The Drops Cycling Team made their racing debut this year with the ambition of being one of the top amateur teams in the elite ranks. The 2016 season exceeded their expectations with rides at the Tour of Flanders, the Women's Tour and the Tour of California as well as several other WorldTour races.
They ended the season 33rd in the UCI's rankings, having started plum last with zero points as a new entrant. With a year of experience under their belt, team manager Bob Varney is looking for more from his relatively young squad and hopes to climb the rankings in the process.
"We're ambitious, I've said that every time we get interviewed, and I think that we've demonstrated that," Varney tells Cyclingnews. "We've invested in three international riders, which I think are going to bring a lot of experience. That's going to be really important for the development of the girls. We want to be in the top 20 in the world, and we want to be in more WorldTour races. We want to be getting into a few breaks, we want to have our faces shown a bit more and be more aggressive."
Varney has been busy this winter, and from being almost entirely British in 2016, he has added Belgian Ann-Sophie Duyck, Italian Susanna Zorzi and former Austrian national champion Martina Ritter. The 19-year-old Abby-Mae Parkinson also joins the team, as does Isle of Man rider Anna Christian.
The team's calendar is beginning to take shape, and they have already secured a start at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. They are also expecting to race at the Tour of California again, while starts at the major British races, the Tour de Yorkshire, Women's Tour and RideLondon Classique are all likely. Chrono des Nations winner Duyck will be key for one of the team's big targets, the team time trial at the World Championships in Bergen, Norway.
It will be the team's first appearance at the World Championships, and Duyck explains that the team is yet to put a number on their ambitions. "I think the aim for next year will be to have a good team that performs well," she says. "We don't have to put the pressure on our shoulders and say that next year at the World Championships we want to be on the podium. Team time trialling needs expertise and experience but also we are also lucky that we are supported by Trek, which is one of the high-level brands.
"We have to do the best we can and then we will see the result. We don't have to say we are aiming for a target, but we have not made that target yet."
Wages and improvements for women's cycling
Another big step for the team will be the introduction of proper wages for the riders, which had been a goal of Varney's from the outset. He admits that it is not yet a full living wage but it will still be significant compared to many other UCI ranked squads, and it is a small step in the right direction.
"It won't be a truly sustainable liveable salary that you could truly call yourself a professional, in my opinion, probably a semi-pro. The reality is, the salary that we are proposing to pay the riders from January is a good salary within women's cycling. [It's about] little steps, keep positive and keep building and we've been a little part of that in 2016 then we can be really happy."
Drops came into the sport as it continues on its upward trajectory with the advent of the Women's WorldTour and an increasing number of races. Next year will see longer races and a larger calendar, which includes a full Ardennes week and a 153km Tour of Flanders that goes up the Muur van Geraardsbergen.
"I think that there has been a huge amount of progress this year and I'm sure that it will grow next year. It will be interesting, the Amstel Gold and the Liege-Bastogne-Liege, how difficult the parcours and the length of the parcours will be," says Varney. "Races like the Tour of Flanders gives the riders a chance to gain the respect of the traditional audience, which they certainly do in Flanders. It's traditional racing, and I think that is really important for women's cycling because I think that it gives that respect as athletes in their own race, which you don't get at some other races."
It's not all good next season, and Varney was left disappointed by the changes made by ASO to La Course. There had been rumours of a stage race in the offing for 2017 but, in the end, it remained at a single day. It moved into the mountains with a ride up the Col d'Izoard, which will also host stage 18 of the women's race, but it will just be 67 kilometres.
"The reality is that the female riders that enter the Etape du Tour the week before get to ride the whole distance, which seems a bit bonkers to me," he says. "I have no idea because they really have no excuses. They had the power to make a difference, and they didn't. It's as simple as that. It could have easily been a three-day stage race, up the Col d'Izoard, a stage between there and Paris and a Kermesse in Paris. There were so many people to that news breaking that everybody was disappointed."