A year ago Aqua Blue Sport won a stage at the Vuelta, now they’ve pulled out of the Tour of Britain and won’t race again. Teams come and go but rarely do they stop before the season is out.
Dear supporters, please find attached a statement regarding the future of team Aqua Blue Sport. pic.twitter.com/w4Zn2KKIDl
— Aqua Blue Sport (@AquaBlueSport) August 27, 2018
The team said in announcement it wasn’t going to apply for a Pro Continental licence for 2019 which was left a degree of ambiguity, if it wasn’t applying for that status then what’s the plan? Obviously it wasn’t going to apply for a World Tour licence and dropping down to the Continental ranks is possible but a serious reversal, especially if the team was announcing it wasn’t even interested in trying for Pro Conti status, presumably because it knew it would not meet the requires. Then news the team won’t ride the Tour of Britain arrived and that the squad won’t race again this year.
Mentioning the team’s demise on social media generated several “pro cycling’s sponsorship model is broken” responses. Perhaps, but remember there’s more money in pro cycling sponsorship than ever before, both in the World Tour and the Pro Conti ranks. What’s more certain is that Aqua Blue’s sponsorship model didn’t work. The idea was to be “the Amazon for bikes”, a reference to the online retail giant and to have a website selling bikes and kit both direct and via third party retailers. Team founder Rick Delaney told the Irish Independent (brace yourself):
Look, this year alone, Tinkoff are gone, IAM [Cycling] are gone and that’s just the owners getting bored, the owners having a bad year in business or the owners deciding this toy isn’t playful enough and going off to buy another yacht or do whatever they do… … We’re trying to make it completely sustainable and that’s our uniqueness”
Alas it didn’t work. As mentioned earlier this year the Aqua Sport website was getting fewer hits a day than this blog and presumably the income wasn’t enough to keep the team on the road. It’s no market research steady but browsing the website I found at random a saddle, a chain and a pair of shoes and they were were all significantly cheaper on other websites. Did you shop with them? If not perhaps it was a sign of a problem. One alarm bell was the aborted merger with the Verandas Willems-Crelan team. Aqua Blue announced this only for the the Belgian team to deny it.
There was a Catch-22 scenario here with Delaney bemoaning a lack of wildcard invites which denied him the publicity needed to drive sales but at the same time the team didn’t have a “must have” rider to secure the invites needed. Cycling’s second tier, the UCI Pro Continental, has 27 teams budgets and ambitions ranges from teams like Cofidis with a budget of €10 million a year who ride two grand tours to squads with less than a million Euros who daren’t dream of riding a single grand tour.
Some get invites by virtue of nationality, the grand tours all need home teams but on pure performance it’s not easy to pick but shows why some of the most interesting recruitment moves are in this tier with Fortuneo-Samsic hiring André Greipel and Direct Energie taking Niki Terpstra and Niccolò Bonifazio as they jostle for invitations and big names like this open doors that more humble rosters can’t. Still Aqua Blue enlivened many a race thanks to riders like Conor Dunne and Stefan Denifl took a huge win in the Vuelta to add to Larry Warbasse’s Tour de Suisse stage. But had the team started the Tour de France would it have jump-started the online sales?
It’s tempting to mock the team that bemoaned a lack of invites now ducking out of a big race like the Tour of Britain but it’s not hypocrisy of saying one thing and doing another. If only it were, the worry is the money has dried up to the extent that even taking part in a race and collecting the participation allowance isn’t worth it when set against fuel costs, hiring temporary staff on daily rates… the fear is the money has dried up. It’s still a sad end because riders are denied the chance to prove themselves in upcoming races. Typically if a team does end then the management inform the riders well in advance, for example United Healthcare aren’t going to renew their sponsorship and riders were informed of this in March with the subtext that management wanted to find a replacement sponsor but riders should be warned this wasn’t certain.
Can riders transfer?
There is a transfer window to swap teams mid-season but the rules say this exists only for the first 15 days of August. The window is now shut and riders can’t move to another team now. It’s not as if there’s a shortage on other teams, nor that many races left. Only if Aqua Blue were in breach of contract could a rider either become unemployed or try and get their contract torn up and then they could move but again it’s late in the season to land a spot elsewhere.
The cyclingnews.com says it’s not clear if the riders wages will be paid, normally all riders would be salaried until 31 December. If things are that drastic – and let us hope not – then there is a bank guarantee posted with the UCI designed to cover this eventuality. It is meant to cover all riders as well as full-time salaried staff and roughly works out at three month’s wages. It’s only available as a last resort though and drawing down on it takes time. Those with longer contracts for 2019 can hope the contract will be honoured but it’s not certain at the moment.
Teams come and go but to stop before the season has ended is bad news, it leaves racers unable to race properly and there’s uncertainty given the sudden demise. Ironically this one was launched as a sustainable project but seemed as reliant on its millionaire backer as others.