Larry Warbasse turns up to our interview with a black eye and four stitches in his lip. It's the second day of AG2R La Mondiale's first pre-season get-together in the French Alps, and the American is still feeling the effects of a cross-country skiing crash the previous day.
"It was pretty funny," he admits. "Although it's not so funny now that I'm going to look like this in the team photos. Ah, man."
The incident has become a topic of much amusement amongst his new companions, and evidently something of an ice-breaker for the American in this mostly French environment.
"I think it was the ice that broke me," he quips.
Warbasse is in high spirits and has every reason to be. Despite falling on his face, he has landed on his feet at AG2R, back in the WorldTour and able to look to the future with optimism. The sinking despair and acute panic that accompanied news of the collapse of his old team, Aqua Blue, seem a distant memory. Or perhaps some of the current exuberance comes from having so recently stared unemployment in the face.
It's a situation that's sadly all-too-common in professional cycling. Warbasse's story has a happy ending, but it won't be the same for everyone. One of Warbasse's Aqua Blue teammates, Calvin Watson, has already decided to call time on his pro cycling career at the age of 25, and others still haven't found a ride for 2019.
Warbasse, a former WorldTour rider at BMC and IAM, and a stage winner at the 2017 Tour de Suisse, perhaps always stood a better chance than most of his colleagues, but it was still a frenzied effort in the entrepreneurial initiative.
"I was riding down the road one day, and I was actually meeting [Philippe] Gilbert for a ride, and as I'm on my way my phone buzzes," Warbasse explains.
"I pick it up and it's [teammate] Stefan Denifl and it just says, 'WTF.' I didn't want to text while riding so I replied with a question mark, and it comes back: 'Team's ended mate, check your email.' I literally just… It was like my stomach dropped. I pulled over to the side of the road, read the email, and went, 'Oh my god… What am I going to do?'
"Honestly, I pulled off the side of the road, and I just started sending emails. I've had difficulties finding teams before, so I have contacts. I have an agent [Andrew McQuaid -ed], but I knew he'd be super busy – I think he represents Geraint Thomas and a lot of guys on my team – so I just said, 'OK, I need to send out a few of these messages while I can.' I think teams respect it if you contact them personally – at least that's my feeling. So I pull over to side of the road and I just start emailing people.
"Then Gilbert comes and he goes, 'Are you OK?' And I was, like, 'Not really – my team just ended.' And he was, like, 'Holy shit. I could see from far away that something was wrong because you did not look good.' The whole time, all I could think about was, 'What the hell am I gonna do?' I couldn't talk, I couldn't think. The whole ride I was just, like, 'I really need to get home and start working on this.' So I just got home, and I emailed every contact at every team I had. I made a list, and I started emailing and checking off the list, emailing and checking off the list. I just knew the more emails you send out, the better chance you have."
Before the news of Aqua Blue's demise, Warbasse had been the subject of interest from other teams throughout the year, and indeed since the second half of the 2017 season.
His success that year – and his optimism in the Aqua Blue project – had, in fact, led him to renegotiate the second year of his contract (2018) and sign up for an extra two years, essentially keeping him at the team until the end of 2020. So, when these teams got in touch, he would express his gratitude but tell them he was already sorted for next year. Those teams were the first on his email flurry from the Nice roadside, but the tables had turned, and this time it was them expressing their gratitude but telling him that they were already sorted for next year.
The galling thing was that he had turned down a more serious approach from a WorldTour team, who had come in with a proper offer and intentions of buying him out of the remainder of his contract.
"I said, 'No, Aqua Blue has had faith in me. I want to respect this contract because I'm really appreciative of what they did, and, even if I could get more money, I want to keep the good faith with this team and keep my word.'"
As he wonders whether he'll receive his salary for the final couple of months of 2018, the uncomfortable irony is not lost. "Then this happens and it's just, like, 'Wow…' That was a big kick in the ass."
AG2R and the Bardet factor
AG2R La Mondiale weren't among the teams who received an email from Warbasse in the hours following the Aqua Blue news. He didn't have a contact there but did have an acquaintance with their leader, Romain Bardet, having raced with the Frenchman at under-23 level and kept in touch from time to time ever since.
"I just sent him a message on Twitter saying, 'Hey man. I'm guessing you saw what happened with my team. I don't know if your team have any places for next year or are looking for climbers but, if they, are could you maybe pass on [team manager] Vincent Lavenu's email address?'
"He was, like, 'Ah, sorry to hear that Larry. Let me speak with Lavenu and I'll let you know.'
"Then, and this was, like, the next day, he says, 'Can I have your phone number? Lavenu wants to talk.'"
From there, "It all happened very quickly," Lavenu tells Cyclingnews, recalling how Warbasse had first caught his eye with his Suisse stage win. "The way he'd got into the break, then held off the peloton, even his pedalling style – I thought, 'That's a very nice rider there.'"
Lavenu was looking for a climber able to act as a reliable and versatile domestique, but another factor was his nationality. Warbasse will be one of only eight non-French riders on the 28-strong roster. He becomes the first American rider – and just the sixth native English speaker – in the 20-year history of the team.
"We'd been looking for an anglo-saxon rider for the past few years, because we want to open up a little," Lavenu explains. "We're a French-registered team, but we're not a purely French team – we want to be an international team. Often there's the impression that Americans, Australians and Englishmen look at us and think, 'No, that's a French team – I don't want to be there. It's too French, and no one speaks English.' We're fighting against that. It's a shame because, although I know I don't speak English, pretty much all the riders do, and the anglo riders who have come here have felt comfortable. So we need to break down that perception, and I think Larry can help us do that."
Lavenu made contact with McQuaid at the start of September and talks progressed quickly and seamlessly. With Warbasse hardly in the strongest bargaining position, there were few hiccups. Lavenu had space on the team and, given Warbasse's situation, didn't have to fork out over the odds and was able to offer a relatively risk-free one-year deal.
He'd be getting a rider who'd started his career in the WorldTour and had since proven his ability at that level even when on a Pro Conti team, and someone who came with only positive reviews. "When I told people we were in contact with Larry, I immediately had good feedback. I spoke to Romain about it, and he had a high opinion of Larry and a good feeling about it."
Warbasse's fate was now effectively out of his hands as the details were ironed out. Luckily he had other plans. The next day he set off with teammate Conor Dunne for what they dubbed the 'No Go Tour' – a replacement of sorts for the Tour of Britain, which had been pulled from under them when Aqua Blue quit the sport with immediate effect. An eight-day bike-touring adventure in the Alps, it was designed to get them away from their phones and concerns and reconnect them with their passion for cycling. It did just that, and just so happened to capture the imagination of the wider public in a way they never expected.
While the AG2R contract was in the works the whole time, Warbasse insists the spirit of the trip – two guys who'd been cut loose channelling their misfortune into something positive – remained intact.
"This was happening, but I didn't really know what was happening. It wasn't like all of a sudden I had an offer. It wasn't like it had been sent in the mail. I wouldn't say I necessarily felt confident that it was going to work out just because I'd been burned before," he says.
"The one thing I've learned in cycling is you never believe anything until it's signed on the dotted line. And what I've now learned is that you can't believe anything even if it is signed on the dotted line."
While reluctant to get ahead of himself, Warbasse allowed himself to daydream about dropping by AG2R’s headquarters on the outskirts of Chambéry during the No Go Tour. They were only a stone's throw away by Lake Annecy one night. However, the deal was finalised just after Warbasse and Dunne arrived back in Nice on September 9. He had to make a separate trip from Nice to Chambéry to sign the contract on September 13, but that could hardly be considered an inconvenience.
Blessing in disguise
Even before the collapse of Aqua Blue, Warbasse had cold feet. After the many highs of their debut season in 2017, they failed to secure invites to the top races in 2018 and Warbasse, short of motivation when he looked at his programme, began to feel "stuck" with his three-year contract.
Now back at the top level – at a team with a Tour de France contender in Bardet – the motivation is back. He will slot into a domestique role, with a ride at the Giro d'Italia a possibility, and feels his past experiences stand him in good stead.
"When I was on BMC, I spent two years learning the job of working for a leader, but as a neo-pro got lost a bit when I first moved to Europe. Then I went to IAM, and we didn't have any super-big leaders, so I had to sort of re-learn how to race, which was going for breakaways and stuff like that. Then I switched again to Aqua Blue, and the cool thing was I finally learned how to really race – I got really good at making the right breakaways and I honed my race craft.
"I learned one piece in my first team, one piece in my second team, and another piece in my third team, and now I'd like to put them all together. If I put all the pieces together, I think I can be a well-rounded, excellent helper at this team."
As for Aqua Blue, his feelings are conflicted. With unpaid wages, lawsuits, and internal wrangling all part of a messy fall-out, the mere mention of the team seems to send a shiver down his spine.
"It’s just exhaustion. It went on for so long. Every day there was some new story, and it cracked me," he says. "It sucked so much that it just left this really bad taste in my mouth, which I prefer to try not to think about it. I hope we get paid for the rest of the year, but at this point I'm so tired of all the bullshit, I just hope it's a story I can forget in the future."
That said – and here comes the confliction – what has happened since makes it hard to harbour any real regrets. He describes the No Go Tour as one of the best experiences of his life, and another one was just around the corner – an intensive French course in October that left his jaw aching, and not from the French. "I haven't laughed that much in a long time – maybe ever. I just had this amazing month, and it really gave me the foundation to grow from there."
As such, he now sees the whole episode as "one of the best things that could have happened to me". A blessing in disguise, it has provided the fresh impetus in his career and life that he never knew he needed.
"I come here with something to prove," he says. "I just feel like I have a lot more to give in this sport that I haven’t been able to get out yet, and I'm really excited to be here and to have that chance."
The next day Warbasse steps into the cable car and heads up for another day on the mountain with his new teammates. This time he walks past the skis and picks up a pair of snowshoes for the rather more sensible option of a one-hour walk. His ego might have taken a knock, but the bruising on his temple can't mask the glint in his eye, the stitches in his lip can't stifle the smile on his face, and the slight ache in his leg can't suppress the spring in his step.