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Adam Ellis interview: from podiums to precarity – the ROKiT-SRCT team’s fight for survival

The ROKiT-SRCT racing team, led by manager Adam Ellis, excelled in the 2023 racing season with multiple victories. However, despite their on-track success and popularity on social media, they struggle with finding financial sponsorship, endangering the team's future.

One of the great paradoxes of the cycling world is that sporting success doesn’t automatically equate to financial stability or longevity. Bob Stapleton’s HTC-Highroad team is perhaps the quintessential example of this. He had the ‘winningest’ team of the century and yet was forced to fold at the end of 2011 after he was unable to find a replacement sponsor for HTC. It may be a stretch to compare Scott Redding’s ROKiT-SRCT team with Stapleton’s Highroad winning machine, but there are some similarities nonetheless.

On the domestic scene this season, ROKiT-SRCT were arguably the standout elite squad. With a talented team of mostly under-23 riders, Redding’s riders clinched second place in the prestigious National Circuit Series and celebrated a string of triumphs in the Men’s Under-23 Road Series (winning three out of the four rounds). The team won the Oakenclough Road Race through Matt Warhurst and the team’s combined results across the season amassed enough points to secure the runner-up spot in The British Continental road race rankings – the best-performing elite team. Add in victory at the Galway Classic, coupled with a solid UCI road race programme, and it’s easy to conclude it was a year brimming with success.

Matt Warhurst wins the 2023 Oakenclough Road Race. Image: Ellen Isherwood

The team has not only made waves on the road but has also crafted a dynamic social media persona. Fuelled by motorsport luminary Redding’s substantial fan base, the team’s vibrant attire, and a forward-thinking policy that encouraged riders to engage actively with fans online, ROKiT-SRCT’s social media engagement was impressive.

However, in a twist that underscores the complexities of cycling’s financing, the team’s stellar performance and digital savvy did not translate into financial backing when it came to looking for sponsors for 2024. This conundrum led to the sobering announcement that the team would not continue, a stark reminder of the fiscal challenges that even the most successful teams can face.

The British Continental sat down with ROKiT-SRCT team manager Adam Ellis to discuss the team’s standout season in 2023, the harsh realities of the road racing scene’s financial landscape, the team’s decision to close and why gravel racing offers an opportunity for the team to continue in a new guise.

Right place, right time

“It all started with my son,” Ellis begins, recounting the serendipitous events that led to his current role. “He was racing for Saint Piran, and then he and Ollie Maxwell joined SRCT when it was set up.” The original team manager, Dante Carpenter, overwhelmed with commitments, opened the door for Ellis. “He was just too busy,” Ellis recalls.

Adam (centre) and the team ahead of the 2023 Rapha Lincoln GP. Image: Ryan Meek

“I was in the feed zone at Lincoln, feeding Matt in a race, and Scott was there,” Ellis said, recalling his encounter with Redding at the 2022 Lincoln Grand Prix. “The next day he rang me up and said, ‘I need someone older to run the team, I just want someone with a bit of maturity’.”

With Ellis recently retired from the fire service and looking for a new challenge, the timing was perfect. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he says, agreeing to take on management of the team for the 2023 season and emphasising his commitment by refusing a salary. “‘I don’t want paying’, I said. I wanted any money that the team got to be put into the race programme,” Ellis shares.

When I first took on the role that winter it was actually originally myself, Scott and Alex Richardson, and we were talking about how we were going to progress it to UCI

When Ellis joined the team last winter, a bold step up to UCI Continental level was being discussed, with former pro Alex Richardson a potential part of the set-up. “When I first took on the role that winter it was actually originally myself, Scott and Alex Richardson, and we were talking about how we were going to progress it to UCI,” says Ellis. “Alex was going to be involved as well.”

The plan, however, hit an early snag. Richardson, initially set to ride for the team, moved to Saint Piran leaving ROKiT-SRCT to reconsider its trajectory. “Scott was like, ‘Well, I don’t want to progress to UCI, taking it to another level, paying staff salaries and all the expense that goes with, only for it to not work,'” Ellis shares. His suggestion was a more a toned down progression: to be an Elite Development Team (EDT) that runs as close it can to UCI levels but without the official designation. “So I said well let’s become an EDT team but run like a UCI team. We’ll do the races, provide the guys with everything they need to race, all the equipment. We’ll pay for all their entries, all their hotels, and we’ll do it properly,” he recalls of the adjusted plan.

Decisions made, Ellis set about planning the 2023 campaign. “We had about £10,000 of sponsorship to run,” he explains. “I’d signed the riders saying ‘we’ve got enough to pay your entry fees for the British road scene.'” However, the team’s fiscal outlook experienced a dramatic upswing when, on the brink of his wedding in California, Redding landed a lucrative sponsorship deal with ROKiT—a backer of his motorcycle racing endeavours. The agreement, which seemed to spring from the pages of a Tinseltown screenplay, was finalised in what Ellis describes as “the night before his wedding in a bar.” This sponsorship was a game-changer, inflating their modest £10,000 budget to a figure that promised a competitive season ahead.

Scott Redding at the 2023 Rapha Lincoln GP. Image: Ryan Meek

Squad merry-go-round

With the newfound backing, Ellis set his sights on the British road scene, particularly the Tour Series. “We had Joe Beckingsale and everyone that I thought would be good at crits,” he says, outlining the strategy to build a team crit racing squad. The goal was clear: “We were trying to at least get a top three at the Tour Series.”

Plans had to be hastily rearranged, however, when the news was announced that the Tour Series had been cancelled. “We were like, ‘right, we’ve got this sponsorship money now, so what should we do?'” recalls the Ellis, reflecting on the initial scramble to redefine the season’s objectives. The decision was made to venture into UCI races abroad, a move that promised new opportunities but also new challenges.

The season kicked off with two UCI races in France: Le Tour des 100 Communes and the Grand Prix de la Ville de Lillers, which the Ellis describes as “brilliant, you know, really good, hard season openers.”

More upheaval was around the corner. The folding of AT85 Pro Cycling, at the team the UK’s leading UCI Continental team, set off a chain reaction that saw ROKiT-SRCT’s roster undergo significant changes. First, Charles Page, initially a key rider for ROKiT-SRCT, was offered a contract with a Portuguese UCI team. Ellis’ response was supportive: “I’m not going get in your way, you know, if you’ve got some potential there, go for it.” This departure was the start of what Ellis calls “a mad week,” which saw riders coming and going.

Rob was on the team for a week and he says, look, I’ve had this offer from this UCI cross team in France and they want to take three of us on

Next, the 2022 National Road Series winner Rob Scott, on the hunt for a team after AT85’s collapse, made a fleeting appearance on his team before an offer from the UCI outfit Cross Team Legendre in France changed his trajectory. “Rob was on the team for a week and he says, look, I’ve had this offer from this UCI cross team in France and they want to take three of us on,” recounts Ellis, who emphasises he he was happy for Scott to grab this new opportunity.

As one rider exited, however another opportunity immediately presented itself. “The same day, the owners of Scribe phoned me up,” Ellis continues, referring to the sponsors of their wheels. They were inquiring on behalf of Matt Teggart, another former-AT85 rider in need of a team. Ellis’ decision was swift: “Well, Rob’s just gone, so yeah!”

The transition was serendipitous, with equipment ready and waiting for Teggart. “We only had two spare frames, both mediums and they fitted Rob Scott and Matty Teggart,” the manager explained, highlighting the often-overlooked logistical aspects of cycling teams.

However, Teggart’s tenure with the team was marred by health issues. The spectre of long COVID loomed over his season, rendering him unable to compete at his best. “He was pretty ill really all year,” Ellis says with a tone of concern. The long-term effects of the illness were so severe that Teggart has now decided to retire from the sport, a decision that underscores the devastating impact COVID-19 can have on athletes.

2023 National Circuit Series, Road – The Dudley Grand Prix, Men’s National Circuit Series – Jenson Young of ROKiT – SRCT. Image: Olly Hassell/SWpix.com

Amidst the squad merry-go-round ROKiT-SRCT went about impressing on the road. In April, Will Truelove won the PB Performance Espoirs road race, Matt Warhurst was the victor at the Oakenclough Road Race, while Joe Beckingsale was first at the Galway Classic. The following month it was Jenson Young’s turn for a win at the the Yorkshire Under-23 Classic.

Then in the summer months the team found success in the National Circuit Series, finishing second overall. “That was good for us because we’d targeted the Tour Series, so to come second in the National Circuit Series was a real good result for us,” Ellis says with a hint of pride. The team’s consistency was noteworthy, even if podium finishes eluded them.

The season’s highlight came unexpectedly with an invitation to Kreiz Breizh Elites. “That was the best race of the year, a fantastic stage race,” Ellis enthuses. David Hird and Will Truelove’s performances (41st and 51s respectively) were standouts for Ellis, despite the team being reduced to only two finishers due to injuries and a crash.

For the last three months really, I’ve just been trying to find sponsorship. I’ve spoken to various companies from all different commercial areas but just haven’t got a penny, basically.

In search of cash sponsorship

With the team impressing on the road, Ellis set about looking for sponsorship for 2024, mindful of the need to find new title sponsors with ROKiT’s support not continuing. But despite an extensive search – and product sponsors like Storck and Muc-Off keen to continue, Ellis’ hunt for a cash sponsor remained elusive.

“For the last three months really, I’ve just been trying to find sponsorship. I’ve spoken to various companies from all different commercial areas but just haven’t got a penny, basically.” His frustration is palpable as he recounts the efforts to secure funding for the upcoming season.

The team’s predicament is somewhat paradoxical. On paper, they are a success story, one of the best elite teams in the UK with a social media presence that would be the envy of many teams. Yet, this has not translated into financial backing.

National Road Series Round 4 – 2023 Beaumont Trophy. William Truelove of ROKiT-SRCT leads the breakaway. Image: Craig Zadoroznyj/SWpix.com

The challenges are multifaceted, thinks Ellis. The shift in marketing strategies towards social media has altered the sponsorship landscape. Ellis highlights the team’s approach: “The social media side of it was the only way to market the team really… Instagram, YouTube, and all that side of things is how you can promote goods.” However, he also notes the downside of this shift: “I do think that the companies see [social media] as a very cheap way to promote their products… they’re never going to give us cash because they can just get another team or another rider to ride their wheels or whatever it is.”

Does the growth in social media over traditional more forms of media make companies less likely to part with cash sponsorship then? “Yeah, I think so. From what I’m seeing, yeah,” is Ellis’ response.

The lack of financial support is not due to a lack of effort or results on the team’s part. “Everyone was just saying, sort of, ‘maybe next year?’ Or maybe we could perhaps look at something later in the year. But there was nothing on the table. We’ve been doing everything right, but just can’t find the cash,” Ellis laments.

Moreover, the broader context of cycling promotion in Britain seems to be a contributing factor. Ellis points out that a lack of promotion for events, even those as significant as the National Road Series, by British Cycling as an issue. He recalls this year’s Ryedale Grasscrete Grand Prix, a “fantastic race,” which he says had fewer spectators than the adjacent under-12 cricket match.

Some of the guys in the clubs don’t even know what the Lincoln GP is. Something’s gone wrong somewhere along the line

The changing culture within cycling clubs also plays a role, with many new members more interested in sportives and gravel racing than in following professional road races. Ellis notes a disconnection: “Some of the guys in the clubs don’t even know what the Lincoln GP is. Something’s gone wrong somewhere along the line.”

ROKiT-SRCT’s story is a microcosm of the challenges facing elite cycling teams in the UK. It’s a tale of changing times, shifting priorities, and the relentless pursuit of a sustainable model in a sport that’s as much about endurance off the road as it is on it.

The fruitless search for cash sponsorship led the team to announce that it would close at the end of 2023. It was “a sad moment last week,” says Ellis of the decision. “I was pretty gutted really.”

Jenson Young wins the 2023 Yorkshire Under-23 Classic. Image: Olly Hassell/SWpix.com

New horizons: gravel racing and independent ventures

All is not lost, however, Ellis explains. Indeed, the squad should now continue, albeit in an altered, streamlined guise.

“We’ve had a little bit of head scratching over the last week [since the team closure announcement],” Ellis shares, highlighting the dilemma the team has faced. The idea is to form a “small squad, five or six riders,” who would take on the challenge of gravel racing while still participating in road races independently.

This new strategy involves leveraging existing relationships with sponsors. “I’ve been ringing riders the last two days and said, ‘Look, you know, if you want to do that, I’m happy to help you keep the sponsorship that we’ve got, the product sponsors,'” Ellis says. This approach would require riders to pay their own entry fees, but it would allow them to continue racing, albeit in a different capacity. “We’ve not got money to enter them into races, but if they want to enter themselves into Nat As and circuit races, then they can.”

The shift comes as the team faces the departure of several key members, with Ellis revealing that two have already signed for another Elite Development Team, one is moving to Belgium, and Matt Teggart is retiring. “So there’s like six guys left that are potentially going to stay and do something,” he says, indicating a glimmer of hope for the team’s continuity.

They’ve not got teams and they’d rather pay and race together than just go their own separate ways

The decision to pivot to gravel racing is not just about staying afloat; it’s about camaraderie and the shared desire to compete under a familiar banner. “They’ve not got teams and they’d rather pay and race together than just go their own separate ways,” says Ellis.

The continuation of ROKiT-SRCT’s is bittersweet news for domestic racing fans, echoing the wider narrative of British road racing. The transition to gravel may seem a detour from the tarmac, but it is perhaps indicative of the challenges that road racing faces in the UK, one in which the younger, more vibrant gravel scene offers a more flexible, less expensive opportunity for endurance athletes to compete and gain sponsorship exposure.

Still, exchanging messages with Ellis since this interview, momentum now appears to be in the team’s favour. Discussions with sponsors seem more positive, so we might yet see a strong SRCT team on the road again in 2024, even if it’s a slimmed down, more gravel-focused enterprise.