Interviews Teams

A Swift introduction: Paul Lamb interview

SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling boss on the team's step up to Continental level, the surprise signing of James Shaw, his views on the domestic race scene and his plans 2019

Along with Ribble Pro Cycling, SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling are the new kids on the British Continental block this season. Moving staff and riders from the now-closed elite-level Team KTM, the team has already announced an impressive-looking early-season race programme, and boasts a squad that includes a number of riders with Continental level experience, as well as James Shaw, who was oh-so-unlucky to be dropped by Lotto at the end of last season.

Either side of the team’s launch last Sunday in Leeds (24 February), we caught up with team manager Paul Lamb to ask him about the team’s step up to the Continental level of racing, the eye-catching signing of James Shaw, his views on the domestic road scene and his plans and ambitions for 2019.

From day one, our vision was to give talented, aspiring riders the platform to access quality races and perform to their potential

Photo: SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling

The UCI has recently confirmed you have a UCI Continental licence for 2019. What was the rationale for going for Continental status this year?

When I came back into the sport three years ago to set up an elite team, it was always my intention to have progression year on year. From day one, our vision was to give talented, aspiring riders the platform to access quality races and perform to their potential. I drew up an ambitious five-year development plan, which entailed stepping up to UCI Continental level in year three – and that’s what I was determined to carry out.

Our results and performances as an elite team in 2018 indicated to me that we were on the right trajectory and that stepping up was appropriate and feasible.  I have nothing against the majority of established elite teams that have been around for a long time and they do a fantastic job of developing and supporting a lot of the young talent we have in the UK. However, for me, it was important that I stuck to the promises I had made to the team and without doubt, the 2018 riders have proved they are capable of riding for at Continental level on a consistent basis.

The team of guys we had last year were some of the gutsiest riders I’ve known and it’s a privilege to have known them and to have them on the team. To go to the Rás as an elite team and almost win the race when up a against some good Pro Conti riders is testament their achievement.

I hate the thought of any top rider having to retire prematurely, and most of my approaches have been on the basis of offering riders the best race programme possible

How have the preparations been going for the new season?

It’s been busy to say the least! Clearly, as this is our first year of undertaking the UCI registration process, it was always going to be harder than for an established team. Behind the scenes, there was also a succession of delays in the UCI process which meant that Continental teams were not confirmed until the end of January.  Many of our partnerships were contingent on achieving UCI status so we are now on catch up, but we will have everything in place and we have managed to secure some fantastic partnerships with people who are on board with our vision and goals.

We have also been busy in the off-season recruiting additional riders to the squad.  As we all know, it has been a difficult period for teams and riders from World Tour level downwards. Lots of riders were released from teams and potentially left without a ride for 2019. I have spoken to many of these riders and it has been a challenging time for all of them. To go from having a secure place on a team and a good salary, to suddenly having nothing has been a watershed moment for them.  In talking at length to these guys, I have been very sensitive to the fact that many did not want to ‘step down’ to Conti level but at the same time, they do not want to retire either.

Personally, I hate the thought of any top rider having to retire prematurely, and most of my approaches have been on the basis of offering riders the best race programme possible along with a healthy environment to showcase their talent and re-establish themselves.  We have a number of guys on the team who are in this position, and whilst we do not know what 2019/2020 is going to look like, we are giving them the best possible opportunity that we can. 

Ed Laverack and Pete Williams at the SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling team launch in Leeds, 2019. Photo: Carolyn Nelson (@photography_PCS)

You put a lot of emphasis on your five-year plan and your determination to step up to Continental level this season. With that step up, there have been big changes in squad personnel. Only three riders from your 2018 squad have made it onto the 2019 team. What was the rationale behind such a big change in the make-up of the squad?

I don’t want to sound too pretentious about having a development plan. It’s something I’ve always done since working as a senior manager teaching in schools. It’s just a good habit really. It focuses your aims and vision and keeps you moving forward and improving year on year. I can’t really see the point in standing still, it has to be about continual development.

So in moving forward and ‘stepping up’, there was always going to be inevitable change.  As far as last year’s squad goes, I was extremely proud of the contribution every rider made and they were all talented riders in their own right. We had regional road race champions, a guy that almost qualified for a Dimension Data U23 ride via the Zwift Academy, riders that had won band A, elite kermesses in Belgium and super strong guys who’d controlled UCI races overseas. I have some amazing memories of these guys and they were all impressive guys off the bike.

Some are still riding and thankfully a few have got on very good elite teams and are hoping to step up I’m sure next year. As I said to them, the door is always open. Others have gone on to do other things and, knowing their characters, they will have big success in whatever they choose to do.

For me, squad-building is about having the right blend to match the specifics of a diverse UK/UCI race programme, but also with a big emphasis on maintaining team morale. I like to think we have strong riders for all occasions! Although initially we didn’t want to build a squad around any one discipline, if I’m honest we have a road squad emphasis first and foremost. I do also believe we have some very capable crit riders, so we’ll be out in force also for the Tour Series and the national circuit series. We’ll just take it a race at a time and pick specific squads with the race demands in mind.

My ambition, and I’m sure his, is to get him back to a level he should be riding at

James Shaw at the 2018 U23 world road race championships in Innsbruck
Photo: frontalvision

How did the late signing of James Shaw come about? Was that a little unexpected? Can we expect to see any more late surprise signings?

So. I’ve been in contact with James on occasion during  the off-season. I initially got in touch in November to see how he was doing. That was really more of a rider welfare chat to see how he  was doing and what his situation was. At that stage he was just recovering from a broken collarbone sustained in Lombardy in October. 

We had a good chat, including amongst other things the state of the current World Tour scene and the lack of places on teams. Looking at James’ race calendar at the time was a real eye-opener. The quality of World Tour races he’d ridden was super impressive. At 21 and 22 years old,  it’s not surprising he wasn’t getting a breakthrough result, but there was no doubting the level he was capable of riding at. 

In September he came 10th in the Worlds U23 road race and took good form into Lombardy, the final monument of the year. He was telling me how he’d just managed to clip off into a significant break before someone came down in front of him, ending his season there and then. Who knows, that could have been his big breakthrough ride and I wouldn’t be here talking to The British Continental about him.

Since then we touched base a few times, mainly to see if he’d got any offers, which he was rightly holding out for. Hand on heart, I’ve not been scouring around for ex-World Tour and Pro Continental riders, looking for bargains or getting riders on the cheap. That’s not what we’re about. I’m fully aware of riders’ values and want them to ride at the highest level they can, but I also can’t stand by and see talent go to waste. 

My ambition, and I’m sure his, is to get him back to a level he should be riding at. For a Continental team, I think we have one of the best race programmes around to enable him to put himself in the shop window. A 14th place in the Tour de Yorkshire last year was nothing to sniffed at and he fully deserves to be riding in the biggest races. With the Worlds in Yorkshire this year there’s no reason that, with a good season, he can’t be considered for selection. He’s already proven himself in that environment, so let’s see.

Having talked to James at our recent team launch, I realised what an impressive, down to earth guy he is and what a vast amount of knowledge he has to bring to an already strong, experienced team. I’m really proud of him and the fact he has taken a chance in the team and allowed us to support him throughout 2019.  I hope he likes what he’s seen so far anyhow!

Julian Varley wins stage 7 of the Ras, 2018. Photo: Brian Keane / @tribrian

How is your race programme shaping up? We’ve already spotted you have a spot in Le Samyn; that’s a big invite for a new team…

As far as the race programme goes, the whole point of achieving UCI Conti status was to attempt to get in the biggest races we can. We were successful in UCI 2.2 races last year [winning the queen stage of the Rás Tailteann and riding strongly alongside Androni Giocattoli at the Tour of Bihor, Romania], and we have a number of riders in the team who have ridden in our national tours before, so we want to continue that trajectory in bigger races.  At the same time, we have to be realistic, so we will mix the race programme up a bit and take part in races where we know we can compete strongly and potentially win. 

Our early season programme in March and April is primarily dictated by preparing for our Tour de Yorkshire ambitions. As well as Le Samyn, we intend to race the Grand Prix Jean-Pierre Monseré followed (hopefully) by the Volta ao Alentejo and the Tour du Loir-et-Cher. We have also applied to race the Limberg Classic one-day race [see the latest on the team’s race programme here].

What about the Tour de Yorkshire and Tour of Britain? What do you think your chances are of getting places in those?

Of course, we want to be able to gain entry into both of these races as these are amongst our primary season-goals, but we are also aware we need to do it on merit.

For the Tour de Yorkshire, I would like to think we have a good chance.  We have a number of guys in the squad who have ridden previously, and performed strongly. Being the only UCI registered Yorkshire team with Yorkshire based riders, who would love the chance to race on their training roads, we are confident that they could perform well.

As far as the Tour of Britain goes, as other team managers have mentioned, the qualification process has not been shared yet. If it is a similar format to previous years, then we know what we need to do in the qualifying events and that will largely dictate our UK programme.

For way too long, the sport has been propped up financially by several lucrative sponsors, the odd benefactor and a whole mountain of volunteers funding the sport out of their own pockets.  None of this is sustainable in the long term and it is clear to everyone that the governing body now has to fill the financial void

Jacob Scott and Jordan Reed checking out a race bike at the team launch.
Photo: Carolyn Nelson (@photography_PCS)

And what do you make of the new-look domestic racing calendar this season?

For us, the domestic race scene has equal status with our UCI race programme for 2019.  We are well aware of our responsibilities to our UK based partners and in promoting UK road racing.

We also know that many conversations have taken place throughout the off-season, especially following the demise of two long-established UK Conti teams and the precarious financial nature of the UK race scene.  Right now, we need to be completely honest about where the domestic race scene is and what it wants its identity to be. Only then can we decide on a sustainable course of action.

For me, the two main problems are the race programme and the financial sustainability of the sport at this level.  For way too long, the sport has been propped up financially by several lucrative sponsors, the odd benefactor and a whole mountain of volunteers funding the sport out of their own pockets.  None of this is sustainable in the long term and it is clear to everyone that the governing body now has to fill the financial void. 

The number one stakeholder in all of this is riders. Unless their medium-term futures can be secured, we will be in the same mess at the end of every season, and we will lose their talent from the sport, as we have this year.  I am however extremely positive and I do believe British Cycling has woken up to these issues and that change is afoot in finding a way forward.  I also think that British Cycling is working hard to improve and diversify the domestic calendar, but this will take time to embed. However, if we want our young and emerging talent to remain in the UK and in the sport generally, this has to be the main focus.

The loss of several Premier Calendar races means that the early season domestic race programme is thin on the ground, but there are some interesting additions later in the year with the inclusion of the Isle of Man stage race and South Coast Classic events. 

British Cycling now ought to incentivise teams to race the UK programme in much the same way as in the rest of Europe – by scrapping entry fees and paying for accommodation

All that said, to echo the thoughts of other team managers, the UK calendar is still way too expensive to participate in for many teams that do not have major budgets. It cannot be right that we can ride a European stage race for almost the same cost as a one-day UK Premier Calendar event. In the current climate, my feelings are that British Cycling now ought to incentivise teams to race the UK programme in much the same way as in the rest of Europe – by scrapping entry fees and paying for accommodation, especially for those teams that have worked extremely hard to bring funding into the sport through sponsorship.

James Shaw and Rod Annet (4iiii) at the team launch.
Photo: Carolyn Nelson (@photography_PCS)

Have you finalised your squad yet?

Yes – finally complete.  I think we have a great core of riders around the 22/23-year-old mark, all with similar goals and ambitions.  Either side of that, we have a mix of young, development riders and super experienced riders. I am really happy with the blend of the squad and morale is already high.

Any riders in your squad that you think we should look for this season in particular (and why)?

I am not going to single out individuals.  We will be setting individual and team goals for the season but I want us to be judged on our overall team performance. It is all about the team and if stand-out performances happen along the way (which I believe they will) then that would be the cherry on the cake.  Without a doubt, we have riders for every occasion, and I think there will be a few surprises this year.

How competitive do you think you’ll be able to be against the bigger British Continental teams?

To be honest, I am not focussed on what any other team does, but we won’t fear anyone.  My main objective for 2019 is purely to provide the best opportunities for riders to perform and realise their ambitions.  I think we can be competitive in stage racing, one day races and circuit races.  We will focus on what we need to do and our own objectives, and if it we are successful, then that will be job done.

What would a successful season look like for SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling?

Success comes in many different guises and I’m not going to predict. I am just focused on staying in the present and in creating the best environment for the guys to perform. However, what I have always believed in is aiming ambitiously high and if you fall slightly short of that, you have still had a great year.

Look out for our preview on the SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling team later this week.