News feature, March 6, 2006
Road racing's "time is coming", believes Nick Collins, the businessman investing in Britain's newest cycling team, and for that reason it represents an excellent business and marketing opportunity, especially in one of the world's largest English-speaking markets. Cyclingnews' Gerard Knapp found out how Collins aims to make this opportunity work at the launch of Britain's newest Continental team.
Speaking at the launch of Team DFL - Cyclingnews - Litespeed in England in late February, Collins said, "with the Tour de France coming [to England] next year, then the Olympics a few years later, interest in the sport should be at an all-time high." At the same time, cycling could become an attractive proposition to British free-to-air television networks, considering that popular British sports such as football [soccer], rugby and cricket are almost all the domain of pay television networks.
His determined optimism - that has somewhat caught the British cycling establishment off-guard - was in stark contrast to the typically bleak English weather conditions when the the team launch took place on February 22 at the White Hart Hotel function centre in Lewes, Sussex.
Eurosport cycling commentator David Harmon acted as MC for the launch which attracted over 200 guests, including sponsors - Litespeed, Bioracer, Jako, 1st Class Nutrition, Schwalbe tyres, and this web site - as well as interested local business representatives and local cycling supporters. The event presented 11 of the 13 riders in the team (two are away on national duties preparing for the Commonwealth Games) and while Cyclingnews hasn't attended many Continental team presentations, it has to be said that it didn't lack for enthusiasm or flair, and certainly catered well for all attendees.
The effort and energy was apparent, a result of Collins' drive for the team to make an impact in 2006, and with Continental teams the sport's professional grass-roots, acting as development teams or emerging into 'feeder' squads for Pro Tour teams, their role is vital in keeping talented riders in the sport. The next level up is Continental Professional [formerly Division 2] before the glitz and glamour of multi-million dollar/euro budgeted ProTour teams; although the gap between Continental teams and the Pro Tour seems large, a lot of enthusiasm and hard work can go a long way, something Collins is well aware of.
Aus-Brit merger a natural
The British-registered team is the result of the merger of two squads: the well-established Team Cyclingnews (formerly Team Down Under) that had been in operation for five years and was registered in Australia, but actually based in Belgium. It had a squad of mainly young, eager Australian riders mixed with Belgian team management experience, as well as a race programme that many other Continental team managers could only crave.
DFL, on the other hand, was only launched in 2005, the initiative of Collins, a former military man who owns and runs the successful Driving Force Logistics, a transportation staffing business in Sussex. He had seen the potential in cycling and decided to back a team for the British domestic season.
Such is his drive he insisted that the organisers of the Tour of Britain find a place for his fledgling squad in the 2005 Tour of Britain. After spirited negotiations, his team was offered a spot and he duly showed it was not a gift, with DFL's Yanto Barker being a major protagonist throughout the race and eventually finishing ninth overall on general classification. He was the highest-placed British rider in the international race eventually won by Quick-Step's Nick Nuyens.
Barker is the only member of the original DFL squad to be retained in the new team, but Collins believes the squad has a strong platform for this promising Welsh rider to fulfil his potential. When asked by Harmon what he aimed to achieve this season, Barker was circumspect, but quietly determined. His answer was simple, saying, "Just to win, actually." It's expected he will enjoy the singular support at Team DFL - Cyclingnews - Litespeed that may not be offered by a Continental Professional or ProTour squad, where he would be expected to be more of a team rider or domestique. As an emerging pro, he needs the results against quality opposition to move forward - and this year's calendar will see the squad facing off against tough opponents quite regularly.
The team also includes reigning British national road champion Russell Downing, one of the few Continental teams to feature a national champion's jersey in its roster. On the road, the team will be directed by Daniel Willems, a cagey and experienced Belgian Directeur Sportif whose palmares as a rider includes four stages of the Tour de France among his 85 professional victories. Managing affairs in Belgium will be Gilbert de Weerdt and Rudi Dubois, the principals of D & D Management, the company that formed and has run Team Cyclingnews for five years.
"With so many riders saying they are willing to work for the team, I'm wondering who's going to go for the wins," said team manager Gilbert de Weerdt as he joked with MC Harmon - he knows full well there are a few very good finishers in his team, including Barker and the two Downing brothers. Many of the Australians riders told the audience of their aim to work for the team cause, to bring their fast-finishers to the finale in the best possible shape and to share their experience of racing on the Continent so they are given the best possible support and protection. At the same time they'll bring the easy-going, joking attitude that makes Australian riders among the more sought after members of the pro peloton.
As an indication of the team's quality, five of the roster will be competing at the Commonwealth Games later this month, including Barker and Matt Brammeier (Wales); Russell Downing (England); Alex Coutts (Scotland) and Jeremy Vennell (New Zealand). In-between their jokes and banter, the determination was apparent to all. The merged team has a bigger budget, more resources and an expanded calendar and it appears all were aware of the opportunities presented by the merger.
Going to the next level
Collins spoke with Harmon later in the presentation and told the gathering that he believes he has the makings of a team to attract an international sponsor, clearly showing his intentions to become a major player in the sport. He developed his interest in cycling through triathlon before travelling on the 2004 Tour of Britain as a guest and witnessing the potential of the sport in Britain. As a result he formed Team DFL in 2005, enjoyed some success, met with De Weerdt and Dubois that same year and started negotiations to look towards a merger. "Before we lacked the structure, but now with Gilbert and Rudi, who I met last year, we have the foundations to go forward. Next year, we should be looking to step up a level to the Professional Continental level," he said.
The full roster of riders from the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Belgium includes: Russell Downing (British National Champion), Yanto Barker (GBr), Dean Downing (GBr), Tom Barras (GBr), Alex Coutts (GBr), Matt Brammeier (GBr), Leigh Palmer (GBr/Aus), Sven de Weerdt (Bel), Jeremy Vennell (Nzl), Cameron Jennings (Aus), Kane Oakley (Aus), David Harrigan (Aus) and Bernie Sulzberger (Aus).
See also: Team DFL merges with Cyclingnews news report from November 25, 2005
Follow the team's progress through the season on the squad's official website.