It may be just a few weeks into the season, but the new Pro Continental team Aqua Blue Sport are already making their presence felt in the peloton, with aggressive performances in their first few races in Australia, Dubai and Italy.
In addition to getting into breaks in most races they have been in, the new Irish team have also nabbed a few podium places including Conor Dunne and Aaron Gate both grabbing second places on stages of the Herald Sun Tour, and Gate winning the Tour de Ranges. At the Dubai Tour, the team also took three top ten places through British champion Adam Blythe.
We caught up with Directeur Sportif Tim Barry to discuss the team’s start to the season, plans for the future and also the Aqua Blue team’s business model.
“We were very happy with how Dubai went,” Barry confirmed. “We’d three top tens out of the four stages and of the four stages, we had a rider in the breakaway on three of the days. We contributed to the race and we were getting close to a podium at the same time. They’re the two boxes that we wanted to tick and we ticked both of them.”
Barry confirmed that being a new team, it was their intention to race aggressively and make their presence felt.
“Obviously with a new team we want to get our name out there and let people see that we’re contributing to the race and that we’re racing aggressively,” the Corkman said.
“It can be hard enough to get invites, especially in your first year so we don’t want to be just sitting down in the middle of the bunch not doing anything. Overall, we had an excellent few days down there and I was very happy with the way they rode. We want people to see that these boys are serious, they’re here to do a job, they’re here to race hard.”
One of the other challenges facing the team is that they have just sixteen riders on their roster, whereas other Pro Continental teams such as Cofidis and Direct Energie have over twenty riders. However, this is something that Barry is conscious of.
“We’re going to try and keep it simple and keep the amount of time we have two teams on the road at the same time to a minimum,” he says. “There has to be a bit of a balance between ourselves and the invites we accept. We want to make sure that if there are times when riders are injured or need a rest, then the other riders aren’t under too much pressure.”
In the opening weeks of the season, one rider who has particularly impressed with his aggressive riding has been Irishman Conor Dunne, a rider Barry has known for a few years.
“I first met Conor when he won a stage of the Rás and he’s just come on every year,” Barry says. “He was on the podium at the Cadel Evans race and he was second on a stage of the Herald Sun Tour. Serious horsepower and a really nice guy. It’s great to see him now racing at Pro Conti level.”
Becoming a Directeur Sportif for a pro cycling team hadn’t been part of Barry’s masterplan, but instead it was something that has evolved over the past few years through discussions with the team owner Rick Delaney.
“We had talked about this project over the past few years, but now the time is right,” he says. “With the Aqua Blue team in Ireland, we had always tried to have a professional amateur team. When I stopped racing, I got a couple of calls from Cycling Ireland who wanted a bit of a hand. I got involved with the Irish team – the Tour of Ireland, the Tour of Turkey, European Championships. I’m doing something that came to me, rather than going looking for it. I suddenly found that I enjoyed it and I like to think I’m reasonably good at it.”
A serious challenge that cycling teams have always faced is retaining sponsors. Long-term sponsors like the Belgian lottery or Quick Step are rare, leaving many pro teams looking for new sponsors every few years. Aqua Blue are taking a different approach and Barry explains where they’re coming from.
“The Aqua Blue Sport brand, the model that we’re trying to put in place is to have a sustainable business model for a professional cycling team,” he says. “Everybody has seen the teams where a sponsor comes in, spends the money, are happy for a few years and then they’re gone. That leaves riders and staff out of jobs.
“If we can get the Aqua Blue Sport model to work, the e-commerce platform that links in with retailers and with cyclists where if the consumer buys through the site, they’re engaging with the team. They’re buying from an independent retailer who’s registered with the site and the team will be self-sustainable through that model. If you buy through the site, you’re linking in with the team and anything that’s made through the site will go back into sustaining the team.
“People don’t follow teams. In soccer, you’re a United fan or a Liverpool fan or a Chelsea fan and in forty year’s time, you’re still a fan and you go down the pub and slag your friend who supports the other team. Cycling doesn’t have that. There are teams that have longevity under different names, like Lotto Jumbo going back to Superconfex. On our website, you can get your Aqua Blue jersey, and people buying it know they’re directly linked with the team.”