José Gerardo Ulloa Arévalo made history on Wednesday in Nové Město, Czech Republic, by becoming the first Mexican to win a cross-country World Cup MTB race.
Ulloa, 23, won the opening short track event of the season, held 29 years after the first World Cup season back in 1991. The victory catapulted Ulloa and his AR Pro Cycling team to the center of the world stage. The win was thrilling and welcomed news for the future of cycling in Mexico.
“I dedicate this win to all of Mexico so that they see that by working, one can achieve what is proposed,” Ulloa said after his win. “You just have to work hard and believe in yourself.”
AR Pro Cycling team is the brainchild of brothers Alejandro and Luis Ramses Rodriguez. Both were cycling enthusiasts with a dream of launching a program that could compete against the best in the world. In order to do that, the brothers understood they needed to move overseas.
“We went to Europe to study their secret,” Luis Ramses Rodriguez said speaking to VeloNews direct from Nové Město.
These days the brothers run their program out of the Czech Republic, and the program focuses primarily on cross-country mountain bike racing. Deciding to settle in the region came after some time, Luis Ramses Rodriguez said.
“We went to France first, then the UK, Spain, and Andorra before we ended up in the Czech Republic. We launched the program in the Mexican embassy in Prague on April 10, 2015. We started with cross-country in mountain biking, which is what we love.”
The program’s goal was to qualify a rider for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. While the program has yet to accomplish this goal yet, the brothers have a budding star with Ulloa.
“We found Ulloa had won the Youth Olympic Games in China in 2014,” Rodriguez said. “It was only an idea, but back then we didn’t have enough money.”
Mexican professional teams and development programs have struggled to find success on the world stage. The last Mexican rider to have won major road races in Europe was Raul Alcalá nearly 30 years ago. Mexican riders’ struggles with the national cycling federation and lack of anti-doping programs are well known, as documented by this publication over recent years.
The Rodriguez brothers understood they would face a challenge in Mexico but believed in their idea. And central to the program’s focus was operating outside of Mexico.
“I think the reason we are working well with our sponsors and other companies, is because we don’t have our team in Mexico,” Luis Ramses Rodriguez said. “We started with one sponsor and a budget of almost €4,000 (US$4,685) per month.”
The program eventually caught the eyes of officials in Mexico, and the team secured some funding from Mexico’s National Commission for Physical Culture and Sport (CONADE). The team eventually grew to support eight mountain bike riders. For the 2015-2018 seasons, the team traveled around Europe gaining experience at the races, and further developing the program.
In 2018, the CONADE administration ended its term in office, which meant a loss of funding for both AR Pro Cycling and the women’s pro road team Conade-Visit Mexico. The change left the brothers scrambling to find the financial support to continue the program.
Their research found a tax stimulus in Mexico called the Estímulo Fiscal para el Deporte, a little-known avenue for funds in the sports community. The federal government incentivizes private companies to sponsor high-performance sport programs or the funding of a sports facility. The program has a cap of 20 million Mexican pesos a year per award (approximately US$1 million), given by one or a group of companies.
The approval process is lengthy and requires months of preparation and money for applicants to put together their proposals. They must include a recommendation by the Mexican Olympic Committee, CONADE, and the approval or denial is decided by the tax governing body of Mexico, Servicio de Administración Tributaria (SAT). Total funds awarded each year is 240 million pesos or about US$12 million. The team was awarded the max funding from a group of 15 companies through 2021.
“We’ve won $1 million U.S. dollars, but we have to apply every year,” Rodriguez said. “We tried to tell the Mexican cycling community that in order to become the best, we have to race against the best all the time. So they know our base for the season is in Europe.”
Thanks to the new funding, the team was able to expand the program to road cycling programs as well, though it requires every rider to compete in both disciplines. Since 2019, AR Pro Cycling riders have begun their pre-season training in Valle de Bravo, just outside Mexico City, before making the trek overseas for the remainder of the season.
“Thanks to Efideporte, we have a multi-disciplinary team staff that includes a sports psychologist, nutritionist, physiotherapists, doctors and all the necessary coaches,” Rodriguez said. “We needed to start with junior riders in Mexico; we cannot hire elite riders because they’re not good to compete in Europe.”
Once a selection of riders is made in Mexico, the team sends them power meters, and connects them with a team coach through TrainingPeaks. If the rider maintains their training and watts per kilo they move to the next step in their development.
“We see how discipline they are from a distance first, and from there we know who really wants to become a pro cyclist,” Rodriguez said. “Then, we bring them to the base in Valle de Bravo to meet with the rest of the staff. 2020 was the first year we brought the juniors to Andorra, but then [COVID-19] hit.”
After the suspension of the season, the team returned to Mexico. They were able to compete at the Mexican national road and time trial championships in September. Gerardo Ulloa finished second in the elite road race, before arriving in Nove Mesto for the UCI mountain biking World Cup.
“Our sponsors like mountain biking, but they love road. We will be launching a U23 continental team for 2021 in January,” Rodriguez said. “We have a 7-year plan, with additional funding from the same 15 companies we have through Efideporte. Two years as continental, four years as Pro-Continental, and hopefully achieving the first Mexican WorldTour team in the final year.”
The World Cup win was the first big result in Europe for the team, and a strong start after such a difficult and unprecedented year. Ulloa is currently in discussions with a major European mountain bike team for 2021, though Rodriguez declined to confirm which team.
“The short track win was the product of many years of hard work by everyone around me – my family, the government, and my team,” Ulloa told VeloNews. “The support from all of them has been crucial. My focus now is on the Olympic games. Depending on my results, I will see what plan I have for the future whether in mountain or road.”