Gordon Wiseman talks to Cycle Premier-Kovert team boss Rod Freeman and rider Stephen Adams about how the team came about and its ambitions …
Gordon Wiseman writes … With the Halford’s sponsored Tour Series having just completed another successful season of top city centre racing, some of the same names have again been filling the headlines and our TV screens in recent weeks but just below those results, another name has been quietly picking up placings and improving its position alongside the UK’s elite teams.
George Moore gets his team’s colours out front in the Circuit Race Championships on Wednesday night.
In one guise or another, CyclePremier – Kovert has supported the Tour Series since its inception in 2009 and, once the wheels stopped spinning, and with the Elite Series just getting underway, Team Principal Rod Freeman sat down with VeloUK.net to talk about how and why the team was set up, the 2012 Tour Series and his plans for the future.
Rod’s own background in racing is the same as many others up and down the country. “I got into racing by copying my dad but whilst he was into time trials, I was drawn more to road racing. I started racing when I was 15 years old with the Welland Valley. I guess you’d call me an average club rider.
“At that time my heroes were the likes of Malcolm Elliott and Shane Sutton. They came to one of our club nights as Welland Valley then had some sponsorship from ANC and Malcolm and Shane were both racing for ANC on the Continent. But over the years I saw the growth of bike racing in the UK and wanted to be part of that. I’ve always loved bike racing and still do”.
Aussie George Tansley.
Professionally Rod was involved in the insurance industry but wanted to move out of that. “From my time in insurance I had experience in management, selling and IT. The logical thing seemed to be to combine all those different ingredients and so Cycling Bargains was born around 2004”.
Rod had three main aims when he set up Cycling Bargains; to put something back into bike racing, to learn about the network of suppliers and how to transact with customers and, ultimately, to earn a living from what he was doing. “I’ve only recently got to that final point” he exclaims!
However, Cycling Bargains Racing Team was, to use Rod’s own words, “just a group of mates riding their bikes with the ‘Cycling Bargains’ name on the team jerseys”. They raced mainly around the East Midlands area with races such as the Ras de Cymru being the big season target.
By 2007 and 2008, with family commitments and more work, Rod candidly acknowledged “I knew I’d gone as far as I could as a rider.”
A conversation with Tour Series Technical Director Mick Bennett in 2009 gave Rod the direction and further motivation he need.
“I asked Mick about what I’d need to do to get a team into the Tour of Britain. That was and still is my main motivation in cycle racing. He told me about the start of the then forthcoming Tour Series and suggested we test our toes in that arena first.
“In that first year I’ll be honest, we took one hell of a kicking and finished 9th out of the ten teams competing. But we learned a lot and that was important.”
Rod’s business moved into post-free, online sales and at the start of 2010 the team was reinvented at Cycle Premier. Although then still making a loss, Rod was building a base for himself and his family and looking for further opportunities for both the racing team and the business to expand.
“I kept Cycling Bargains as a regionally based team but in the Tour Series we moved up to 7th overall and just scrapped into the top ten of BC’s National Team rankings.
Last year saw Cycle Premier move up another place in the Tour Series, finishing 6th overall, but they also improved to third in BC’s Team rankings, took a bronze medal in the Team Pursuit at the National Track Championships – as they had in 2010 – and took a silver in the Team Time Trial Championships.
“Those medal finishes weren’t really the team’s targets but certain riders wanted to do them. But overall the team was where I wanted it to be. And that’s where we are today. But we’re not quite in a position to take the next step. I think we’re knocking on the door but we’re not quite ready to move up to be a UCI registered team.
“And I know that’s where we need to be if we’re to push for a place in the Tour of Britain. That remains my aim”.
One feature of CyclePremier – Kovert’s finishing position in the Tour Series in both 2011 and 2012 is the same – in holding sixth place overall in the final rankings they finished ahead of bigger, better funded and – most significantly – UCI registered teams.
“That’s really satisfying” explained Rod. “These were teams that were expected to beat us. I think it says an enormous amount about the group of riders we’ve got in the team. They’re a fantastic bunch of riders. There’s youth, enthusiasm and experience, such a good mix of riders”.
Does Rod consider he has any ‘star’ riders? Emphatically he comes back straightaway, “No. We’ve had ‘star’ riders before but none of this group are like that. We have good riders for a mixture of courses. We have the experience of someone like Will Bjergfelt, good young UK riders like Steve Adams and George Moore and riders from overseas like Dane Michael Berling and our Aussie pairing of George Tansley and Blair Windsor.
“My job is to manage them as a group and I think that’s where my experience outside racing comes into play. We operate a ‘buddy’ system within the team, the older riders partnered up to look after the younger ones. You’ve got to remember, the average age within the team is only about 22 years”.
Rod is impressed by the attitude of his overseas riders. George Tansley – formerly of the South Australian Institute of Sport – is only 18 years old “yet he’s flown half way round the world to race with us. He was introduced to me by Zak Dempster. Blair Windsor is another who’s committed himself to come here to race. His brother Dean brought him to my attention. They both came over in April this year and they’ve both got that Aussie ‘can do’ attitude. I’m just hanging on to them for as long as I can.
“Michael Berling won the CiCLE Classic in 2010 so he’s got a great pedigree and wanted to do more racing in the UK. But it’s been a tough year for him because of the amount of flying he’s had to do and that’s never good for a rider’s health”.
With his UK riders, CyclePremier has helped refine the talents of the likes of Stephen Adams and Jamie Caldwell. “For most of the year Steve has been one of the country’s top first cat riders and he’s just recently moved up to Elite. A couple of years ago Jamie was a 2nd cat rider but he’s also now just a few points off his Elite license. It’s all progress, progress”.
George Moore and Declan Byrne – sadly missing since the early part of the season through injury – are also both only 18 years old, underlining Freeman’s desire to build up the basis of the team from within by recruiting younger riders at the start.
Stephen Adams recognises the benefits he’s gained from moving to CyclePremier – Kovert this year. “I’d ridden for UCI registered teams for the last three years and that meant my role had been completely different to what it is here with Rod.
“Previously I’d been a support rider in bigger teams. Generally speaking if a move went up the road, I had to sit back to cover. But with CyclePremier – Kovert I’ve had to take a more responsible role with some of the younger riders and I think I’ve been getting the better results” – Steve won his first the races at the start of the 2012 campaign – “because of that.
“As the season, and particularly the Tour Series, has gone on our team spirit has got better and better. Some of the younger riders seemed to be a bit intimidated by the UCI teams but by my results I was able to say ‘look at what I’ve been doing. I’ve made the jump across to them so you can as well’. I’ve liked that role and I’d like to stay with Rod and see through the plans he has”.
Talking with Rod it’s evident that the Halfords Tour Series has featured strongly in his team’s progression. But does he consider CyclePremier – Kovert to be ‘just’ a crit team?
“We have been called that and in many ways it’s not necessarily a derogatory term. But we have shown ourselves to be more than that and we have to be if we’re to progress as we want to. There isn’t much crit racing on the Continent!
“So as I’ve already said, I’m happy with where we are right now but we have to move forward. We have to move up to regularly be a top three Tour Series outfit, to be regularly getting top ten finishes in Premier calendar races. Get those results, then we can move up a step”.
In addition to thinking of the future and how the men’s squad will develop, like many team managers Rod has also taken note of how the women’s scene is expanding in Britain.
“We have Sarah Byrne and Kelly Moore now racing in team colours – they’re both sisters of lads in the team – so I also have my eye on the Johnson Health Tech series for the future and I’d love to develop women’s cycling in the same way as this team has developed. But not at the cost of the UCI dream”.
With a positive comment like that, Rod can now expect to be contacted by a number of prospective female riders!
A key ingredient to the team’s set up is the technical assistance provided by title partner Kovert and Rod explained how that arrangement came together.
“It was basically a link up through the industry network. They approached me as they wanted to develop a carbon brand in the UK. They knew we have a racing pedigree and wanted to be able to test their race frames in race situations.
“It’s funny really, many people think Kovert are a Dutch company but they’re actually based in the Midlands. They provide the team with frames, helmets and wheels and Cycle Premier retails all the Kovert brands on an exclusive distribution basis”.
The conversation soon returns to the theme of the benefit of the Tour Series to UK racing as a whole and to CyclePremier – Kovert.
“We’ve had some really good TV coverage this year with George Tansley and Steve Adams winning sprints and Steve and Will both getting top ten placings overall in races. It’s really a very simple formula: Get three riders in the top twenty and we’ll get a good mid-point placing as a team. Get two riders in the top ten going into the final laps and we’ll be putting ourselves in the position of winning a race. That’s what we want to do. That’s what we have to do to keep moving forward”.
Rod also recognises the benefits to the Tour Series and UK racing as a whole having teams like Endura and Rapha Condor Sharp racing in Europe and then back in rounds of the Tour Series. “It raises the bar all round. The Tour Series is a world class event as can be seen by the number of overseas riders who compete for nearly all the teams at every round”.
And hoping to benefit from the European experiences of the likes of Endura, CyclePremier – Kovert have received invites to take part in two UCI races in the coming months, in France in July and then Denmark in August. A taste of things to come?
“As I’ve said, that’s our aim. Preparation for 2013 really started as soon as the Tour Series ended even though we’ve still got the rest of the Elite Series to come. The rider merry-go-round is underway already and we’ve also had talks with sponsors for the year to come.
“But it isn’t just about getting more money. At present this team works with the riders and just three backroom personnel, myself, mechanic Martin Booth and our swannie Kelly Moore. So to move up we need to improve our infrastructure to support the riders who already are doing a brilliant job.
“They’d like to, I’d like to, move up a level but in my heart of hearts I probably have to accept that right now we need another year to get to the point where we can really jump up to the UCI registered Big League”.
But there is another way the team could move up without a further year’s development. “I’d consider merging with another team of about our size if the whole package was right. I want to progress in the sport and moving forward is the way to do that. By joining with another outfit we’d be able to build on our joint foundations and that’s something I’d certainly consider over the rest of this season and the winter to come should all the pieces of the jigsaw be right”.
So Rod is determined to continue pushing to get his team higher up the cycling ladder and still clings to the dream of being able to enter a team in the Tour of Britain. In CyclePremier – Kovert he has planted the acorns, now he’s just working hard, watching them grow….
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