ONE Pro Cycling will drop to Continental level for the 2017 season due to a shortfall in its budget after Factor Bikes ended its commitment to the team in October, but owner Matt Prior has vowed that his squad retains its long-term ambition to compete at WorldTour level in the future.
Although ONE Pro Cycling has since secured a three-year deal with a yet-to-be-announced bike partner, the team's decision to withdraw its application to renew its Pro Continental licence had already been taken. ONE Pro Cycling will instead return to Continental level, where it spent its debut season in 2015. In mid-October, Factor announced that it will provide bikes to WorldTour outfit AG2R La Mondiale in 2017.
"We were dealt a hand and we're doing the best with that hand," Prior told Cyclingnews on Wednesday. "Unfortunately, our bike partner pulled out in October. That moved the goalposts and left a shortfall in our budget.
"That left us a month to cover that shortfall through another sponsor or another lead partner. That's not happened so we've had to make the decision to move to Continental level. If we're going to do anything, we want to do it properly."
Although marquee signing Matt Goss had a low-key campaign and retired at season's end, ONE Pro Cycling recorded 13 victories in 2016, most notably Martin Mortensen's triumph at Tro-Bro Léon in April and Steele Von Hoff’s win on the opening stage of the Tour of Norway the following month. In October, the team was listed among the applicants for a Pro Continental licence for 2017, only to be forced into a hasty revision its plans.
"I think a number of other teams would have folded at this point but that's not what we want to do. Our ambitions, our goals and our drive remain the same as they were when we started this project. We want to get to the top level, we want to get to the WorldTour," Prior said. "We've had something happen that was out of our control, and what we have to do now is react to it and make the best decisions we can to put ourselves in a strong position and go again.
"I know a lot of people will look at this as a step back and of course it's not the direction we wanted, but it's the direction we have to go for now. But we're not going to be a Conti team for the rest of our lives. The ambition is to go straight back up in 2018."
ONE Pro Cycling's response to Factor's withdrawal has been to cut its cloth accordingly for 2017, an approach that contrasts with that of another British team from the past with similarly lofty goals. In 2001, the doomed Linda McCartney refused to temper its ambition despite a large shortfall in its budget, and the team collapsed on the eve of the season. For the former England cricketer Prior, the decision to revert to Continental status was a difficult one, but ultimately unavoidable.
"Of course, the move to Continental level was a tough decision, but I've always said that we have to run this as a business. We want to be sustainable. We don't just want to be here for a year or two and then go away," Prior said.
"There was a clear decision to make, and it was actually the harder one. The easier one would have been just to pile on through and hope we got lucky. I wasn't willing to take that risk. As hard as it is today, we will come through this and be stronger for it."
ONE Pro Cycling carried 20 riders this season, but Prior confirmed that the 2017 roster will inevitably be smaller. As of mid-November, 14 riders had committed to the team for next year, roughly in line with the 13 riders on the roster during the 2015 campaign, when it last raced at Continental level.
"It will definitely be a smaller team. You can't get away from that. It's too early to say what that will look like, because it's all happened very quickly and we need to make sure we get this right," Prior said. "The hardest thing about this is the riders. I have the utmost respect for every professional sportsman. We've worked tirelessly to work something out."
ONE Pro Cycling's race schedule in 2016 included a WorldTour debut at the Tour de Pologne, as well as invitations to HC events such as the Vuelta a Burgos, Tour of Luxembourg and Tour of Denmark. It is expected that the programme will feature more domestic racing in 2017, though Prior's horizons have not been narrowed by the team's new circumstances.
"If it is at all possible, I'd love to keep a more global race programme, but we have to assess where we're at, and respect the level we're at. We'll also have to speak to British Cycling and make sure we're ticking the necessary boxes for them," Prior said. "Whatever the level may be, the important thing is that we do it right and we do it with respect."