The Aqua Blue Sport team have said they will fold at the end of the season, citing difficulties in obtaining invitations from race organisers and a failed merger with the Veranda's Willems Crelan team. The Irish squad issued an announcement on Monday morning saying their "on road ambitions" had come to an "unfortunate end" but that they will continue to grow the Aqua Blue Sport online shop in a bid to return to the peloton "some time in the future".
The Aqua Blue Sport team was created at the start of 2017, with the online shop designed to form the basis of ‘the world’s first self-sustained pro cycling team’. Funding for the team was meant to secure their future for four seasons with two-year rolling contracts offered to the riders.
In their debut season, they earned an invite to the Vuelta a España and capitalised with a stage win through Stefan Denifl, while Larry Warbasse won a stage of the Tour de Suisse and became US national champion. However, the sailing has been far less smooth in 2018.
The confirmation of their Pro Continental licence was delayed, with confirmation coming four days after all other teams had been announced. The team had hoped the Vuelta a Espana showing would help secure them more major invites this season, but they failed to grab a wildcard spot in any of the Grand Tours.
"We, Aqua Blue Sport, started this project over two years ago with huge ambition, gusto and optimism that we could actually make a difference. This year we have found it increasingly difficult to obtain race invitations and recognition from race organisers in how unique and how well supported our project should be," read Monday's statement.
Reference was then made to the merger with Verandas Willems Crelan, the Belgian team of cyclo-cross world champion and rising road star Wout Van Aert. Aqua Blue announced at the start of this month that they had acquired Sniper Cycling - the holding company of the Verandas team - and all its assets, affirming that Van Aert would ride in Aqua Blue colours in 2019.
However, that was swiftly dismissed by Sniper Cycling, who sought to “disassociate ourselves expressly” from the announcement in a terse statement of their own. Negotiations since broke down, with Aqua Blue manager Rick Delaney declining to answer questions from Cyclingnews.
"Aqua Blue Sport cycling team have been negotiating tirelessly with another Pro Continental team regarding an acquisition/partnership," read Monday’s statement. “Over the past weeks we had formed the basis of an agreement many times, but unfortunately common sense did not prevail. We believed on numerous occasions that the deal was so far advanced that it was a foregone conclusion that a partnership would be achieved. Today, August 27, 2018, we now find ourselves in a position where we can categorically state that all negotiations have been terminated."
The team admitted to making "fundamental mistakes" and "errors of judgement" but affirmed their pride in what they’d achieved, with eight victories and a Grand Tour participation. Most of the riders had signed two-year deals when the team was created in 2017 and were out of contract for 2019. Young riders Eddie Dunbar and Casper Pedersen, who both signed for the team last winter, are the only ones who had contracts in place for next season.
"We are extremely proud of our achievements over the past two seasons and made history in being Ireland’s first professional cycling team, first Irish team to participate in a Grand Tour and first Irish team to win a stage at a Grand Tour. We have had the pleasure of making many friends on the journey," read the statement.
"I guess it’s fair to say that we have made some fundamental mistakes, and errors of judgement, ultimately bringing our ‘on road’ ambitions to an unfortunate end. We are, of course, not going to give up with our passion of becoming a sustainable cycling team and will continue to grow and develop our e-commerce platform to enable us to return to the road unshackled sometime in the future.
"We would like to take this opportunity to thank all of those who have supported both our e-commerce website and our cycling team."