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Mapei returns to team sponsorship: William Fotheringham interview

We talk to cycling journalist and author William Fotheringham about Mapei UK's new backing for the Halesowen Academy, the academy's successes and challenges, and the state of the domestic racing scene

Mapei. It’s a name that sends many a cycling fan – us included – into a literal and metaphorical spin. Hyperbole is commonly used in sports writing. But it’s no exaggeration to say that Mapei is one of the most iconic names in cycle sport. From 1993 to 2002, the Italian construction materials company sponsored what was to many cycling fans the sport’s greatest ever team. Featuring a striking multi-coloured ‘building block’ kit, the superteam dominated bike racing for a decade, particularly when it came to the classics. Museeuw, Rominger, Bartoli, Tafi and Ballerini were just some of the greats to have adorned the Mapei jersey.

Johan Musseuw (Mapei) wins the 2000 Paris-Roubaix Photo: Matheus Katharus, CC BY-SA 4.0

The company continues to sponsor cycling – Mapei banners currently adorn the courses of world road race championships. But to the best of our knowledge – and we’re bound to be proven wrong now – the iconic name hasn’t featured on a team jersey since the superteam’s heyday. Until now that is. Because thanks to Mapei UK, the iconic brand will feature on the jerseys of the West Midlands-based Halesowen Academy this season.

It’s a huge statement to have a name like that on your jersey given their heritage, it’s something for us all to live up to

This will be no superteam rebirth. Instead, it is support right where the domestic scene needs it: at the grassroots. It’s no less exciting though. So exciting in fact, that we caught up with cycling journalist and author William Fotheringham, who now manages the Halesowen Academy team and is increasingly involved in supporting the road racing scene in the West Midlands. We discussed the Academy’s successes and challenges, the impact Mapei’s involvement will make, and the state of the domestic road racing scene more generally…

Halesowen Academy riders don their 2020 Mapei jerseys. Academy Photo: Mike Field

First up, for readers not familiar with it, tell us a little about the Halesowen Academy…

It’s part of the Halesowen Athletic and Cycling Club (HACC), which is one of the oldest and biggest cycling clubs in the West Midlands. We’re based at our own velodrome near Dudley, we have a good talent conveyor producing some really talented young riders. If you look at the current GB track team, Emily Nelson was a member, so too Paralympic stoker Helen Scott, Irish international Emily Kay came all the way up from her early teens via the club’s coaching set-up, and so on. Jess Varnish was one of ours as well.

What the academy does is to provide an apex for that coaching pyramid, so that the riders who come up through the coaching system have something to aim for, that gives them an identity, that looks a bit more glamorous – we all like sponsors’ names on the jerseys – and that can further their racing needs, offer some help here and there while tapping into the broader support network that you have with a big cycling club. It furthers their interests, we aim to send one or two a year up to UK elite teams, and it also acts as a parachute for riders who have been involved with the club, moved on and then need to reboot for whatever reason. And it supports the scene in the West Midlands. We run a couple of road races in addition to the one the club organises. We started with four riders, hit 12 last year, and we have 10 this year. Seven of those are juniors, something we are very proud of.

And how did you get involved? It seems a far cry from the glamour of covering the Tour de France…

I’ve been involved with the club since about 2008, got drafted onto the committee and so on, and at a certain point, it became clear to me that although we were good at producing young riders, they were heading off here there and everywhere and the lads, in particular, ended up nowhere. On the road, the young lads might head for what looked like a good team only to find it wasn’t as shiny as it seemed, and then they would be lost to the sport. We had three really good juniors in 2015, full disclosure my son was one, but it wasn’t about him: it seemed a shame for them to all go their separate ways. So the initial mission was to support the juniors and under-23s until they were really ready to move on. Because I’ve been in the sport so long I know a few people so I could get this and that – nutrition, clothing and so on. Then we acquired a nice sponsor in Wenlock Spring, a local mineral water company, who backed us for four years. 

I wanted to give something back, and remembered the people who had helped me in the past and fueled my passion

Why get involved? Covering the Tour gets a bit old after the first 25 years. I wanted to give something back and remembered the people who had helped me in the past and fueled my passion. I wanted to follow their example. It’s been a good learning process for me, as I’ve had to pick up from scratch how to get stuff done, there’s been a lot of learning about dealing with people, and I’ve had to learn about bike riders in a very different context to which I had to learn about them as a writer. I’ve had a lot of help, from people like Rod Ellingworth and a couple of other ex-national squad coaches, and most recently John Herety, who is an old friend and who is now the Academy patron. He has been massively supportive.

Photo: Mike Field

What differentiates the Academy from other junior and under-23 set-ups in the UK?

I don’t worry about what others do, because there are certain core principles we stick to. We are absolutely adamant that this is a cycling club enterprise. The key thing is that it is part of the HACC. It’s not a mini pro team. Everything stems from that. Priority is given to riders who come through the HACC club system or those who have contacts with the club in other ways, and we don’t go looking for riders from other clubs. If they approach us well and good; we have just had a rider join us from Wyre Forest. He got in touch so we got in touch with them to make sure it wasn’t going to damage them.

I’m less interested in producing WorldTour pros than in ending up with riders who have a lifelong passion for the sport at whatever level

We have a pretty holistic approach. If the riders have A-levels or uni exams that takes absolute priority and we support them through it. I’m less interested in producing WorldTour pros than in ending up with riders who have a lifelong passion for the sport at whatever level. I’m interested in headroom, you may have a rider who looks not so good, but with a bit of encouragement and basic tutoring they can fly. At junior level, it’s all very random due to the varying speeds at which they all develop, and a lot of it comes down to confidence. So you don’t solely concentrate on the obviously talented riders, you look for attitude, brains, desire.

We also have a focus on putting back, and we’ve found getting riders and parents involved in running races is a good way of bonding. We don’t give the riders very much – they buy kit at a very subsidised rate through our suppliers ProVision and Epic Cycles, and get nutrition stuff, this year from Secret Training. The priority is to target races they can only do as a team. It was John Herety who told me: get them doing things they will talk about for the rest of their cycling careers. My term for it is Shared Peer Group Experience. That’s basically stage races, and given that there are none to speak of in the UK that means a couple of trips to Ireland every year. Last year we took six juniors to the Junior Tour, and it was brilliant, they rode really well, learned loads and this year we should take back the five who rode it as first years. How many UK riders have ridden a 6-day stage race?

Photo: Mike Field

Tell us about some of the successes the academy has had since it was set up in 2015?

Getting six out of six through the Junior Tour was massive; it’s fantastic when you put a first year junior rider in there who had finished only two road races in a bunch and see him mature in five days and learn race skills some first cats in the UK won’t even have dreamed about. We’ve had some lovely wins in local races, particularly when they finish one-two because they have really worked together, like in a stage of the Giro del Mon in 2018. Charlie Walker, who’s now with Spirit Tifosi, had a golden year in 2016 when he absolutely dominated the Ras de Cymru as a first year senior.

We had a national under-16 champion last year in Kinga Ingram; I claim no responsibility for her success but it was a huge boost for everyone. We’ve always done well at the Newry 3-Day in Northern Ireland which is a regular thing for us, winning stages and so on, and Jack Stanton-Warren won back-to-back Nat Bs one weekend in 2017. The best successes are when you see riders who maybe don’t believe they can win getting across the line first, it probably makes the biggest difference to them as people, not just as bike riders. 

And what would say are the main challenges for a set-up like the academy?

The big challenge is the utter poverty of racing opportunities within the UK. You have these young riders who are desperate to race and learn but have damn all to do on some weekends. They can’t all ride the Junior Road Series. When they move out of juniors there are no stage races and there’s nothing for under-23s to target because there’s no series or national championship and the Nat B calendar has basically died. Twenty years ago you could have a lot of fun as a first cat in the UK, but there’s not much to do now that doesn’t involve epic amounts of travel for very little reward. That’s why we take them to Ireland: you get really good stage races there, in every way.

Everyone rants at British Cycling for not saving the domestic scene but to me it’s less about televising the National Road Series than what happens at the grass roots

Everyone rants at British Cycling for not saving the domestic scene but to me, it’s less about televising the National Road Series than what happens at the grassroots. The issue is that many of the clubs that used to organise the races don’t have the riders any more because they’ve been snapped up by small teams that don’t put anything back. So the clubs stop organising. The very best riders always progress but many of the others will give up because there’s nothing for them to ride. 

Photo: Prendas Ciclismo

There aren’t many names bigger than Mapei in cycling. How did the sponsorship deal come about?

Their UK head office is close to the Halesowen track and their marketing head got in touch. It was a classic thing: you can contact as many people as you like but when a company comes along with a desire to be involved it’s plain sailing. Obviously we were very much aware of the import of the name so we were dead keen to drive it forward. So massive thanks to Kevin Field at Mapei and to his team, it all took a few months to pull together. 

What difference will the involvement of Mapei make to the Academy?

It means a bit more money, which means we can do more. But it matters more in other ways. It’s a huge statement to have a name like that on your jersey given their heritage, it’s something for us all to live up to, and it means we will be noticed more wherever we go. We may look a bit more shiny because of the backup Mapei can provide in things other than cash. That makes it easier to get support for the things we do. But it’s probably most significant that the bulk of their backing will go to the club that we are part of, which will result in increased profile, more activity there, and hopefully more riders coming up to us through the youth system. 

Mapei banners at the 2019 UCI Road World Championships – Women’s Elite Road Race – Yorkshire, England – Chloe Dygert of the United States of America. Photo: Pauline Ballet/SWpix.com

What kinds of race can we expect to see the Mapei jersey featuring in this season?

We will be back to Ireland for the Junior Tour and for the Newry 3-Day, and we should have riders in most of the UK Junior Road Series races, hopefully culminating in the Junior Tour of Wales. I’d expect to put a strong team in the Junior CiCLE Classic as we have lots of good cyclo-crossers who also ride road. The riders will be supporting the West Midlands races most weeks. Our top crosser Simon Wyllie is going to turn his attention to the National Mountain Bike Series. A couple want to try their hand in Belgium so we will facilitate that. This year, I want to send at least two riders again up to decent teams, ideally three. If that happens we’re doing our job right.

And can Mapei’s involvement give the domestic scene as a whole a bit of fillip?

Not in the obvious way. We aren’t on that scale although it’s good to see a major company come in and invest in the grass roots, we need more of it. What I’d like is for more Go-Ride clubs to have a look at what we have done at Halesowen and see if it might be a boost to them. I know a couple of others have race teams, like Otley and I think VC Meudon, but I’d like to think there are plenty of others who could do something similar and feel the benefit. I’ve had one local club in touch already trying to do something similar and I’d be more than happy to pass on the lessons we’ve learned to anyone out there. 

2020 squad: Ryan Brookes, Jonathan Cull, Josh Field, Patrick Fotheringham, Charlie Genner, David Hird, Oscar Laight, Henry Lloyd-Langston, Jack Stanton-Warren, Simon Wyllie

Sponsors: Mapei, ProVision, BikeStow, Secret Training, BroadBean Deli, Epic Cycles, Wenlock Spring.

Featured photo: Mike Field