WM3 Pro Cycling general manager Eric van den Boom says that the team has had to go 'back to basics' this season as they discover life beyond Rabobank. The team, with star rider Marianne Vos, came from the ashes of the Rabobank team after only securing a primary sponsor at the end of last year.
In a world where team names are constantly changing, WM3 Pro Cycling is a rarity in cycling in that both their main sponsor and bike supplier have ensured their services for five years. However, the complete departure of Rabobank from cycling left a big gap to fill and, despite the long-term deals, the team has around 50 per cent of the budget they were operating on in 2016.
"It's a lot smaller, but it's enough to act in a professional way. We're more back to basics, but we can still act in a professional way," Van den Boom told Cyclingnews.
"If we went beyond that, then we would stop, because if you can't act like a professional and do the things that are required sportingly, then you should not continue because it isn't realistic.
"In the space of a few months, we created a new team, which we can all be very proud of."
While the team is not desperate, with their future secure for now, they are looking to beef up their sponsorship for the coming seasons.
"To further develop, it's always easier if there is more money involved," he explained. "If we can explore the Fortitude side of things a bit more then it will help to improve the details and further develop the team."
Saving the team from collapse
The team was one of the lucky ones, with Rabobank giving them more than a year's notice before they pulled out of the sport. They had already left the men's side in 2012 following a spate of doping scandals but chose to stay on with the women's and development teams until the end of last season. The early notice didn't make it any easier to find a new sponsor, though, and Van den Boom explains that there were some false starts for the team throughout last season.
"It only counts when the signature was there," he explained.
Some of their big-name riders, such as Anna van der Breggen and Pauline Ferrand Prevot, were already looking elsewhere, but things slowly began to come together. Even though they didn't have a named sponsor, there was sufficient funding between the other partners and suppliers to sustain a team for the 2017 season.
So, the team took things into their own hands and created Fortitude Pro Cycling with "the goal to create value for everyone involved". The idea is what Van den Boom describes as a "business peloton" where both small and big businesses can join "all the time".
"To find a sponsor such as [Rabobank] is not easy, especially with that sort of budget," explained Van den Boom. "Once we created the Fortitude idea, in June, we felt pretty comfortable, but we still had some pressure to find a sponsor for the coming years because, at that point, we didn't have a big main partner. Of course, that took a while. It never made people really nervous, but it was a relief that it did eventually come up."
Many of the linchpins remain the same within the squad, such as Van den Boom and Vos, but there have been plenty of changes, allowing them to rethink how they approach certain things.
"It feels normal but also brand new," said Van den Boom. "It's nice to have a new start so we can start with a clean slate and have things straight."
Another face from the Rabobank days is Jeroen Blijlevens, who has returned as a directeur sportif. Blijlevens was in that role previously with the team but was sacked after he was one of the riders named by a French Senate report as having used EPO during the 1998 Tour de France, despite previously denying it. Van den Boom told Cyclingnews that the team knows what they're getting into and believes that Blijlevens' tactical knowledge can benefit the team.
"We all know that in the period that he rode, not everybody was reliable or clean, or whatever you want to call it. We didn't really make an issue of it because we knew already what we were taking into our home when we took him back. We worked with him before and we know his history, so for us it wasn't an issue.
"He was already a sports director at our team for three years in a row, so he already had a good relationship with Marianne. He was kind of the first choice to have, because Jeroen has some really good technical skills, in tactics for the races but also in developing the individual qualities of the riders."
The team has enjoyed a good start to the season with several victories in cyclo-cross at the hands of Vos. They've yet to hit the same giddy heights on the road just yet, but Kasia Niewiadoma put them at the forefront with second at Strade Bianche. The Giro d'Italia will be a big goal for the team with the Polish rider, as will the Ardennes Classics with Vos seemingly approaching her best again. Van den Boom says that Vos is unlikely to reign supreme like she once did but he is confident that she and the rest of the team can get into the mix this year, despite the significantly smaller budget.
"We might not have won a big race yet but we are really in the races, and it feels like the team is really close together and you can see that in the races. We're really happy with the new team," he said. "I don't think that anyone was or can be as dominant as [Marianne] was. I'm sure that she can be a winner a lot of times. Last year, she already won nine or 10 races. So we can still have a lot of fun with her."