have volunteers in staff positions,” he added. “Next year, the team will be sustainable solely through sponsorships and we have brought together a good mix of companies that are making a difference in women’s cycling. I’m really proud that we are paying all of our riders and staff. I feel like we are in a good position to move the team forward.”

New star power

New international talented has been added to the roster for the 2018 season, as Drops welcomes American Tayler Wiles (leaving UnitedHealthcare), German Katrin Hammes (from Team Tibco-SVB) and Dutch rider Eva Buurman (of Parkhotel Valkenburg-Destil).

Tom believes that this crop will fit better with the team, as two of them have an Anglo-Saxon background, which should make it easier for them to integrate into the British team.

Tayler Wiles sets the pace during the first crit at the 2017 Santos Women’s Tour. Photo by Tim Bardsley-Smith

“Tayler Wiles has proven herself as a great GC and hillier one-day classics rider and her personality will be well-suited to our British core,” he said. “Kathrin Hammes, from Germany, rode for an American team for the past three years, so she’ll have picked up similar ‘American’ traits which will also work well off the bike.”

 

“Of course, they have been signed for their abilities on the bike, but we also look at their personalities and how they fit with the team, both other riders and the staff. It’s kind of cliché, but we want to keep our fun, family feel of the team.”

The third foreign rider may not have an American or British background, but Tom believes that Dutchwoman Eva Buurman will be a perfect fit for the team all the same.

“She’s someone that’s made steady progress and I’m confident that her progress will continue into next year and into the World Tour races,” he commented.

On the British front, Drops has added Sunweb rider Molly Weaver.

“Molly has a point to prove after making so much progress only to be hampered by her bad training crash,” Tom said. “She’s super focused and determined for next season, I’m personally excited to see her come back, but we need to be wary to not put too much pressure on her in the early part of the season.”

The team also signed Manon Lloyd, who comes from the British Cycling Academy program, whilst eight riders stay with the team for a further two years: Anna Christian, Lucy Shaw, Lizzie Holden, Annasley Park, Hannah Payton, Abby-Mae Parkinson, Annie Simpson and Abigail van Twisk.

“Our focus will be on stage races and the hillier one-day races, with the new riders plus our young core of full-time British riders,” Tom said. “The team is well-placed to take chances in those races.”

Outlining the 2018 season, Tom revealed that Drops will again start their season in Australia before heading to Europe. The Ardennes Classics will be an early focus for the team, followed by the Tour of California and Women’s Tour.

“Beyond 2018, we’re looking to keep improving and establish ourselves as a UCI top 10 team and be seen as a WorldTour Team when the two or three-tier structure comes into play, maybe in 2019?,” Tom commented. “To enable us to do this properly, not only in rider and staff salaries but with infrastructure, coaching, buses, marketing et cetera, we will need to bring on board a new title partner that will replace the Drops in the team name.”

Drops
Selfie-time for the Drops Cycling team. Photo by Russ Ellis.

“Men’s racing needs to become as exciting as women’s racing”

Now that Bob and Tom Varney have been active in women’s cycling for a couple of years, their eyes have been opened to the world of women’s cycling and all the issues that are on the agenda currently.

As relative newcomers to the sport, we were curious to know what their outlook is on the sport as a whole.

“It’s great to see the improvement that has been made recently, but I think there is, at times, too much focus on what isn’t there in women’s cycling rather than what we have got,” Tom Varney said. “Yes, La Course is still only one day. Yes, there are some shorter races than we would like. Yes, there is only one tier of teams. But the growth is there: live TV coverage is increasing, professionalism of the teams is increasing, salaries of the riders are increasing and I believe the average salary in teams is increasing.”

That’s not to say they don’t have any criticism of the current system. Bob is resolutely against the points system: “It’s broken and it needs fixing.”

“Successful riders move on and I have no problem with that,” he said. “Alice Barnes has been one of the standout young riders in the world this year. We are all extremely proud to have played a part in her success and sincerely wish her every success for the future. But the point system is not working and it’s not fair that Alice takes all of her UCI points with her.”

With that said, in their newest recruits Drops of course gains some valuable UCI points as well.

“Our new leader for next year is Tayler Wiles, who we signed from UnitedHealthcare in the USA,” said Bob Varney. “She brings all of her UCI points with her. UnitedHealthcare also lost Ruth Winder to Sunweb, who takes all of her UCI points with her too.”

“UnitedHealthcare retains zero points and won’t be in the top 15 teams in the world next year, therefore they won’t receive an automatic invitation to the Amgen Tour of California, the race they dominated until the very last moment this year,” he said. “Now, that’s really not fair.”

Alice Barnes (Drops) wearing the red, white and blue band as the 2016 British U23 road champion. Photo by Russ Ellis.

Aside from the points system, which is a constant point of discussion in men’s cycling too, there’s lots of learning to do from the men’s side of the sport to increase popularity, Tom believes. Although he doesn’t think that, for example, introducing races of over 200 kilometres is the way to go.

“If anything, men’s races and stages need to become shorter,” he said. “Men’s racing needs to become as exciting as the women’s races.”

So, what does Tom think does need to happen?

“I think that we need certain minimum requirements for teams and races to be worthy of the Women’s WorldTour tag,” he said. “But we also need to be careful, it’s not an easy job and I don’t envy the UCI.”

“For example, how many races can afford live TV? How many teams can afford a minimum wage? How many of each can we lose without damaging the sport too much?” Varney asked. “I think it will take someone to lose a lot of money for everyone to make a gain. Whether that’s the UCI subsidising live TV coverage for Women’s WorldTour races for the teams to gain exposure, which in theory will enable us to increase our budgets through sponsorship.”

“On the other side, will team owners pay all riders a certain amount without a minimum wage coming into play? In the men’s side of the sport, the teams have multimillion euro budgets and some of that is spent on independent reviews of their ethics among other things. If women’s teams had to pay the same fee, I believe it’s over £100,000, then the majority of teams won’t be around.”

“There is no easy answer, but the sport is still growing organically,” he concluded.

In a small way, Drops Cycling aims to be part of that development. In 2018, the team will travel across the world to get itself up there into the Women’s WorldTour if the two-tier system comes into effect in 2019. Having learnt from their mistakes in the first two years of the team, the Varneys are ready to focus on what’s really important in running a women’s team. With half the team renewed, they’re looking for continued progress and a step forward in 2018.

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