After losing their title sponsor last November, the 2018-2019 off-season was a difficult one by anyone's standards for the Drops team. Despite that, the team have now dusted themselves off and are preparing to start afresh at next month's Setmana Valenciana.
The British squad were getting ready to start preparations for their season debut at the Women's Tour Down Under but were forced to drop everything to save the team. It was another blow for Drops after previous title sponsor Trek pulled out earlier in the season to start their own women's squad. A crowdfunding campaign saw them raise just over £25,000, on top of some private donations and sponsorship deals, and helped secure their future for 2019.
With them throughout their travails have been new bike sponsor Cannondale, which penned a two-year deal with Drops at Eurobike last summer. The new bikes will be finished off by Fabric, FSA and Vision. Meanwhile, the Le Col clothing brand created by former British rider Yanto Barker replaces Sportful as their kit supplier. Met will provide custom-designed helmets.
To go with their new start, the team will have a new jersey next month, with a design that team manager Bob Varney calls a "radical evolution" on their previous look.
Things are looking up, but they've had to make some sacrifices over the past two months. However, the team are maintaining a positive outlook.
"We have a smaller budget this year, but we're still in the game and we're still able to produce a solid European programme," Varney told Cyclingnews.
"We're waiting to hear back on invites. We've got a few already confirmed from WorldTour races, but we're waiting to put the full programme together. We probably won't do as many days of racing as we have done in the last couple of years because we haven't got the budget that we've had, but we'll still be able to do a good, solid European programme."
Valencia is a certainty, the Trofeo Alfredo Binda at the end of March, Festival Elsy Jacobs in May and the Ladies Tour of Norway in August. Other races are on the cards such as Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and the Ovo Energy Women's Tour, though they are not a certainty just yet.
"I think we'll have quality over quantity and the girls will perhaps be targeting peak performance. Possibly, some of them got over-raced last year. There are always two sides to every coin," Varney said.
Last week, the team finalised their 2019 roster with rising track star Megan Barker. She joins her elder sister Elinor, who was announced as a new signing last month, and Eleanor Dickinson. Kiwi Grace Anderson - the only non-Brit - is the fourth and final new signing with Lizzie Holden, Manon Lloyd, Abby-Mae Parkinson, Hannah Payton, Lucy Shaw and Anna Christian returning to the fold.
Former Saxo Bank rider, Jonny Bellis is the team's new directeur sportif. There had been plans to have a larger roster, but they lost four riders during their financial travails, which has had an impact on their overall race programme.
"We're not going to be doing a double programme this year, I think that would stretch our resources quite thin," explained Varney.
"We’ll go to a single programme, with a 10-rider roster. If needs be, we can add a rider or two, but I think it will give them the right number of days and the added responsibility for some of the younger riders to have the opportunity to step up. We're quite thrilled by that."
Salaries and WorldTour ambitions
Since the inception of his team, Varney’s ambition has been to pay all of his riders a living wage. That is something he has been able to do previously, but the reduction in budget means they have had to take a step back. The decision was taken after a full consultation with the riders and Varney hopes that could change before the end of the season. However, he admits that he does not want to run a team without paying riders a proper salary next season.
"We are unable to pay our riders a living wage that we hoped to do, but they will get full expenses, full equipment and a good race programme," Varney explained.
"People know that we’re ambitious and we want to do it properly, and we’re disappointed that we haven't been able to do it. We’ve still got conversations going and we might be able to introduce more cash into the team and riders might be able to get a sustainable salary, but we wouldn’t want to do it in 2020."
Varney’s team, which he runs together with his son Tom, is not the only British outfit to suffer over the winter. The country's best-ranked women's team, Wiggle-High5, closed shop at the end of last season, while the proposed ONE Pro Cycling women’s team never materialised. With WNT-Rotor switching to a German licence and Storey Racing riding as a national outfit in 2019, Drops are the only British UCI-registered women's team this season.
The men's side has also taken a hit, with JLT Condor folding alongside ONE Pro Cycling. Varney believes that the uncertainty of Brexit has made life more challenging when hunting for new sponsors.
"We poo-pooed Brexit as an excuse last year but it certainly has proven to be something we’ve heard a lot from prospective sponsors not wanting to do anything because of Brexit," he said. "Hopefully, we’ll get Brexit out of the way and the world won’t end and then companies might start releasing their marketing budget a bit more. You can’t blame them, there is a lot of uncertainty."
With the team now up and running for 2019, they have a chance to catch their breath before building towards next year and hopefully finding the sponsors they need to run as a fully professional outfit once again. The new two-tiered system set to be introduced in 2020 will be a big step for women's cycling, and Varney hopes that the team can be among the top tier, but for now he’s happy that they’re still here.
"If you'd have asked me this question four or five months ago we would have been super-ambitious, and we’d be saying that we want to be there,” Varney told Cyclingnews. "We're just thrilled that we’ve survived, and we need to take a breather and establish. If we can get the right backing, I think we've got the right aspiration, but in the end, cash is king.
"I think women's sport is in a good place and women's cycling is in a good place. I think that it is important that the team survived to fight another day and hopefully we can eventually be a part of the higher echelons of the sport."