Tuesday 22 May 2018

To reign in Spain just for one day

Irish pro team Aqua Blue Sport are hoping to leave their mark in first Grand Tour

The Aqua Blue Sport team for the 2017 Vuelta a Espana are Aaron Gate, Lasse Norman Hansen, Mark Christian, Stefan Denifl, Larry Warbasse, Conor Dunne, Adam Blythe, Peter Koning, Michel Kreder Picture: Karen M. Edwards.
The Aqua Blue Sport team for the 2017 Vuelta a Espana are Aaron Gate, Lasse Norman Hansen, Mark Christian, Stefan Denifl, Larry Warbasse, Conor Dunne, Adam Blythe, Peter Koning, Michel Kreder Picture: Karen M. Edwards.

Ciarán Lennon

In an unassuming Ibis hotel on the edge of the old Roman town of Arles, one of the most ambitious Irish sports teams have spent the week preparing for the deep end.

Their base is just a short walk from the town's Roman amphitheatre, where gladiatorial battles are still re-enacted, but Aqua Blue Sport have other battles on their minds

Twelve months ago the team was only a rumour. Today a team of nine riders will be launched down the start ramp in the shadows of the Nimes amphitheatre as the Vuelta a Espana starts with a 13km time trial. A three-week Grand Tour is new territory for the Irish set-up, and most of their riders, but they've spent the year pushing boundaries.

While Conor Dunne is the only Irishman among their nine riders here, there's a Rebel soul to the team, with the owner, a team director, general manager and nutritionist all making unlikely journeys from Cork to the today's start in the south of France.

Rick Delaney, originally from Turner's Cross but now of Monaco, is funding the project but the ambition is to become the first self-sustaining team within two years - backed by an e-commerce platform that acts as a marketplace for cycling retailers. The Romans built things to last but in their own time, Aqua Blue are aiming for the best of both worlds.

The riders

Dunne flies the green flag in a team of seven nationalities. The tallest man in pro cycling, the 6' 8'' giant is perfect man to shoulder their big ambitions. Dunne spent three years at the third tier continental level before making the step up.

"It's been tough, but I think I've held my own this year," said Dunne, who is from St Albans, near London. His Mayo grandmother and Offaly grandfather moved to Wembley where they joined a strong Irish community.

"I grew up in the UK but my dad has six brothers and sisters - so it was big Irish family. I grew up feeling more proud to be Irish than British. So I always associated myself with that."

He remembers travelling back for family gatherings in Dublin and Mayo, although he's now an adopted Waterford man, thanks to the influence of his girlfriend Stacey, Seán Kelly's daughter.

"I'm Waterford now all the way, otherwise my girlfriend would kill me. I've spent a lot of time there now in the last few years, but I love going back. I actually prefer going back there than the UK. There's some mega riding around there too."

His own family has some sporting pedigree too. His mother is a Kenyan Open squash champion, his sister competed in doubles at Wimbledon this year, but it was the influence of his uncle Roger that put Dunne on the road to cycling. Roger died two years ago in a swimming accident in France.

"My late uncle Roger was a competitive cyclist and raced on the continent - with Dan Martin's dad actually - So that's how I got into cycling, listening to stories from him. So he was a bit of an inspiration for me."

Having a feisty younger sister helped hone his competitive instincts, even if their mother didn't always approve.

"When we were children we used to have a table tennis table, but we were banned from it. My sister threw the bat and I ran away to avoid it and ran into a door frame and knocked myself out," admits the larger than life Dunne.

He will be hoping to avoid any misfortune in his first Grand Tour. He's been the team's breakaway specialist and hopes to make one of the moves towards the end of the first week. "After that I'm in unknown territory."

It's more familiar for Larry Warbasse, Aqua Blue's own Captain America. They say you never forget your first and the 27-year-old from Michigan delivered the most memorable moment of the team's first year when he won a mountain stage of the Tour de Suisse - a first win for the team and his own career.

He followed up by winning the American national championships and will wear his national jersey designed in homage to the comic book character.

"It's a big honour and it's pretty cool. I've always dreamt about it. I didn't really expect it to happen this year, so it's a nice surprise," said the most experienced Grand Tour rider in the team.

Warbasse took a leap of faith by joining a fresh set-up, but he's thrilled to be back at a grand tour.

"I definitely didn't expect to be at the Vuelta this year when I signed at the team, I guess I wasn't sure what to expect just because you never know with a new project but it definitely exceeded my expectations - because you can't really ask to come to a Grand Tour in the first year of a new team."

Five riders are making their Grand Tour debuts, including Denmark's 2012 Olympic omnium champion Lasse Norman Hansen. Last year's British champion Adam Blythe is back at a three-week race for the first time since 2013, but the sprinter will be the team's best hope of a stage win.

Like many of the more established names, Blythe has endured the fickleness of the sport, joining Aqua Blue after a year in the volatile orbit of Russian millionaire Oleg Tinkov.

"I was only there for a year and he just got fed up spending all his cash and went and bought a yacht, I think that happens in a lot of teams," he said.

The vision

The team's ambitious vision is to be self-sustaining by the end of their second year. Their e-commerce platform is a marketplace for retailers to sell cycling goods online - with Aqua Blue taking a percentage of transactions - and a website relaunch coincides with the Vuelta start. The aim is to break into the American and Australian markets next year.

Instead of being dependent on outside sponsors, the business will support the team financially and the team in turn promote the business.

"Some of the media are writing stuff and they're just not getting it, they are writing that Aqua Blue Sport is an online bike store and they're the sponsor," Delaney explained.

"So we decided about three or four months ago to push the e-commerce, because if the e-commerce fails the team fails. Because it's all the one group, we don't have a sponsor, there is no sponsor, it's Aqua Blue Sport. You've got the riders, the e-commerce, it's the same organisation, they're all paid by the same people, it's the first of its kind."

A staff of 15 are working in the e-commerce office in Cork and the riders are well aware of the vision.

"It's not just you riding for a team," said Dunne. "If we can make it work we've got a really sustainable model we can grow into the future. So anything I do is helping the team stay into the future."

The race

For their biggest race of the year, the operation has swelled. Extra vehicles have been added, a chef is on board and to help the riders with their nutrition, and to deal with the scorching conditions, head of athletic performance Stephen Barrett will be on site for most of the race.

The All-Ireland hurling final will interrupt the Fermoy man's involvement as he also plays a role in the backroom team of Derek McGrath's Waterford team. Former pro Nicki Sorensen and well known ex-rider Timmy Barry will call the shots from the cars.

The goal is a stage win but as a wild card invite, they will be expected to animate the race. This will be familiar fare for Dunne and their climbers Austrian Stefan Denifl and Warbasse can excel on the many mountainous stages.

"I definitely always thought I could do something here," said Warbasse. "It just has to be the right scenario. Having those two wins under my belt this year already it definitely gives me more confidence coming in here."

Aqua Blue eyes are focused first on what should be a sprint stage tomorrow. Most of the world's best fastmen have stayed away this year improving the odds for Blythe.

"Stage two is a big opportunity for myself," he said.

They've ambitious plans but to reign in Spain just for one day will do for now.

Irish Independent

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport