The UCI Drops pro continental team has the chance to make history this weekend – in more ways than one.
The British team is currently in second place in the general classification of the Zwift Virtual Tour of France, the 19-year-old star April Tacey having won two stages. The team holds the polka dot and white jerseys, honoring the prowess of their climbers and young riders. With only two stages remaining, the team may well oust the Tibco-SVB team from its current throne. If Tacey, who made a comeback from injury this winter, is the first woman to cross the finish line at the Champs-Élysées on Sunday, her name and that of Drops will be forever associated with the first virtual Tour de France for women.
However, the real story would be that victory leads runners to receive paychecks.
Drops team director Bob Varney has continued to sponsor the title since he started the team in 2016. And now Varney has chosen 2020 to advocate for the next step in Drops: becoming a UCI Women’s WorldTeam.
When Drops became a UCI continental team in 2016, Varney says he did it with the sole aspiration to be “the most professional amateur team in the world”. He and his son, co-founder Tom Varney, considered 2016 the team’s “start-up year.” In his eyes, if the runners invested the effort, the financial return would come on time.
The team got big early. The drops ran in 13 countries in 2016 and the riders lined up in races like the Amgen Tour of California and the Tour of Flanders. Some Drops riders then signed contracts with larger teams, including Alice Barnes who signed an agreement with Canyon-SRAM. Varney kept the budget tight and his team regularly made a name for themselves in the peloton.
“In the first year, all the girls paid for all of their expenses,” said Varney. VeloNews. “Hotels, flights – even missed flights. They had excellent equipment. But at the end of the day, you need a salary. “
The team then paid runners in their second and third seasons, but funds were still scarce. In 2018, the team held a crowdfunding campaign after the sponsor of the bike, Trek, left to create their own WorldTour team, and another sponsor reportedly canceled.
For Varney, who had run a print shop for 35 years, not giving riders the same benefits as those given to his employees in the print shop was a hoax. However, since cycling operates according to a business model which is strictly based on sponsorship, it has understood the financial limits.
“Where do we find the money?” ” he said. “No television, no tramps on the stadium seats. Yesterday I spoke to a guy who wanted to provide a product and have his logo on our jersey, and said it costs £ 50,000. He was shocked. But it’s like we can’t put your name on the shirt because you gave us massage oil or something. There must be commercial value. ”
In a letter that Varney posted on the team’s website on July 6, he admitted that the team was embarrassed that they could not provide runners with benefits such as maternity rights, medical support, full-time staff and minimum wages. While he has been asking for sponsorship dollars to provide these things for years, the advent of global women’s teams and coincidental reforms in 2019 prompted him to seek bigger things for 2020.
In Varney’s view, seeking WorldTeam status also made more sense from a marketing perspective.
“We already wanted to do these things, but by wrapping them in the WorldTeam banner, you do them easily,” said Varney. “If you’re going to say you want to raise money to pay the girls and have a doctor, they [sponsors] think it’s strange that you don’t do it already and you don’t succeed. “
What is really strange is that there are only eight teams that have to pay minimum wages to women cyclists.
Haves and destitute
The impact of the coronavirus pandemic on professional cycling has exposed its precarious economy. Varney says that what is asked of the teams in order to comply with the UCI COVID-19 racing protocols, the haves and have-nots of the peloton must be further divided. He heard estimates of a cost of around € 20-25,000 per female team to implement all of the UCI protocols, such as having a full-time paid medical staff member for each race.
“Very few teams will be able to get this figure out of the air,” said Varney. “I don’t even think the top eight teams would be able to do that. Certainly not the 23 teams on the starting line in the Basque Country next weekend. “
Varney is worried about some of the smaller Italian and Spanish teams who will be going to the three day races in Spain next week who will not have the funds to test the runners or have medical staff on site.
It remains to be seen whether the inability of the teams to comply with the COVID-19 protocols will force the UCI to soften them or simply close their eyes. Nevertheless, as topical as it may seem to discuss the concept of having a dedicated team doctor, Varney says he has been struggling with it for years.
When Drops’ British Olympian Elinor Burke crashed in the final minutes of the RideLondon Classic last summer, it further reinforced the reality of the amount of Drops shoes that worked.
“We were there with three employees – a lord, a mechanic and me, and that was to be expected,” said Varney. “We had to take the riders home, take Elinor to the hospital. It was only a million kilometers from where I wanted to be as a team. ”
If the presence of medical staff on staff would have been useful in 2019, it is more important now, given the costs of consultation and mitigation of COVID-19. This reality begs the question: Could Drops have chosen a better time to look for a business partner?
If not now when?
While there are a myriad of reasons why 2020 could be considered the wrong time for a sponsor search, Varney thinks the opposite could also be true. The collective spotlight shines on inequality in cycling according to racial and gender criteria. Companies can view women’s cycling as a way to contribute to gender equality in sport.
“Hopefully, the fact that we are a program for women will only benefit from the perceived movement towards equality in society worldwide,” he said. “It will take a while, but we have already made this trip. “
While the coronavirus pandemic has caused a major upheaval in the sponsorship of cycling through the male and female pelotons, Varney also sees success stories: Bigla-Katusha and Boels-Dolmans managed to find new corporate sponsors in mid -season.
For some companies, the minimum funding required for a female world tour license of 1 million euros per year, guaranteed by a three-year contract, is a drop in the bucket. For Drops, it’s the bucket.
“An ethical partner is an utopia for us,” said Varney. “We could have a list of 16 runners and continue to focus on young runners. We could be more competitive in the big races, looking for podiums and top five. We already have five runners under the age of 21 from four countries. Imagine if we could continue to develop and mix them. ”
Varney hopes that the presentation of the team to the virtual Tour de France will help to argue in favor of sponsorship and says that he has already received a lot of general requests and an increase in follow-up on social networks. He is also aware that e-racing is not without its detractors, but he believes that the genre is legitimate.
“Yes, there are quirks online, and it’s a computer game, but it’s generated by blood, sweat and tears,” said Varney. “You have to have an understanding of the rules and a tactical sense to know when to use your power-ups. It’s a different kind of cycling but it’s certainly credible. “
In addition, Varney added, “You have to be damn fit to suffer like that. “