When EF Education First revealed that it would go into the 2019 season with an additional, 'alternative' racing programme, which would include the Dirty Kanza and the Leadville 100, it certainly got people's attention in a cycling universe where gravel bikes – and gravel adventure racing – have seized so many riders' imagination.
A year after introducing their alternative race programme – in addition to the their 'normal' road programme, which saw them win the Tour of Flanders thanks to Alberto Bettiol – EF Education First have announced that they'll be doing more of the same in 2020, which the team's riders appear to be very happy about.
"I honestly think it went better than we ever imagined it would," said the team's US road race champion Alex Howes in a press release, "and a lot of that was due to our partners and EF doing an awesome job promoting the whole thing.
"But we also got a little lucky. I mean, it's pretty damn hard to win a bike race, and straight after Kanza, I won Nationals, and straight after Leadville, Lachlan Morton won a stage of the Tour of Utah, which reconfirmed that we are still both top-level WorldTour road racers, and not just a sideshow act."
Australian rider Morton arguably became the team's poster boy for the team's new approach, riding the Dirty Kanza, Leadville, the GBDuro – a 2,000km, mainly off-road race the length of Great Britain, from Land's End in England to John O'Groats in Scotland – and the Three Peaks cyclo-cross race, also in the UK. Those events came on top of his road programme, which in 2019 include the Tour Down Under, the Tour of California and the Tour of Utah, where he took his stage win at Park City.
"I always knew we were going to have fun doing the alternative programme – like, that wasn't really a question," said Morton. "But I really hoped that a lot of people would get behind it, and in my head I thought cycling was looking for that different narrative at that top level, and so to see that transpire… Yeah, I guess it was surprising to see the level of people who connected with us when it was all about trying to have fun."
Doing things differently
For the team's manager and CEO, former pro Jonathan Vaughters, it's been a case of 'mission accomplished' – but EF Education First are perhaps only at the start of what this shift in mentality might yet become.
"The core culture of the team has always been to disrupt, right from its inception. It's what we've always been about; it was our founding principle," he said. "Different teams have different founding principles, but, on this team, from square one it was about doing things in a different way.
"We wanted to engage new audiences and new fans in an authentic and transparent way, whether it be through our stance on anti-doping or all the behind-the-scenes documentary content that we brought to people during 2019. The last 10 years have always been about living up to that founding principle and continuously doing so.
"For 2020, what I would like to see more than anything else is a continuation of the up-and-coming talents that we've brought onto the team, that they continue to move forward and step into the key positions on the team," said Vaughters.
'It's an honour to be a part of the team'
"It feels really special – an honour to be a part of the team," added former runner Michael Woods, whose achievements since joining the team in 2016 have included a stage win at the Vuelta a España in 2018 and victory at Italian one-day race Milano-Torino, as well as the bronze medal at the 2018 World Championships road race while representing Canada.
"I think that cycling is not going to be what it is now in 20 years – it's going to be completely different," he said. "In order for the sport to be relevant and popular, and appeal to the masses, it's going to have to change significantly, because I truly think the sport is going towards more open races, more alternative races, and to be on a team that embraces that is really special.
"I think in 20 years, when you look back, there'll be a few key teams who really effected change, and I think our team is going to be one of them," said Woods.