After more than four years on the WorldTour with BMC Racing and IAM Cycling, American Larry Warbasse is looking for more opportunities for a leadership role next season at Aqua Blue Sport, a new Pro Continental team registered in Ireland.
The 26-year-old from Michigan signed with BMC Racing as a trainee in 2012 and rode with the American WorldTour program though 2014 before moving to IAM Cycling for two years. When the Swiss team announced it would fold at the end of this season, Warbasse and nearly 30 teammates were left looking for a roster spot. With Tinkoff folding as well, the market was crowded.
Nevertheless, Warbasse, who calls Nice, France, home during the season, secured a ride with the new Irish outfit after a long talk with Aqua Blue Sport performance director Leigh Bryan.
"I was talking with a few teams before the Vuelta and during the Vuelta as well," Warbasse recently told Cyclingnews. "I was talking with quite a few WorldTour teams, and then one or two of those fell through. I had heard about this Aqua Blue, and I knew a guy they call Rok – but his name is Leigh Bryan, actually – they were putting a team together and he was going to be the performance director, so I decided to shoot him a message to see if I could talk with him about the team.
"He came to Nice to meet me, and we had a really long conversation. It sounded like a really good project. It went pretty quickly after that."
Warbasse will join fellow WorldTour riders Adam Blythe (Tinkoff), Matt Brammeier (Dimension Data), Andrew Fenn (Team Sky), Lars Petter Nordhaug (Team Sky) and IAM Cycling teammates Leigh Howard and Stefan Denfil on Aqua Blue Sport next year.
"I knew some of my teammates are going there, and also some of my friends, like Calvin Watson," Warbasse said. "We raced in the under-23 together. He lives pretty close to Nice in Monaco now. I knew he was going there, so I talked to him about it. It will be nice because there will be a lot of familiar faces next year. It will be really cool."
'A really good opportunity to see what I'm capable of'
Warbasse doesn't appear bothered by the step down to cycling's second division. If anything, he sees it as a chance to take a leadership role in races and go for his own results rather than riding for others. Most importantly, he wants to keep his current trajectory of improvement on track.
"The only thing that was a bit of a hesitation was, you know, I do want to do the biggest races, and I don't think next year we'll get to do a Grand Tour," he said. "That's tough, because I really enjoy racing the Grand Tours, and I really would like to do more in those races. That was maybe the biggest thing, but after seeing our roster and then everything that has gone along with our team so far, I don't think we're going to have any trouble getting into a lot of big races and getting a lot of invites to WorldTour and big 2.HC races."
Warbasse has ridden four Grand Tours since 2014, including three times at the Vuelta a Espana and one Giro d'Italia. His best overall result was 49th this year in the Vuelta after finishing 16th during the 38.7km stage 17 individual time trial. His best stage finish in this year's Vuelta was 14th on stage 14, which finished on the Col d' Aubisque. He warmed up for the Vuelta with a seventh-place overall finish at the Tour de Pologne and a mostly anonymous turn at the Tour of Utah.
Although Grand Tour starts will now depend on the handful of coveted wildcard spots that the three-week races dole out to Pro Continental teams, the opportunity for outright leadership in some of the week-long stage races piques Warbasse's interest.
"I think in a lot of the hillier stage races I'll have a really good opportunity to lead the team sometimes," he said. "And that will be awesome, because it's not exactly a position I've ever had. BMC was a team full of big leaders, especially when I was there. There were so many big name riders, like four ex-world champions, or something, so pretty crazy. That was an awesome opportunity to be a part of that and learn from those guys, but I could have never even imagined having a chance to lead the team there.
"At IAM, I definitely had an opportunity to go for my own results, but I never really had a leadership position in the team, so I think this will be a really good opportunity to see what I'm capable of."
Fresh start with a brand-new team
Aqua Blue Sports is also a chance to experience something Warbasse says is rare in cycling: joining a team at the ground level and growing with it. After having one team fold from underneath him, Warbasse is hoping for a more sustainable future at his new set up.
Team owner Rick Delaney says financing is in place for four years, with the team targeting a WorldTour spot and a start at the Tour de France in that time. Former Tinkoff and Cycling Academy director Niki Sorensen will be behind the wheel of the team car, and the team has already earned invitations to Milan-San Remo, the Amstel Gold Race and the Tour of Britain.
"They want to grow to the WorldTour level in the next few years and eventually grow to become quite a big team," Warbasse said. "So that's really cool and I'd like to be apart of that growth with the team. I don't think you have that opportunity too many times in a career.
"When I look at a team like this, I have a feeling it's going to be one of those teams that everyone looks at and thinks it would be an awesome organisation to be apart of, sort of like Cervelo was some years ago, or IAM was a few years ago as well. I think it's a really good project and I look forward to getting it underway."
Aside from the new team and the new opportunities it could bring, the rest of Warbasse's life will remain mostly constant. He will continue to live in Nice with current roommate Joe Dombrowski, who rides for Cannondale-Drapac. Fellow American Ian Boswell (Team Sky) lives about a kilometre away, and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) recently moved even closer, Warbasse said, to a spot just around the corner.
"Pretty much everything goes on exactly the same," Warbasse said. "That was one of the big things that I wanted to make sure of, because it's taken a long time to really set up everything and get comfortable. And I really do feel quite comfortable living in Nice and in France now. And I really enjoy the set up that we have there."
Currently in South Carolina, Warbasse is in the early throes of training for next season, but it won't be long until he's back in Europe. The first Aqua Blue Sport team camp will take place in mid-December in Monaco, where riders will meet each other, get to know the staff and learn about the sponsors.
"I already know eight, nine guys on the team, so it should be cool," Warbasse said. "More like just getting together with a group of friends."