News feature: DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed team launch, February 27, 2007
Moving up a grade can be a daunting task, but for the British registered DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed squad, it has at least given itself a very good chance of succeeding where and when it will count.
And for this squad, it will be the all-important upcoming races in northern European countries like Belgium, Holland and France over the next few months. The team, which has made the jump from the UCI's Continental to Professional Continental status in 2007, will be led by a very fit and motivated Nico Mattan, the wily 34 year old Belgian seemingly determined to show the ProTour teams who didn't offer him a contract for 2007 that he is still capable of taking out a major race, like he did with his victory at Gent-Wevelgem in 2005 while with Davitamon-Lotto.
Supporting Mattan will be a multinational squad of 18, including two reigning national champions - Great Britain's Hamish Haynes and Finland's Matti Helminem - and on the weekend prior to their official launch in Holland, Dutchman Jens Mouris bagged a gold medal in the Madison at the Manchester round of the UCI Track world cup, partnering Danny Stam in a convincing display on the boards.
Mouris is one of the team's quiet strongmen and he was back across the channel in time for the launch event, held at the McDOS Goffertstadion in Nijmegen, Holland, on Monday, February 26. The choice of a Dutch premier league football stadium may have seemed incongruous to a cycling squad, except it was an example of a new sponsor for the team leveraging an existing sports sponsorship asset.
In this instance, the Dutch firm McDOS is one of the country's largest IT distributors and as such, it has the naming rights to the football stadium in Nijmegen, the oldest city in Holland with recorded civilization dating back over 2000 years. "It has some history, this area," said a proud local businessman present at the launch. Significantly, McDOS has recently come on board as a supporting sponsor for the cycling squad, and will use it to promote its in-house brand, Novita, a range of PCs, LCD displays, MP3 players and other consumer goods.
In the Benelux region, McDOS has some marketing clout and connections, and with the presence of the popular Mattan and the team's director sportif, Belgian cycling legend Eric Vanderaerden, there was also a strong turnout of interested local media, who've been following the progress of this Belgian-based squad for almost seven years.
So it was a case of nervous smiles and anticipation for the men who've taken what was originally an Australian-registered development squad, based in Belgium, into the seriously big league of world cycling. With starts in races like Het Volk, Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, the team founders Gilbert de Weerdt and Rudi Dubois know their squad have their work cut out for them, but as they have seen many times in the past, the riders don't finish a race with much gas left in the tank. One or more of the squad regularly make the final selection and each season record several victories.
De Weerdt said that Mattan has easily taken on the role of team leader and is inspiring the mostly young crew who are very keen to absorb the Belgian's vast knowledge of riding in Belgium and Holland, where local knowledge is almost as important as having very good form and strong legs.
Mattan said he could recall racing against Lance Armstrong, who once asked him, mid-race, when they should expect the next major climb on the parcours of Gent-Wevelgem. Given Mattan has had 14 years as a professional, there are few riders in the pro peloton with his knowledge of the difficult routes of all these races, where the speed can build up to 10 kilometres away from the short, narrow and very difficult bergs that have caused many a selection in the Spring Classics. The aim is for the favourites to be right on the very front as the peloton hits the entry points to the these climbs, because if they're mid-field, it's more than likely they will be held up and passing is difficult, if not impossible, on some of the narrower climbs.
Mattan has been training hard since securing his contract for the 2007 season and will be keen to play the underdog card. Likely to make the final selections of the major one-day races, as he has so many times in the past, this year he can sit back and let the ProTour teams do the hard work if he gets into a break that gets away. It seems he is certainly planning to remind those squads that he is a dangerous rider that perhaps they should not have overlooked.
But their mistake could be a major gain for the now British-registered team. Its major change in nationality, if you like, occurred in 2006 when Nick Collins, the principal of UK trucking firm Driving Force Logistics, joined with what was the then Team Cyclingnews (sponsored by this website).
Collins had been the main sponsor of the DFL squad in the UK, and recognizing that being based on continental Europe was the best place for riders to learn their skills and develop, teamed up with the experienced Belgian duo of De Weerdt and Dubois, the two owners of D & D Management. The two squads merged and had a successful 2006, enough to convince Collins that a move up to the next level was warranted.
At the launch, Collins, a former Army officer, said he wasn't expecting the team would win many races, given the intimidating race program they face this year. But at the same time, he expects they will race hard and generate excellent exposure for not only the team, but the sport of cycling in the UK, which this year hosts the start of the Tour de France.
The team is now a genuinely multinational squad, with riders from Australia (5), the UK (4), Belgium (4), Holland (2), as well as Finland, New Zealand and even Colombia. Most of the launch was conducted in a strain of Dutch that even some of the Belgians had trouble understanding, while several of the English-speaking riders answered questions on-stage in Dutch.
Many in the squad have displayed considerable potential, recording stage wins and placings in some very tough stage races, especially in Asia. Several now have some serious racing experience in Europe, while Haynes and Matti Helminem, the Finnish rider, are particularly dangerous, even if their national champions' jerseys may belie their 'underdog' status.
As well as an extensive European program, the team will also race in Asia, North America and Australia throughout the 2007 season. It has already been in action in the Tour of the Mediterranean, but clearly entered the race without being fully-fit and equipped. But come this Saturday, they will line up in Gent, Belgium, for the start of the Omloop Het Volk, on gleaming new titanium Litespeeds with Reynolds carbon-fibre wheelsets, and an eager group of riders ready to stake their claim at their new level.
The team includes: Nico Mattan (Bel), Hamish Haynes (GBr), Jens Mouris (Ned), Matti Helminem (Fin), Robby Meul (Bel), Evan Oliphant (GBr), Cameron Jennings (Aus), Jeremy Vennell (NZl), Daniel Lloyd (GBr), Bernie Sulzberger (Aus), Daniel Fleeman (GBr), Kane Oakley (Aus), David Harrigan (Aus), Bjorn Cornelissen (Ned), Sven de Weerdt (Bel), Rhys Pollock (Aus), Gert Vanderaerden (Bel), Pablo Winches (Col).
See also: Team DFL-Cyclingnews-Litespeed official website.