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Aqua Blue news dampens mood in pro peloton

News that Aqua Blue will fold has riders like George Bennett concerned that colleagues in the pro peloton might be out of a job next year

ALHAURIN DE LA TORRE, Spain (VN) — News that Aqua Blue is shuttering at the end of the season quickly made the rounds of the peloton on Monday.

The team’s surprise announcement Monday morning that it will close shop after two seasons means there are 16 riders and staff hitting the pavement to look for a job next season.

For riders competing at the Vuelta a España, a sense of camaraderie and dread was universally shared.

“I really have a lot of sympathy for the guys,” said LottoNL-Jumbo’s George Bennett. “It’s September and they don’t know if they’re coming back. You get an e-mail and suddenly they have no job.”

Any professional rider knows their future is hanging by a very thin line. Teams usually offer one-year and two-year deals. It’s rare for any rider to have longer than a three-year contract.

Sponsor deals can suddenly dry up. And even when there is a well-established exit date — such as with BMC Racing at the end of 2018 — it’s not easy to find backers to pony up millions of dollars a year to underwrite a professional team.

Riders and agents continually network to maintain a spot at the table. The high-stakes game of musical chairs is compounded when the news breaks late in the season, as it has for Aqua Blue. News that the team was struggling to stay afloat wasn’t a complete surprise, but anyone without a contract right now will face a few tense months.

“I’ve been in that position before,” Bennett said. “Some of the riders should pick up a team, but a lot of the guys probably won’t.”

Bennett recounted how at the end of 2014 he was stranded without a contract. He was squeezed out in the merger between the Italian-based Cannondale team and the Slipstream organization. When the two teams combined, there wasn’t enough room to keep Bennett.

“When these teams fold or when there is a merger, it’s hard,” he said. “I was on Liquigas and I got squeezed out. I was lucky to be able to find a contract but it wasn’t until September.”

The news came Monday after another flurry of new rider transfers in what’s been a very busy trading season. Ion and Gorka Izagirre are bound for Team Astana while Trek-Segafredo, which confirmed the arrival of Richie Porte last week, said it signed Colombian sensation Iván Sosa.

Bennett’s future is secure after penning a three-year contract to stay with LottoNL-Jumbo through 2021.

Those in the Vuelta are trying to keep their focus on the race. Just three days into the season’s final grand tour, riders are already feeling the effects of heat, wind and the accumulative fatigue of a long season.

“You wouldn’t say it’s been crazy fast, but it’s been hard enough,” Bennett said. “You’re seeing funny things happening to guys. Numerically you wouldn’t say it’s hard, but guys are getting dropped. The heat is taking its toll as well. It’s been windy and the roads here have this weird polish to them. Every day we day we head north, everyone gets a little bit happier.”