Beyond the headlines: The human side to the Aqua Blue Sport collapse

An email that changed everything. A single moment; lives upended. On Monday morning the riders of the Aqua Blue Sport team had their futures shattered by a message from team management.

The message said that the anticipated merger with the Veranda’s Willems-Crelan/Sniper Cycling squad wasn’t now going to happen. As a result, the Aqua Blue Sport project was dead. There would be no team in 2019.

That single email caused chaos. Riders who already had contracts with Aqua Blue for 2019 were suddenly jobless. Those who were chasing contracts were left hopeless. And for team staff, those who work quietly away behind the scenes, they too had their livelihoods taken away.

Like the others, they face a desperate search for something else. As August shifts towards September and summer skies darken and autumn looms, it’s already very late in cycling’s season. The headline news is a team collapsing. The deeper implication is the personal cost.

“I didn’t see this coming at all,” says one of the team riders, Irish national champion Conor Dunne. “I had a contract with the team for another two years and everything was going fine. I’m back out in the wild now looking for our team. It’s late in the day, so many teams are full.”

Dunne is the tallest rider in the peloton but, simultaneously, one of the most down-to-earth. He’s approachable, devoid of ego, and was very affected by what had happened. He felt on top of the world when he soloed to Irish championship success at the end of June, describing it as one of the biggest highlights of his career. Now he’s experiencing the other side to what can be a very fickle sport.

“I am obviously just super-gutted, to be honest,” he says. “It was such a good team to be part of, such a good atmosphere within the team. This has just come so suddenly. It’s just so sad for it all to end just like that in the space of 24 hours.”

From Grand Tour stage win to an unexpected job search

A year ago, things were so different for Stefan Denifl. He went into the Vuelta a España as one of the team’s strongest riders. His confidence was on a high after overall victory in his home race, the Tour of Austria. He bided his time early on the Vuelta, holding back and squirrelling away energy, then made his move on stage 17 to Los Machucos. He was out front on the final climb and held off a hard-chasing Alberto Contador to land his biggest career win.

Like Dunne, Denifl was blindsided by Monday’s news. “It was shock for me and I still can’t believe our journey ended that fast,” he tells CyclingTips. “It feels like our project just started and now, sadly, it’s all over already.

“I really enjoyed riding for Aqua Blue Sport. We were such a good group of guys. I got the opportunity to have my best season ever in 2017, and therefore I am thankful.”

For Dunne, Monday brought two blows. Learning that the team was stopping was hard, and then finding out later that day that it would not ride the upcoming Tour of Britain was another shock.

He, Adam Blythe, Larry Warbasse, Mark Christian, Eddie Dunbar and Casper Pedersen were scheduled to compete in the race. Having no team for 2019 had sharpened their resolve to put in big performances in the race, using it as a shop window to show off their talents.

“The Tour of Britain was always my target for this time of the year. So I had been building towards that,” says Dunne. “I was kind of counting on that to show myself. But what has happened has happened, I guess. I just need to take it as it comes. But it is obviously super-gutting. There are no other words for it.”

Photographer Karen Edwards had worked with the team during its two seasons and was also due to accompany it to the Tour of Britain. She was set to catalogue its performances in the race, to document the latest step in its journey.

“I had just written an email to one of the staff there,” she says, talking about how she found out that the team was stopping. “I was beginning to start planning for 2019. I thought I’d get in contact and see what their ideas were for next season. Within five minutes of writing the email, I got a message from a friend of mine through Instagram. They said that they were really sorry to hear the news. They didn’t mention a team or anything, but automatically, I thought ‘is this Aqua Blue?’

“I was in shock. That was my first reaction. I thought, ‘What is going to happen now about next week, about the Tour of Britain? Does it mean the team is completely gone, or where do we stand? I was in shock.”

Team Aqua Blue Sport owner Rick Delaney.

‘It is better to have tried and failed…’

There has been much written about Aqua Blue Sport in the days since the team’s collapse. Many online commenters have blamed team owner Rick Delaney for what happened, but fingers are also being pointed elsewhere.

CyclingTips was one of several media outlets sent an anonymous email purportedly from someone within the team. That email laid much of the blame at equipment partner 3T, saying that the supplied bikes had many mechanical issues, that the promised time trial bikes were never supplied and that the riders were so concerned that they wanted to use other machines in the Tour of Britain. When reached for comment, 3T’s Gerard Vroomen responded that its contract contained no binding delivery date for the time trial bikes and acknowledged the team had struggled with chain drops but did not state the cause.

The anonymous email states that part of the motivation for Aqua Blue’s attempted merger with Sniper Cycling was its desire to rid itself of its sponsor contracts, including the one with 3T. Vroomen counters this claim. “We offered to supply the team with Strada Dues for the Tour of Britain (as they had requested) and in light of the take-over and a bigger bike sponsor being available to them, we offered to end the sponsorship at the end of 2018 without any financial compensation, only the return of the supplied products,” he said.

The email also claims that Veranda’s Willems-Crelan/Sniper Cycling strung the team along while conducting separate negotiations with Roompot – Nederlandse Loterij. On Thursday those two teams confirmed that they were joining forces.

CyclingTips has spoken to people who worked with Aqua Blue in the past but who were then dropped. They question Delaney’s approach to things and suggested that the team’s demise was inevitable. Their perspective is that they and others were not treated well and that there was an element of arrogance to how the team was run.

However, while Denifl, Dunne and Edwards are all reeling from the team’s collapse, they said that they don’t agree that Delaney should be getting the criticism he is now receiving.

“I feel too many bad things were thrown on Rick’s shoulders this season,” says Denifl. “Not many wildcards, bike problems and things. But if I had invested so much money and then just had to deal with problems all the time, I would probably lose my passion and happiness too.

“As far as I understand, the failed deal with Sniper Cycling as well as huge issues with one of our suppliers made the decision final to stop the team.”

Dunne says something very similar. “I think it is unfair to really point the blame at Rick. He really did try his best for this team. He put himself out there,” he says. “He was the one who put the money up and he tried his best. It is better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all.

“We had some good times with the team. I rode my first Grand Tour under the team and I had a lot of opportunities with the team. I am really grateful to Rick for that. I am seeing already on Twitter that Rick is being made out to be a bit of a devil, but that is not fair. It is easy for people to point the finger from the sofa. That is all I am going to say.”

Like Delaney, Edwards is also from the area of Cork in south-west Ireland. She recognises that people have criticised the team owner but echoes Denifl and Dunne in her own thoughts about him.

“I know a lot of people have given Rick an awful lot of stick,” she said. “Look, as we know pro cycling is so tough. I don’t think he realised it was going to be this tough. Every time when he was faced with something, I’d say he couldn’t believe it was happening. It wasn’t going to be an easy road. I have to say I liked Rick. He was very straight, honest and open as much as he could be with us.

“I think this has devastated Rick, to be honest, the loss of the team.”

Uncertain futures

Delaney has remained silent since news of the team’s collapse. One source told CyclingTips on Wednesday that several people within the team had been unable to contact him since Monday’s announcement. It is unclear as to what his future plans are, but he is a successful businessman in other areas. He will retreat from cycling, but has other directions he can pursue.

For the riders, though, they are now at a big crossroads. It’s the end of August and they are faced with a desperate search for a ride for next season.

Denifl had another year of his contract to run and should have been secure until the end of 2019. He is now left hunting for something else.

“Rick invested a lot of his money in his and our dreams. We all would have deserved to continue as a team for many more years,” he says.

“Although I didn’t have a good season myself I know I am a great cyclist. My results in the last years reflect that. ‘Form is temporary, class is permanent,’ as a friend of mine wrote to me today. I am optimistic to find a spot for 2019, even if it is already late in the season.”

Denifl has the advantage of his Vuelta stage win and overall victory in the Tour of Austria from 2017. Those results should draw attention, should make his search easier, but other riders on the team don’t have the same palmares. They may find it harder to secure a slot.

“I am really on the back foot,” says Dunne, expressing his concern. “I signed a new two-year contract two months ago. So it meant I had no chance to look for a team in the last two months because I thought everything was fine.”

The riders have been told by the team that they will be paid until the end of the year. CyclingTips has been told that a total of six riders have contracts extending into 2019. In theory, the team is obliged to honour those contracts, even if the squad no longer exists. It remains to be seen if this will happen.

“Optimistically that is what I am hoping for,” says Dunne. “We’ll see. Hopefully that is the case.”

If that does happen, it will make things easier for him to secure a ride for 2019. If other teams don’t have to foot the bill for those six riders, it would mean that they would have no impact on limited team budgets, and would still have a berth to continue their sport.

But if that doesn’t pan out, it will make things more difficult. Dunne and his agent are searching around, as are the other Aqua Blue Sport riders.

Conor Dunne won the 2018 Irish road race championships with an impressive solo move. Photo by Caroline Kerley.

“Basically, I had a contract and now I don’t,” he says. “I’ve been emailing a few people. I hate being that guy that’s emailing, that’s cold calling. But that is what I have got to do now because I thought I had a contract and I don’t.”

Dunne is one of the most aggressive riders in the peloton. He’s been part of many breakaways during his two years with the squad. That aggression led to his Irish championship win and earned Aqua Blue Sport plenty of publicity in other events.

He knows he has made progress in recent years. “Winning the nationals was definitely a highlight,” he says. “Obviously Stefan’s stage win in the Vuelta – I felt like I played a small role in that too. Being part of the team, finishing a Grand Tour. Riding my first Monument in Liège.

Like the other riders left high and dry, he is hoping that the other pro teams out there can see his attributes.

“I think I’d bring something a bit different. I bring a bit of an element of fun. I’ve got a sense of humour, I will always be positive,” he laughs. “Eat lots of porridge, ride on the front all the time, ride in the breakaways.

“I am quite experienced now. I have ridden a Grand Tour, I have ridden big races, I know how to ride for a team. I am also obviously the Irish national champion, so I bring a jersey to a team too. I hope that counts for something. If I continue riding, I will definitely be wanting to show it off at every opportunity. I’ve got nine more months in it.”

He said that he was “like a rabbit in headlights,” on Monday after receiving the news that the team will stop. He said that as time passed he started coming out of that initial shock, but remains unsure as to what will happen next.

“Before this all happened, my motivation was still high to stay in the sport. I am still super motivated to work hard.

“I just hope I get a chance to do that.”

It is a sentiment that will be shared by all of his teammates. And so too the team staff who, like the riders, were blindsided by an unexpected email and left reeling this week. Beyond the headlines, beyond the debate of what went wrong and who is at fault, there is a confused cluster of bike riders and support staff who trusted others and who are now paying a price.

Cycling can be a cruel sport, not just between the start and finish lines.

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