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Larry Warbasse takes VeloNews’s call in late October after an overnight flight from Michigan to Nice, France. He was going the wrong way. Instead of spending the autumn in the States like he usually does, he was back in Europe in late October to brush up on French with an intense month-long immersion course. Why? Because he wants to jump right in with his new teammates at Ag2r La Mondiale next season.
“It just so happens that one of the best French courses in the world is right around the corner from my house in Nice,” Warbasse said. “So it’s back to school for a month.”
It’s been a wild few months for Warbasse and he’s keen to get the next chapter of his professional career started.
In the matter of a few short and intense weeks, the 28-year-old went from signing a two-year contract extension only to see it evaporate when Aqua Blue unexpectedly pulled the plug. Within days he was back in the WorldTour when he penned a deal to join the French outfit. And there was his famous “No-Go Tour” in between.
“It’s been a crazy few months,” he said with a laugh. “The team’s collapse was completely unexpected. No one saw it coming.”
Warbasse couldn’t believe his luck, both good and bad. The 2017 American national champion was flying high this summer. He had just signed a two-year contract extension with Aqua Blue and was preparing for the Tour of Britain. And in whiplash speed, he was back on the market in mid-September at the worst possible time.
“No one had an inkling the team was going to fold,” Warbasse said. “We had had coffee with the team owner just a few days before. Everything seemed good.”
Warbasse knew how this story could end. In 2016, he was in a similar situation when his IAM Cycling team also shuttered at the end of the season. This time it was more sudden. Not wanting to leave anything to chance, he immediately started working the phones. A timely message to Tour de France star Romain Bardet proved decisive. It helps to have friends in the peloton.
“It was crunch time and I went straight to several teams. I know Romain and I asked him if the team needed a climber and helper,” he said. “Romain put me in touch with Vincent [Lavenu, Ag2r director] and things moved pretty fast.”
With the crushing news of the team’s closure, Warbasse and his Aqua Blue teammates were distraught. Everyone was scrambling to try to find a job. With several other European and North American teams folding, the job market is saturated with desperate riders looking for a contract.
Warbasse is one of the lucky ones. Only five other Aqua Blue riders have landed jobs for 2019. At least eight others are still searching.
The whirlwind all started in late August. Warbasse was about to go a training ride ahead of the Tour of Britain when his phone suddenly lit up. One of his teammates sent a message that read, “WTF?” Another called and said urgently to check your email. There it was. Owner Rick Delaney was pulling the plug after two years with the team, effective immediately. After missing out on racing a grand tour in 2018, the Tour of Britain was going to be the team’s big chance to shine. And even that was abruptly taken away.
“I almost died,” he said. “I pulled off the side of the road and read that email. I think it broke on Twitter 10 minutes later. It happened out of the blue. One of our coaches was just in town and we were making plans for next season. No one knew it was coming.”
And from that disappointment and frustration was born the “No-Go Tour,” a plan that was hatched in the gloom and doom in the days after Aqua Blue shuttered. Warbasse and teammate Conor Dunne were wondering what the hell they were going to do. The pair had already been playing with the idea of trying to do some sort of fun off-season adventure ride — under the assumption that they were both riding for Aqua Blue next year — but suddenly they were both unemployed.
“It was two days after the team folded, and we said, ‘What are we going to do?’” Warbasse recounted. “We were already throwing some ideas about doing a big adventure and now we thought, well, I guess we can do that ride now! So why not just do it? Now we have the time.”
Both were race fit so they hatched a plan: to ride each day as long as they would have raced in the eight-day Tour of Britain had they gone as expected. Once they committed to it, they quickly assembled a few bike bags, packed up some light gear and hit the road. They pedaled on roads they’ve never been on and some they knew well in the mountains north of Nice.
They also wanted to add an element on social media so they wouldn’t just disappear from the radar — “Disappearing as a rider is the worst thing you can do” — so Warbasse came up with the “No-Go Tour” (it rhymed with the Tour of Britain sponsor OVO) and it stuck. Thanks to Instagram, blogs on Rouleur and posts on Twitter, their impromptu bike tour quickly gained traction.
“It was all on a whim and we didn’t even decide where to go until the first day. And every day after that we would just look at the map and try to find some roads with the right distance,” he said. “We took some random roads and ended up some of the coolest climbs we’ve ever done. It was just free-form. Before we knew it, it just blew up on social media.”
Turning a negative into a positive
Warbasse and Dunne were trying to make the best of a bad situation. The pair rode their bikes, bunked in local inns and soaked in the freedom of riding their bike for fun. It’s something mundane and normal for every-day cyclists, but for a pair of elite professionals, it was freedom like they haven’t experienced in years.
Warbasse said he realized how big their adventure was getting on social media when they were riding up the Col du Lautaret in the French Alps.
“We asked some random people to take a picture of us, and it was a guy with his dad, and they said, ‘Hey, we’ve been following your ride on social media! More people started to recognize us. One Italian cyclist saw us and said, ‘I read about you in a newspaper in Rome. You guys are famous!’” It just went crazy. It was way bigger than we expected.”
During their “No-Go Tour” adventure, Warbasse’s agent was putting the finishing details on the Ag2r deal. It was almost ready to sign when Warbasse and Dunne pedaled past the team’s headquarters near the French Alps. Eventually, he traveled back to Chambery a few days later and sealed the deal on his future.
“We wanted to turn something negative into a positive,” he said. “It was a really big adventure.”
Warbasse’s wild ride across the Alps came a few weeks ahead of a similar trek by Lotto-Soudal pros Thomas De Gendt and Tim Wellens, who pedaled home over the course of a week from the Il Lombardia to Belgian. Warbasse had a laugh because De Gendt and Wellens had actually been planning their trip for months but everyone thinks that they copied Warbasse and Dunne.
For Warbasse, landing at Ag2r La Mondiale puts him back in the WorldTour after racing two seasons with second-tier Aqua Blue.
“I’m very excited to be joining Ag2r,” he said. “I am going to be a fresh-faced newbie. We haven’t spoken about calendar or anything, but I will go anywhere the team wants me to. I am going to take it with both hands and run with it.”
Warbasse, who came up with BMC Racing and joined IAM Cycling before Aqua Blue, will be the team’s first American rider in franchise history.
“It’s been a few intense months,” Warbasse said. “I hope things work out for the other guys. It’s a hard time to be looking for a job right now. I am super excited about next year.”
Warbasse will link up with his new teammates for a team-building camp in the French Alps in late November and then hit the first riding camp in Spain in December. First come those French lessons. Life in the pro peloton is never boring. After what he’s been through, perhaps Warbasse might be wishing for a little bit of predictability.