It's Monday morning and the performance management group at Rick Delaney's Aqua Blue Sport team fires up Skype ahead of their weekly review. On the agenda: race plans, updates on a possible merger with Sniper Cycling, and signings for next season. Few of the individuals on the call know what's coming but, within minutes of hanging up, a press release is dispatched, a Tweet is posted, and news of Aqua Blue's termination is public.
As is always the way in these circumstances, the riders and staff are the last to know. At 10:18 AM, Michel Kreder – one of the 16 Aqua Blue riders under contract – posts the press release in the team's Whatsapp group.
"What's going on?" he asks.
Within a few seconds, his teammate Adam Blythe responds: "Team's ended mate."
For a moment, there's no response. Just silence. Then a new notification appears: Rick Delaney has left the group.
This is the story of Aqua Blue, and how a team founded on goodwill, hope, and the promise of a new economic model of self-sustainability came crashing down in less than two years.
It all started in autumn 2016, with Aqua Blue unveiling 10 of their 16-man roster for the following season. The team announced that there was enough financial backing for four years, and they allied that confidence with a dream of racing the Tour de France.
Other than the self-sustainability – revenue was to come from their eponymous online shop – none of this was particularly groundbreaking. Every Pro Continental team that bursts onto the scene declares an ambition to ride the Tour – it's a line almost as old as the wheel itself – but Aqua Blue at least had a fresh look about them. They wanted to generate revenue through their site – to, in essence, become funded by cycling fans willing to purchase kit and bikes that the pros were using. It sounded simple, and it even sounded doable.
To the team's credit, they made promising inroads in 2017. A stage win at the Tour de Suisse and the US national championships through Larry Warbasse arrived in June, while veteran climber Stefan Denifl triumphed in a stage at the Vuelta a España as the team made their Grand Tour debut courtesy of a wildcard invitation. During the autumn, Delaney also confirmed that they had signed a contract with bike supplier 3T. They would ride the company's single-ring drive train bikes in 2018, and a raft of new kit sponsors were brought on board.
However, there were already problems brewing.
The team's initial application for a 2018 Pro Continental licence was delayed due to paperwork issues, and the bikes from 3T that arrived for the start of the racing campaign were not up to scratch, with riders complaining internally about reliability and mechanical issues. What's more, the team failed to sign a marquee rider. It meant that they would need to pick up wildcard invites to major races in order to boost their profile. This is a risky strategy, and by the spring it was clear that invites for the major races would not be forthcoming.
On April 5, Delaney took to Twitter to criticise Amgen for not inviting his team to the Tour of California.
"Unfortunately no wildcard invite for California this year... clearly the US Nation [sic] Champs Jersey won by@larrywarbasse is unvalued [sic] by the race organisers, complete disrespect shown to the Jersey and Larry & all it represents. Thanks for the support," he posted.
Three days later, Delaney took aim at the organisers of the three Grand Tours. Once more, he wrote: "Just another kicking for team @AquaBlueSport. It's confirmed, no Grand Tour."
In an attached statement he argued that the sport is "currently controlled by a 'boys club' mentality" and described himself as "so pissed off with the 'process'".
This Wednesday, Delaney would not answer calls from Cyclingnews, but a source with close ties to the team criticised Aqua Blue's reliance on wildcard invitations.
"It's the typical mentality of a millionaire… 'It's everybody's fault but mine. My business isn't working because ASO and RCS don't invite me to races,'" the source told us. "It was never up to ASO or RCS to make his business work. If you look at the comments on Cyclingnews, 50 per cent of the comments are people saying, 'I didn't know Aqua Blue was an online retailer. I thought it was swimming.'
"I didn't see Rick carrying on after the spring," the source added. "He was giving it so much on social media about a lack of an invite to the Tour of California. They had Larry but that's not enough. What Rick doesn't know, and it might dawn on him in time, is that they don't realise how lucky they were to get an invite to the Vuelta. That gave them a false level of expectation going into this season. They didn't get into the Tour, or the Giro, but they also didn't go to Paris-Nice or Tirreno."
While all this was going on, the bike situation with 3T was becoming more of a strain. Riders were openly questioning their equipment, and a run of mechanical issues was halting progress.
At the Tour de Suisse, rider Mark Christian made the break only for his chances to go up in smoke when his chain dropped. His comments to Cyclingnews after the stage left nothing to the imagination: "Probably the best legs I've ever had in a race and then the fucking bike just let us down again. I can't say any more about it, to be honest. I fucking… well, I fancied myself to do a top-10. It would have been the best result I've ever done, so I'm absolutely fuming, to be honest. I've never been so pissed off."
Delaney again returned to Twitter to give his opinion and openly criticised the firm he had signed a contract with, referring to "mechanical no 4698 this season" before stating: "This lab rat thing is now costing results."
According to a source within the team, Delaney was aware of the bike's shortcomings from the get-go.
"If I'm brutally honest, and a lot of guys won't like hearing this, but different bikes wouldn't have made a huge difference. I would say that it did cost us some results, with dropped chains, and from what I could see 3T were low on the quota of bikes, and there weren't enough spares. There were a lot of small problems. Rick, he had his own 3T bike. He could see that it wasn't right and he could see that you couldn't get the right gear ratios. He'd be riding around Monaco and chopping through gears. It's an awkward bike to ride, and he was sick of it."
Since news of the team's demise has been made official, Aqua Blue have been keen to keen to stress internally that 3T was the primary reason as to why the squad ended ahead of the Tour of Britain.
On Tuesday evening, Cyclingnews and several other news outlets were sent an email from an anonymous source claiming that 3T had threatened legal action against Aqua Blue if the team's riders turned up at the Tour of Britain on bikes other than those they were contractually obliged to ride.
The email suggested that the mechanical issues – mainly relating to dropped chains and slipped seat-posts – "came thick and fast" and, despite reassurances from 3T, persisted through the season, "to the point that riders were missing out on career-defining results purely because of the frames".
Within an hour or two of the email landing, Cyclingnews received a phone call from someone who gave a similar version of events. It could have been the same person who sent the email, but they denied that was the case. This telephone source would not confirm their identity but repeatedly used "we" when referring to Aqua Blue. They promised to call back for a second time on Tuesday evening but the call was never made.
While this battle went on, Delaney looked to stabilise his squad for 2019. Sniper Cycling, the company behind the Veranda's Willems-Crelan team, reportedly entered into negotiations with Delaney and Aqua Blue's new CEO, Tom Timmerman.
On August 1, Aqua Blue announced on their website that a deal to acquire Sniper Cycling and its assets had been agreed. However, within hours Sniper had put out a damning rebuttal, and Aqua Blue's statement was promptly taken down.
Cyclingnews understands from several sources, both within and outside of Aqua Blue, that Delaney's deal with Sniper Cycling was not agreed or discussed with everyone at Sniper Cycling, and their star rider Wout van Aert was completely in the dark about the deal. His agent today told Cyclingnews that he had never once talked to either Delaney or Timmerman. What's more, van Aert has signed for LottoNL-Jumbo from 2020 onwards.
With Sniper denying the deal, Aqua Blue retreated, but, later in August, Delaney surfaced to tell Cyclingnews that "the master plan" would be revealed in a couple of days.
According to Aqua Blue's statements since then, Delaney and Timmerman desperately tried to get the deal with Sniper over the line but the Belgian outfit kept moving the goal posts on the deal and, in the end, the Irish team backed away. Sniper's management would not comment when approached by Cyclingnews.
The anonymous source who emailed Cyclingnews wrote: "The deal was being made in order to, firstly, increase the strength of the team with riders such as WVA [Wout van Aert - Ed.] coming across, but also to use the Sniper Cycling paying agent going forward and all contracts associated with it. This would remove the ABS [Aqua Blue Sport - Ed.] paying agent from the sport, and all contracts including the 3T contract would have been voided. This would allow the contract to be terminated.
"As it turns out, Sniper delayed over and over, and when ABS made the announcement it turns out the Sniper staff had never heard about this, including the riders. As it turns out, seemingly enough WVA who all their contracts are linked into are dependent on WVA riding next year, which ABS has been told he is refusing to do. This leads us to believe that we were always second fiddle, and ultimately a backup plan to what now looks like a merger with Roompot and Sniper."
Cyclingnews approached a source who has ties to the team, and who confirmed this part of the story.
"Aqua Blue thought that the deal with Sniper was a done deal," the source told Cyclingnews. "When they released that statement I think that Wout van Aert and their agent realized that they were going to be asked to sign a new contract but that would mean he could also join other teams. At the same time, the guys at Sniper made things unworkable. Rick then asked his riders to respect his privacy and that things were taking a toll on him."
The van Aert situation appears to be crucial and the most significant reason for Aqua Blue's demise. If Delaney could sign the young rider he would have boosted his team's wildcard chances exponentially, while at the same time securing greater financial security with Sniper's paying agent. However, technically, van Aert being offered new paperwork may have released him from Sniper's control and meant he would be free to join any rival team.
When that deal fell through, everything changed. Our source from within the team confirms this version of events.
"Seven days ago we had a Skype call with the CEO. It seemed like there would be a merger and we were told that we'd know it was happening in a day or two. That was literally a week ago. I think Tom, though, and this is just looking back, he came in a month ago and I think he was there to liquidate the team. And without a big rider coming on, I don't think that Rick wanted another average year. He wanted a marquee rider. He could see how much of a challenge next year would have been and how far away a Tour de France was. This was just the easiest door for him to jump through. I think he was just sick of haemorrhaging money."
And so, on Monday, the riders and staff were notified that the team would fold. Worse was to come when on that very evening the team retreated from an initial pledge of making the Tour of Britain their final race. According to the aforementioned email, this was due to financial restrictions and the threat of legal action from 3T if riders raced at the Tour of Britain on different bikes.
"They gave three options," the emailer wrote. "1) try to break the contract and continue to fight in an arena which 3T know best and they will freeze the bank guarantee and sue for damages, 2) to fulfil the contractual obligations for a further 2 and a half years, or 3) to write a press release saying there was [sic] no issues with the bike and we have decided to part ways, which would leave ABS without any bikes at all."
Cyclingnews contacted 3T directly, with the head of design Gerard Vroomen denying that legal action had been threatened.
"That's not true," he said before the three 'options' were put to him. "That doesn't sound at all like what happened. We told them we wanted to know what the plan was for next year. If you have two teams with contracts with bike sponsors, then one of those contracts needs to be resolved. If you can do that amicably then that's for the best. No one is looking for a legal mess. Neither us nor Stevens. In the bike industry, we tend to be quite collegial.
"At no point have we blocked any opportunity for them to grow the team. We first heard about the merger when they announced it. We probably read it on your site. We asked them what was going on, and they said they couldn't say, and that in a couple of days there'd be more news. As we understood it, if they were to do a merger that would mean they would be growing. We're a small company, and we were only interested in small-scale sponsorship. It was never a problem for us, but we never heard what the idea was. We were not blocking anything – we had no idea what was going on."
The situation relating to 3T remains unclear, and Delaney would not respond when Cyclingnews informed him that 3T had denied the claims of legal action.
One source has criticised Aqua Blue's handling of the situation, saying: "The way Aqua Blue have positioned it, they've tried to make it out that this is all 3T's fault and that there were huge court cases coming Aqua Blue's way. At the end of the day, though, 3T are a bike company and I find it hard to believe that they were being that hot and heavy about a potential break in a contract. Aqua Blue are amplifying this. Rick's ego took a bashing, and he can put 3T in front of it, but recently he had the chance to take Wout van Aert. He thought that could work for another 12 months but it wasn't workable."
However, within the team, there is a genuine sense that the constant troubles with 3T and the possibility of legal action were the last straw.
"The bike scenario with 3T was the last nail in the coffin," said our source. "It was just a crescendo. There was this slow build-up of frustration at a lack of results. Literally, a week ago we were talking about signing a big rider. Some of the riders, though, were hating the bikes and wanted to ride other bikes at the Tour of Britain. We thought, 'Fuck it – let's do it and keep everyone happy,' but three days later the team has folded. 3T, and this is what the management told me, would take severe action if we turned up on other bikes. That was the final nail in the coffin."
Whatever the truth – and there is certainly more to come from this saga – cycling has lost another Pro Continental team in 2018, and 16 riders and several members of staff find themselves without work for next year. There are no winners and no one to pick up the pieces. Rick Delaney has left the group.