Feature: Bob Varney (Drops Cycling)

Someone I raced against many years ago and in recent years has kept his Women’s team Drops in the spotlight, Bob Varney, talks about his time running his team

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Feature: Bob Varney (Drops-Le Col supported by Tempur)

Someone I raced against many years ago and in recent years has kept his Women’s team Drops in the spotlight, Bob Varney, talks about his time running the team.

His team of 14 riders has a core of British riders with an international flavour added for a team that has enjoyed racing many major events worldwide since it was created in 2016.

After having raced with Bob in the 90s, I started by asking what brought him into being a team owner: “I don’t know” was the quick reply. “I did enjoy racing and I miss being fit enough to race. They were good times being able to go out riding for four or five hours and then do a race like the Peter Fryer series. I miss that level of fitness.”

“But being a team owner is equally addictive trying to provide a professional environment for the team. The decision to have a team was not driven by gender but I did want to have professional team and it happens to be a women’s team. It was originally going to be one year as I was having a year out of work and wanted to do something a bit different, but we had so much success in 2016, it would have been stupid not to press on, so we did”.

“Then we had some set-backs in 2018 and it would have been easy to stop but it had become bloody mindedness on my part by then and I wasn’t going to stop. Even though it was difficult, and that had an effect on my mental and physical health, I am now in position when I can look back and see it was worth it as we’re in a nice position now.”

“We weren’t in a bad position in 2020 but it’s a better position in 2021 and hopefully there is something even better round the corner. Women’s sport is here to stay. You can see that effect in Women’s football and rugby where the higher levels get paid good salaries and I think cycling is well set to be part of that. So, I think there is a brighter future running a bike team than an ageing print company as people don’t use print anymore!”

British company Ribble Cycles and British team Drops-Le Col s/b Tempur come together.

The recent big news for the Drops team is the link up with Ribble Cycles who will provide them with bikes in the best deal yet for the women’s cycling team. Asked how the tie up with Ribble Cycles came about, Bob explained “When Trek split from us in 2018, which was a massive surprise to me after dealing with them for 20 years, we were in a tight spot and were looking for a bike partner”.

“My son and business partner Tom and I went to Eurobike in Switzerland in July 2018 and met Jonathan Geran, the global sports marketing director for Cannondale. We went to lunch with him and by the end of that, we shook hands, and we were on board with them for two years so that trip to Eurobike went very well”.

“Fast forward two years, having Ribble sponsor us came about off the back of our media campaign in the summer to try and raise the awareness to apply for a World Tour licence and trying to raise a million Euros. We had an introduction to Ribble via the co-founder of Zwift, Eric Min who we have known for some time. He was a customer of ours in the old days when we had the print company.”

“So, he made an introduction to Andy (Smallwood, CEO at Ribble) that is how Ribble and us came together. We were seduced by how excited Ribble were to embrace a women’s cycling team. Cannondale were a very generous partner for us after our Trek deal expired but Ribble have really stepped another level and are giving all the squad Time Trial (TT) bikes as well as two identical road bikes.”

“Time Trial bikes are a big challenge for any team and a big expense but Ribble had agreed they would give them to us as part of their proposal so I spoke to Jonathan at Cannondale and explained our options for 2021 and he smiled and replied ‘We don’t want you to go but we want your programme to get better and if you can get a better deal than we can give you, then you have our blessing.’ So, it was all very amicable which I was extremely happy about.” says Bob.

“Without Cannondale, I don’t think we would have survived the end of 2018 but when you look back our team has done more than alright with bikes. Whether that is because we have a higher profile than some teams because we work hard on sharing the story of the team, I don’t know. Ribble are on board for two years, which is great, and we’re excited about them being excited about sponsoring the team. The girls are certainly excited that we’ll have TT bikes, and it will be the first time in six years that the entire squad has a full TT bike.”

Ribble have a great reputation with Time Trial bikes thanks to the success of riders like Dan Bigham and John Archibald to name but two from the men’s team who have shown the Ribble product is every bit as quick as any other brand. In fact, in Britain in 2020, the Ribble brand was the fastest one in time trialling so the Drops team having them will be hugely significant.

“If you want to be competitive for the overall in stage races” says Bob, “you need to do a good TT and we have some good TT riders. When you have climbers who can TT that automatically makes them good GC riders. There are also races like the TTT in Vårgårda, Sweden which we have done in the past, but we didn’t do in 2019 because we didn’t have enough full TT bikes and wheels to be competitive to be frank.”

“We did it in 2017 with some riders using road bikes and came 9th out of 16 so there are races where having TT bikes will play a big part in the team’s challenge to get good results. As the UCI women’s racing calendar grows, there will also be more stage races with TTs and if a team wants to be competitive, you need TT bikes too so that is a big plus for us to have them as part of the deal from Ribble.”

As well as the TT bike, the riders get two identical Ribble SL-R road bikes, one at home to train on and a race bike in the truck which means they can fly to events without bikes, something Bob says the team pays for. “All of our riders get 100 per cent of their expenses which we’ve done since the very start.”

When it comes to the road bikes, again, the sponsorship package from Ribble is a step up from what they have had in the past. “In the past, their home training bike may have been a year old or had different componentry to their race bike or even been a different model of bike” explained Bob. “In 2020 for instance, some of the girls had rim brake bikes at home but disc brakes on their race bikes which is not ideal so in 2021, they will have identical group-sets all with disc brakes so they can train and race on them.”

…. continued after the advert.

The Drops Racing Calendar.

As a UCI Continental team, and with a pandemic raging around the world, the racing calendar is hard to pin down for the team at this stage, but the aim of the team is to race in Britain as well as their usual European calendar.

“We have raced in 20 countries in the last five years from Australia to America and beyond and part of that was our commitment to Trek and Cannondale, both global brands with significant sales in Australia as well as the States obviously. So we have been to California four times, Australia a few times and all over the place which is great. We are truly an international team even though we have a British heart.”

“I think we will hopefully do more British racing in 2021 but I don’t think we’ll do a complete double program. A ‘one and half programme’ is kind of the plan. We want to do more British racing on behalf of Le Col and Ribble.”

“In 2016/2017, we did ride some key British races. We dominated the Tour Series for two years and tried to do as many in 2018 but the dates clashed with other events making that difficult. We would love to do races like the Cicle Classic and the Lincoln Grand Prix which we have won twice, they are both great races. So, we want to support the British organisers, especially the ones making a difference. I think we will be in a position where we can do that in 2021”.

As for UCI races, Bob says “If you are not in the top 15 teams in the world, you cannot be assured of what you are going to race. We have had more than our fair share of wild cards in the last five years and we always try and race aggressively when we get in those races. One of the things I told the girls when discussing the 2021 calendar is that we won’t just do all big races as we want to take some of the young riders to smaller races to learn how to win.”

“If we do rock up to a National Series race in Britain, the girls are heavily marked and that can, depending on the attitude of the rider, be a bit soul destroying but that is part of racing and always has been. We can’t moan about it you just have to accept it. What I can do as a team manager though is try to and rock up with a good squad of five or six riders and race the event in the right way.”

One of the new signings for the team in 2021 is Alice Towers, another example of the team helping to give young riders an international programme and help them progress in the sport. “We have been doing that since 2016 and it was one of our founding principles to help develop young British riders on the road and give them access to international races.”

“Having a mix of ages in the team helps” adds Bob. “When we introduced international riders to the team, the feedback from the British riders was they liked that. Everyone learnt from each other. Having that mixture of sprinters, climbers, GC and classics riders with an international flavour, is a really nice balance”.

“We always want to be a British team, so we have seven British riders and seven Europeans from six countries. We also have seven who are under 22 as well as some older riders who are experienced not only in racing but life as well. So, we have some great experience in the team and it is all about getting the blend right.”

Asked is it easier to get in events being a team with a history in the sport, Bob replied “You’d think so but we got into a lot of good races in the first year. We were only two or three months old and got a ride in the Tour of Flanders. I still can’t figure out quite how that happened. We had two girls in the third group on the road in that race, Laura Massey and Jen George and they weren’t that far down on Lizzie Deignan who won. So that was a bit crazy.”

“We did the Tour of California later that year and also the Women’s Tour which we have done every year since, so we have always got into the best races. But on whether it is easier to get in events in our sixth year, the honest answer is no. We have always got into quite a few big races and it seems to be consistent.”

“Where the dynamic changes is the number of Continental Women’s teams in the host country of the race. There might be more teams registered in those countries which means the wildcards for teams from outside that country will be harder to get.”

So, what has changed in the Women’s pro racing scene since he got on board with it? “More professionalisation of women’s cycling for sure” says Bob. “The riders are fitter and faster, there are better team tactics and more well drilled teams, more emphasis on nutrition and recovery. More openness on eating disorders and more staff on teams”.

“In 2016, we went to a stage race in the Czech Republic with just two staff; me and a mechanic and that has changed. Some race organisers pay for more staff too, the Women’s Tour one year said we could take six staff and six riders and as a British team, we were able to do that. It is mandated in the Men’s World Tour about having two DS’s in a team car and that will come in Women’s racing too. Those are things we’ve always tried to do when we’ve had the budget”.
“The sport is going in the right direction. It is hard work, but nothing worth fighting for has been achieved in a short period of time. Change takes time and change is happening.

Popular in the public domain
“We seem to have always been a popular team” was Bob’s reply when we talked about his team engaging with the public. “I think we have been open and honest about things and people find that engaging. We always try to race aggressively too and show ourselves and people like that. I think if you have a bit of initial popularity as long as you don’t shoot yourself in the foot, it can snowball.”

“When April (Tacey) had her win in the virtual Tour de France, our social numbers went through the roof. Anything to do with the Tour de France and ASO, and it goes crazy. My brief to the girls for that event was “This is the biggest bike race in the world, and we have this opportunity to ride it, let’s do something and be aggressive” and blimey, we had two in the front group and April won. So that took us to a completely different audience.”

How other teams view Drops
A common thread when talking to the pro men in British teams is how difficult it can be to be given space and position in the peloton abroad. Then, when the same riders turn pro in World Tour, all of a sudden, they can ride in positions they could not do when in a UCI Conti team. How is it for Drops I asked Bob?

“In 2016, we had to fight to get in the bloody car park never mind the peloton!” he says. “During 2016, it became apparent to the other teams, our girls could ride bikes and the other pros are not stupid, so we were reasonably well accepted as 2016 progressed.”

“Since then, we have become an accepted team in the international peloton. We had a mechanic Mike for three years who’s a nice likeable guy and if his help was needed, he’d help out other teams and vice versa. Same with the Swanny’s as they all get on and all our girls are nice off the bike as well as on it. So, we quickly became accepted and became part of the peloton.”

“Last year, I had messages that we were missed when racing restarted after the initial lockdown”.

“At the start of 2020, we had got ourselves together well for the season ahead and in Setmana Valencia, Joss (Lowden) was first Brit on the Queen stage and we had some good results in the sprinters stages at Valencia too. We didn’t do so well in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad where we didn’t have the best of luck. Then, in the GP Samyn, we learnt from our misfortune in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and we had four in the front group and Lizzy Bennett was first Brit (11th).

“So, we started well in 2020 and people were pleased for us and then lock down happened, and we couldn’t get back to the racing. So, yes I think we are accepted as a UCI team.”

Favourite Memories for Bob.
“I could give you 100 and we’d be here until midnight” says Bob of his favourite memories with the team.

“In the Women’s Tour in 2019, there was a breakaway on a stage, and no-one wanted to chase. We were the smallest team in the race, and we took responsibility for that and one of my favourite pictures is all our girls on the front pulling. We brought the break back just before the final although we didn’t get the result we wanted we learnt from it.”

“Another of them would be Alice Barnes getting second on a stage of the Women’s Tour into Leamington Spa in the 2017 Women’s Tour. We’d talked about how we could do that, we wanted to get someone in the front of the race and that was our Austrian rider Martina Ritter. She got in the break and got the most aggressive rider award that day.”

“Alice went across and was second on the stage and got the Best British jersey. That was certainly one stand out memory.”

“Then two or three days later, Alice was on a bad day. She was dropped in the early part of the race as Boels Dolman made it really hard, it was a really grippy stage with crap weather; the conditions that Alice would normally do well in.”

“But her legs were ‘blocked’ and it wasn’t happening for her. Martina Ritter was there to ride for Alice and being the consummate professional she stayed with Alice the whole time. Alice was 7th on GC at the time and that was out the window as she was miles behind. I called Abby-Mae Parkinson back and she stopped without question and waited for Alice and we were in the third group with Martina and Abby Mae.”

“We got a time check at the feed and I said we are going to ride hard for five minutes and see what happens. And they rode hard. Martina was on the front and Abbey-Mae was swapping off with her whilst Alice was sitting there. The group went into one long line as the team drove the pace. The time gap came down and I thought ‘we’re going to take Alice back’ and I was ‘g’ing them up.”
“I knew we had to have them see the race in front of them and not just have me telling them the gap was coming down. They had to see the race. We went over a hill and they could see the back of the peloton on the next hill with its flashing lights and they took Alice back. It was bloody brilliant.”

“They were three minutes down at one point and the race came together. A break slipped away in the final with four riders, but Alice held onto 7th and held it the next day and that was down to Martina and Abby Mae. It was probably my proudest moment as a DS.”

“The girls get the results, I just provide the platform for them.”

“The next morning at breakfast, Danny Stam, DS at Boels Dolmans and Hans Timmermans of Sunweb came over and congratulated me and the girls. Their riders could not believe it, they had never been in a race where the third group had come back and it had ever been so hard in the third group. So that was just great.”

“After that stage, I went down to the Nocturne in London and the swannys and mechanics took the Women’s Tour girls down to the next hotel at Heathrow for the final stage. I went to the Nocturne where we had some young riders racing in that. I thought they would like the extra support, so I went down, Canyon SRAM had their star sprinter Barbara Guarischi there, it was a big race in central London for them and Rapha.”

“We (the riders from Drops) talked about how it was key to be into the last bend first, preferably with three riders. Abi Van Twisk and Annasley Park did the perfect leadout and Barbara could not come round Lucy Shaw and Lucy won with Annasley 4th and Abi 8th for the team.”

“So that day, we saved Alice’s 7th on GC and Lucy won the Nocturne. I drove back across London at midnight and the bar was still open in the team’s hotel. So, I had a beer before going to bed. That was a good day for the team. We have had some tough days but a lot of good times and it’s the good times that overshadow the not so good ones.”

My thank you to Bob and good luck to his riders in 2021.

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