A week on from pulling the pin on Ireland’s first professional cycling team, Rick Delaney has spoken publicly on the frustrations he has endured with bike suppliers, race organisers and the sport’s governing body - the UCI.
In order to compete at the highest level you must first gain access to the biggest races and on that front the successful Cork businessman says the team got off on the right foot.
“When I started this project two years ago we talked to the UCI and to various race organisers and we got the green light that everything would be okay and that we would get a really good race programme and more importantly we were told that what we were doing was very good for the sport,” said Delaney.
Last year, in my opinion, got off to a pretty good start and we got invited to some big races and to top the year off we made it to the Vuelta (España). You would imagine based on the success of year one that that should roll into year two.
This initial positive start was to be short-lived when the team, keen to experiment with the latest cutting-edge bike technology, entered into a sponsorship deal with 3T, the Italian equipment sponsor. 3T developed the highly controversial single chainring bike, which had never been tested before at the highest level prior to Aqua Blue.
“So on the back of that successful first year we obtained a complete equipment sponsor from one company (3T) which at the time seemed very exciting. They indicated they were going to be very supportive of the team. It was innovative technology and whilst the bike wasn’t fully developed at the time we were assured it would be up to speed by the time the season started. They were talking of new, exciting products and the future looked really good. We were going to mutually sell equipment and team bikes on our e-commerce website - it all sounded like the perfect marriage.”
They were getting no favours from race organisers, however, who opted not to invite the team to some of the biggest races.
“Probably in January 2018 when we started visiting race organisers the feeling just wasn’t the same as the year before. We had some positive meetings with RCS and though we were told we wouldn’t get invited to the Giro d’Italia, we would be going to Milan-San Remo along with a few more big races. We came out of that meeting positive and full of joy. We then continued to contact them for weeks on end with no dialogue - nothing, zero. Complete radio silence until it was announced via social media the invitees to their races and we didn’t get any. That really was the beginning of ‘this is going to be a difficult year’.”
With race invitations drying up, mechanical problems with the bikes were turning into a big issue.
“On top of all this, our staff and riders had been complaining about the products they were using. I personally have been under enormous pressure from riders and staff complaining about the bikes.
That puts the management of the team under savage pressure as we are contractually bound for the next two and a half years to this particular supplier. So what do I do?
Delaney highlights the embarrassment of having to ask other teams for bike parts at elite level races as the final straw in ending the partnership.
“We went to the Tour of Switzerland and our head mechanic was borrowing parts from other teams because we didn’t have the stock. On the second last day of that race I was told personally by the race organiser, ‘sort your bikes out’. We expected support from them and we didn’t get it.”
The only option for Delaney to keep Aqua Blue on the road without 3T was to merge with another team to terminate the existing contract. The strategy was then to find another pro-continental level team to collaborate with and use the bikes and equipment of that team while carrying forward Aqua Blue as title sponsor. But negotiations with the Belgian Willems-Veranda team were far from smooth sailing.
“I entered into negotiations with Sniper cycling - I lie, they came to me. They came to see me in Monaco, told me they really liked what we were doing and that they were interested in a possible merger. These negotiations went on for over two months and it was the most frustrating negotiation process I have ever gone through. We did a press release announcing the merger - two hours later we a got a phone call from the team manager asking us to take it down. They were completely distancing themselves from it.”
Not only did Sniper deny the press release, but just two weeks later the team announced a merger with another team.
“That doesn’t happen in a week. We all know that there are months of negotiating involved. There are multiple sponsors, multiple paying agents and rider contracts to be sorted - these things take weeks and weeks. They made us look like a bunch of idiots.
I had already spoken to riders and staff and told them it was a done deal.
With the nail firmly in the coffin of the merger and time running out, Delaney says he was left with no real choice but to end the team.
“I had a choice to make. I could breach the contract with 3T and be sued for damages or else continue with our current equipment. The last option was to just to call it a day and pull down the shutters.
“I woke up at 6am on the Monday morning and decided to pull the pin. I had thought about it long and hard all weekend. Everybody seems to think it was an easy decision, but I can tell you I cried on that Monday. This team has been my passion for the past two years, I didn’t just do this on a whim. Then you have people on social media saying I’m a cowboy amongst other things - it just makes my blood boil.
I invested millions in this sport. I have given 42 people jobs for the past two years. All my riders will be paid, as per the contract year, up to the 31st of December. There are five riders contracted for 2019, two of them I believe have found other teams, but if the remaining three cannot obtain work for next year then of course I’ll do the right thing and honour their contracts.
Despite his sympathy for riders and staff he had no qualms about laying into the hierarchy of the sport who he believes are making it very difficult to run a team.
“I just got completely pissed off to the end. I went to the UCI looking for help two years ago. They’re not interested in help, all they want to know is how much money do you have, where is the money coming from and how big is your bank guarantee. We went to them looking for help with some contracts and all they said was no. Their first answer is no, their last answer is no. Then we pull the pin last week and they’re on us like a cheap suit asking what they can do to help us continue - it’s unbelievable.”
Nor did he hold back when it came to race organisers.
“Now that it’s all done I have no problem in telling you that it’s all about money with race organisers. We did very well at the Tour de Suisse last year, even won a stage - what people don’t know is it cost us €20,000 to be there.
“So after already investing €2.7 million to fund the team I end up paying 20 grand just to be at the races. Amstel Gold race cost us another ten grand. It’s a beautiful sport - but the way it is run is disgusting.”