Brian Canty travelled last weekend’s Tour de Yorkshire with Aqua Blue Sport, Ireland’s first ever pro cycling team. With an estimated 2.2m people watching the three days, brand exposure almost ranked up there with glory
A rail-thin Dutch rider screams up the outside of the Aqua Blue Sport team car under a gunmetal grey sky on the road between Tadcaster and Harrogate.
“This convoy is fucking insanity,” he barks in the window, before picking his way up through the cavalcade of cars en route to the relative safety of the peloton.
It’s an oddity of cycling that the best place to be (for now) is tucked in the belly of the bunch, handlebar to handlebar alongside 180 other riders, travelling at whatever speed the race dictates.
A day earlier, a massive 70 kmph crash coming into the finish took down several riders and three were forced to abandon with broken collarbones. Plenty are sporting heavy bandaging today. Fortunately for Aqua Blue Sport, they avoided the carnage.
So, the bunch is certainly no picnic either, not on narrow, wet tarmac.
We’re on stage two of the Tour de Yorkshire, just outside the appropriately named hamlet of Bedlam, and Ireland’s first ever professional cycling team are on a mission. They’ve the British national champion Adam Blythe on board for their maiden season and he’s the man tasked with winning today’s stage.
To give him the best chance, there are two team mechanics (from Croatia) finishing work at 10pm the night before and starting at 6.30am. Each of the team bikes had to be washed and forensically examined and the spare bikes also given a rigorous reliability test.
Soigneurs (French for servants) Patrick, from the Netherlands, and Javier, from Spain, have jobs that include managing the riders’ nutrition, labelling it, and packing it into bags to be given out at predetermined points during the stage. A rider that is even 5% dehydrated has no chance. They wash kit, fill water bottles, massage the riders before and after each stage, scrub the four vehicles (including a team bus), eat on the go, sleep very little and, in the words of Javier, “always have the phone on loud”.
This race is particularly important to Aqua Blue Sport, because not only is it an event they can win, but half their roster is British, so appealing to the millions of hearts and minds who watch is their primary function.
Sadly for them, that too is the goal of the 17 other teams.
When team owner Rick Delaney tells me “we need more friends” he really means, “we need more exposure and people asking, ‘what is Aqua Blue Sport?’”.
The team’s directeur sportif, Timmy Barry from Passage West, Co Cork, knows it too. That’s why he’s super-friendly to the kids who come to the team bus looking for a selfie with a rider, a water bottle or a team edition cap.
“Planning ahead,” is how ex-international Barry distills his job in the team.
“You have to plan ahead and know what each day holds; what will the weather be like? Where the race is likely to break? Where is the wind coming from?”
For logistics they have a man by the name of Herve, whose job is simply to book flights, hotels, and transfers.
There’s the performance director Leigh, marketing director Jamie (Rick’s daughter), PR man Niall, content manager Conor, general manager Stephen, website manager Mark, bus driver Paulius and in total, an entourage of 19.
They’re all small cogs in a wheel that Corkman Delaney is keeping a close eye on from his home in Monaco.
“Obviously, we have the race to try and win,” says Barry, “but it’s about the Aqua Blue Sport company and brand as well and linking in with the marketing people, so they can do what they do.
“We actually really need to get that to the forefront of people’s minds, because that’s what will make the whole thing sustainable and it’s easier when you win.”
He’s referring to the project that close friend Delaney has financed with the wealth he amassed from alcohol distribution and property.
The mechanism for this project becoming sustainable is via the team’s website, which Delaney sees as becoming like an Amazon for bike sales and associated products.
“This whole project will be self-financing, so there will be a long-term sustainable team there for riders to develop their careers,” he says.
But back to negotiating our way to Harrogate and the most immediate problem is Blythe wanting a bottle.
There are dropped riders, like our Dutch friend chasing back, and there are riders puncturing all afternoon up ahead. It is utter chaos.
The roads are barely wide enough for two cars, but if an Aqua Blue Sport rider requires assistance, Timmy must get up to service him as quickly as possible.
As the stage is short, the pace is unrelenting, so every minute spent ‘out’ of the peloton is energy wasted.
However, 26-year-old American Larry Warbasse drops back for bottles anyway around the midway point.
“I can take one more,” he tells Timmy, seven already stuffed down his jersey.
Timmy has one foot on the accelerator, the other feathering the brake (so as not to rear-end the car in front), his right hand is on the wheel and the other giving Warbasse a sticky bottle.
With one hell of a sling, Warbasse is catapulted back into the bunch, where he seeks out Blythe.
The kilometres tick down and the pace ramps up and the tension mounts inside the car as we approach Harrogate.
“They’re on their own now,” Timmy tells me after issuing a final directive over race radio to “stay towards the front”.
“There’s nothing more I can do from this point.”
A helicopter hovers overhead and the din of people cheering can be heard miles away.
A deathly silence washes over the car. Zoran, the team’s Croatian mechanic shifts around in the back seat and cranes his head forward for a better look.
Blythe appears for the first time all day. He has done a perfect job of staying stealthy and he’s weaving and moving around like a cocky middleweight in the first round. He ducks and dives into the top 10 and waits for the sprint to launch.
The heavy Harrogate road ramps up and bites into the peloton’s legs as the bunch starts to fragment. Blythe is hanging in there desperately, but losing ground on the front.
Then, as subtle as a baseball bat to the ribcage, Nacer Bouhanni springs from the back and gallops clear on his own for an easy win.
Aqua Blue Sport’s horse charges all the way to the line, but 10th is not what he came for and he drops his head at not being able to do better for the thousands who came to support him.
But, there are no excuses either and, 15 minutes after the finish, he is mingling among fans outside the team bus, signing autographs and posing for selfies.
The disappointment of the result is digested and it’s onto the next set of problems.
The first of those is how on earth to get to the team hotel in York, when Blythe has a queue half a mile long for pictures… It’s job done in that sense.
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