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The Ribble effect: team interview, part 1

The team discuss its unique ethos, how the 2019 season went, the difference new sponsors will make and why riding the Saudi Tour is an opportunity too good to turn down

From small beginnings in 2013 as Achieve Cycle Coaching, the team now known as Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling has slowly evolved, adding more sponsorship, better equipment and stronger riders each year. Stepping up to Continental level last season may have been seen as a gamble to some, but it was a move that ultimately paid off, with strong publicity-winning performances in the Tour de Yorkshire, National A road race victories (John Archibald at the Stockton GP and Damien Clayton at the Bourne CiCLE Classic) and a UCI road race win too (Clayton’s GP des Marbriers win in August).

Still run by what is essentially a small group of friends who work behind the scenes and keep things running, the team has a unique set-up and ethos. Now, with a new co-title sponsor (Weldtite) on board, a squad full of top young talent, UCI race winners and world-class track racing prowess, the team has just embarked on what is set to be their most ambitious season of racing yet.

It’s easy to take it for granted but it’s been seven or eight years of progressive work to get it to the point where we are now

Ahead of their 2020 racing debut at the Saudi Tour, we caught up with the team’s management. In this first part of the interview, we discuss the team’s unique ethos, how the 2019 season went, the difference new sponsors will make and why riding the Saudi Tour was an opportunity too good to turn down.

At the Saudi Tour. Photo: James Huntly

The team has slowly but surely undergone quite the transformation over the years. How do you look back on the journey the team has made?

We’ve just tried to make really small and progressive improvements every year to the point where we’re at now, where Weldtite has come on board as a co-title sponsor and increased the investment in the team. And we now feel like we’re starting to embed ourselves at Continental level with a really good group of partners and by far our strongest group of riders.

So, I think, it’s been a journey and I think it’s easy to take it for granted but it’s been seven or eight years of progressive work to get it to the point where we are now really.

And how would you describe the ethos at the team?

The team started out as a group of mates. And the ethos stems from that: good camaraderie, everyone’s opinions viewed on the same level, there’s no hierarchy or cliques within the team. That’s something that we’ve tried to preserve right the way through to the point we’re at now. It seems that whenever we get feedback or people mention it, that’s one of the things people pick up on; that we seem to be enjoying each other’s company a lot more than maybe some other teams might do.

Even on trips abroad – like our kermesse trip to Belgium last year -everyone’s expected to do the washing up, wash their own bike, and chip in a bit. We put the infrastructure in place for races like Yorkshire and the Tour of Britain, the big races like that. But in terms of these trips and smaller races, riders are expected to chip in and that helps build a sense of camaraderie within the team. Good memories are developed from those experiences. It’s an honest way of operating and leading, and we wouldn’t want to change that even if we had a dramatic increase in budget.

At the Saudi Tour. Photo: James Huntly

You stepped up to Continental level last season. In hindsight, was that the right decision do you think?

We think so. We needed last year to find our feet at that level and understand where we sit in the whole grand scheme of things. We had a good Tour of Yorkshire, a really good one, and we were prominent there and got a lot of exposure. Last year was also the first time, really, we’d committed to the full Tour Series. We did the majority of the National Road Series. We did several UCI races, which was a good starting point for us to have an understanding of what’s involved. We gained an understanding of the budget requirements to do a year at that level, where our shortfalls were and we needed to address them, whether that was in financial terms, equipment contacts or specific areas of squad strength.

So although it was preempted by the way that the scene was going, it was definitely the right decision. And the process of reapplying for Continental status for 2020 was a breeze. We’ve done all the groundwork now, from which we can build. So from that perspective, yes, it was the right decision.

So without other teams folding the previous year – JLT Condor, One Pro – then you might not have stepped up. But stepping up has meant you’ve developed an awful lot…

Exactly. We wouldn’t have done it if the Tour de Yorkshire and the Tour of Britain didn’t have the requirement for a team to be UCI Continental in order to participate in them. Because you can actually piece together quite a good UCI programme as an elite team. But that’s the position we’re in. And now, with different opportunities that are continuing to arise because of us having that Continental status, we couldn’t go back. We want to keep moving forward.

I guess you didn’t know when you stepped up if you’d get to ride Yorkshire or the Tour of Britain, the two main races you were looking at last year…

Yes. We knew Yorkshire selection was based on criteria beyond just race results, whereas the Tour of Britain had a race-based qualifying system. So we did a lot of groundwork with the Tour de Yorkshire organisers in terms of providing updates to the selection committee and presenting ourselves in a positive light. And we had a really good start to the season last year, we were very active both internationally and domestically. As it turns out, they selected all the British UCI teams, which for us was the right decision, but we didn’t know that that was going to be the case in the build-up to it.

HSBC UK National Road Series 2019 Stockton GP Men’s Race. John Archibald start-finish straight gantry. Photo: Craig Zadoroznyj/SWpix.com

And looking back on last year, what would you say were the highlights?

There are quite a few things. John [Archibald]‘s whole year was a massive highlight. He got on the podium at the Nationals in both the time trial and the road race, really starting to deliver on the road at the level that we know he’s capable of.

To finish the year on such a high, when we could’ve been despondent because we didn’t get selected to Tour of Britain, is testament to some of the characters we’ve got in the team

He produced his solo winning performance at the Stockton Grand Prix, which was phenomenal. Stockton was where the team was based, so we’ve been doing that race for years often at a level when we weren’t really able to be competitive. So to come back this year, to execute the plan we laid out, and for John to do it in the way he did, it was a massive thing for us. Whilst Stockton isn’t the biggest race, what it represented for us in terms of the journey that we’ve been on was really something special for the people involved with the team. We went for a drink after and it was a nice thing to share. It really highlighted the development that we’d made.

And then, obviously, finishing the season with Damo [Damien Clayton] winning in France [at the Grand Prix des Marbriers, UCI 1.2], and then the team performance at the Bourne CiCLE Classic [which Clayton also won], it was fantastic. That was one of the best performances in terms of a collective group of riders we’ve ever been involved in. And to finish the year on such a high like that, when we could’ve been despondent because we didn’t get selected to Tour of Britain, is testament to some of the characters we’ve got in the team.

There weren’t any low-lights really. All throughout the year, we’re really pleased with what we did and we won’t change many things overall going into 2020.

Damien Clayton wins the 2019 Bourne CiCLE Classic. Photo: James Huntly

The second half to your season seemed to be particularly strong – as strong as any team out there domestically – to the point where you may have been more in the running for Tour of Britain’s qualification had you had that form all the way through…

To be honest, we disregarded the whole qualification system. We knew it was a bit of a long shot and didn’t want to get bogged down in negative racing or racing to place people for points, or whatever. We were racing each race positively and if that led to us scoring well in the overall competition, fantastic. If it didn’t, but the performance was there, that was great too. Like in Lincoln, where we put a fantastic performance together but came undone a little bit on the final climb after a really hard day’s racing. On paper, the result wasn’t there, but in terms of performance, it was exactly what we hoped for. In general, we were setting the foundations for the future, trying to execute a performance every time and race the way we wanted to race. And if we qualified for the Tour of Britain because of that, fantastic. But if we didn’t, we were prepared for that as well.

And this season you’ve got a new headline sponsor, Weldtite, and you have a range of other sponsors coming on board. How have you managed to get to this point, where you’ve got this new group of sponsors around you, do you think?

It’s obviously challenging. We put a lot of work into our social media. We have a few key values in terms of the way we operate. We like to be really prominent across the year, so we do a lot of domestic-level racing, which is maybe different to other teams because we want to create a constant stream of content and imagery.

We’ve got some experienced people behind the scenes in terms of negotiating and selling what we can offer in the right way. And over this off-season, that’s really come together well. We’ve linked up with different brands and partners, and aligned with what they’re looking for. We wouldn’t say we’ve been lucky but we’ve certainly found the right people looking to invest at the right time, and we happen to fit with what they were looking to invest in.

With Weldtite, they’re a much bigger organisation than they might appear to people. They distribute to 60 countries, they’ve got some key markets across the globe. So we’ll be tying in some race programming to align with that, doing some PR with their distributors and stuff like that. So there’s a lot more to the Weldtite sponsorship than perhaps meets the eye initially. That will all become clearer as we get into the season. It’s really exciting.

At the Saudi Tour. Photo: James Huntly

What other differences will having Weldtite and the other new sponsors make for the team this year?

It allows us to do everything a little bit better. There isn’t one singular thing that you could say is going to be different. But everything as a whole will be improved. We’ll have more infrastructure; we’ll have a motorhome, for example, which we didn’t have the budget for last year. We’ll have more staff at races, we’ll be able to go further afield in terms of the race programme, we’ll be able to do more UCI days, we’ll be able to support our volunteer staff a little bit better, our casual clothing will be better, trainers will be better.

It’s small things that will make everyone’s life a little bit more comfortable. Hopefully, they will allow the riders to perform a couple of per cent better, which is the main objective.

Getting an invite for the ASO-run Saudi Tour, was that a big moment for the team?

Absolutely. As soon as the UCI calendar came out, we applied to ride. We got an email initially saying there had been a lot of appetite from the World Tour and Pro Continental level so unfortunately, we hadn’t been successful in securing an invite. That was completely understandable. But then not long ago we got another email to say that there’d been an issue with a team and we were first in line on the reserve list. That was a real compliment for us.

The way we rode the Tour de Yorkshire last season, where we were very prominent in the breakaways, hopefully shows that we’re not going to just make up the numbers. We want to make the race count. It’s a big thing for us.

With a late invite to early season race like this, does that make training and preparation quite tricky?

A little bit, but for this race it works quite well. The majority of the lads were training on self-funded camps in January anyway, so this slotted in perfectly between that. Then we have our team camp on the 14th of February to the 28th. That’s a full team camp. So the timing couldn’t have been better.

The riders will have had an easy week going into it. They’ve got the race and then they’ve got a recovery week after it before the team camp. It was another reason why we couldn’t turn it down, and it also gets us five days of quality UCI racing before March, which we didn’t anticipate.

To go to a race like this, run by the ASO, televised on Eurosport in February, it’s too good an opportunity for us to turn down

How much did the Saudi Arabia’s human rights record come into consideration when weighing up the invite? Is that something that you actively thought about?

It is. But it’s really challenging, isn’t it? Because the way the sport’s going we can’t ignore this globalisation that’s happening. We know that European races and UK races are struggling and being cancelled. A new wave of money – ethically or unethically – is coming in from the Middle East and other countries. And hopefully, having these type of events can highlight the things that need to change and modernise in these countries. Hopefully, the attention will be on it for the right reasons rather than the wrong reasons.

If we were Team Ineos we could probably use non-participation in certain events as a bit of a political statement. But if we’re being realistic we want to continue to improve as much as possible. We want to provide our riders with the best opportunities that we’re able to. And we want to provide our sponsors as much exposure that we possibly can. So to go to a race like this, run by the ASO, televised on Eurosport in February, it’s too good an opportunity for us to turn down. And that’s the way it is really.

Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling ride the Saudi Tour, 4-8 February.

In part 2 of this interview – to be published in the coming weeks – we discuss the state of the domestic racing scene, the 2020 race programme, the new squad and the team’s future plans.

Featured photo: James Huntly