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Larry Warbasse steps down to step up

Larry Warbasse won't return to the WorldTour for 2017, but he's confident his new Irish team Aqua Blue will jump-start his career.

When every rider is on form and every race is hard as hell you can forget how good you are. You can forget how and why you got here. Sometimes you need a reminder.

That’s how Larry Warbasse sees his move to a Pro Continental contract with Irish upstart Aqua Blue, a team he hopes to help lead up to cycling’s upper echelon. After four years in the WorldTour, the last two with soon-defunct IAM cycling, Warbasse is taking a step down so that, hopefully, he can take a step up.

“I don’t know 100 percent what I’m capable of,” he said. “I’ve never really had a team fully behind me. In Poland I was seventh this year, but it wasn’t until queen stage that I had the support of the team. By that time we only had two of us left in the race. So I just don’t know.”

Warbasse hopes to take more leadership at Aqua Blue, where he will join a crop of WorldTour expats on the wrong end of this fall’s buyer’s market. He wants to grow as a racer, he said, not just as a domestique. He wants to find out, finally, how good he can be.

Potential leadership roles and shots at smaller races are bright spots on Warbasse’s otherwise gloomy contract search. He wasn’t alone in his struggle to find a new team. Every IAM rider was on the hunt, and with two major teams calling it quits (Tinkoff is the second) there was never any question that this fall would be a tough market.

“There are still guys looking,” Warbasse said. At this point, finding anything becomes increasingly difficult.

Warbasse had a good season. He was seventh overall at the Tour of Poland and aggressive at the Vuelta a España, jumping into a handful of breakaways and slipping into the top 20 in both time trials. He started the Giro but had to pull out after a freak stretching injury left his left leg numb. With the exception of Poland, he was always a worker. But he worked well. “I was never worried,” about finding a contract, he said. It would come.

There was interest from WorldTour squads, he said, but it never panned out. Warbasse spoke directly with directors, as he prefers to do, rather than rely on his agent. “I think teams like to speak with riders directly if they can,” he said. “I had interest from WorldTour teams. I had interest throughout the year, but nothing concrete. So in the back of my head I was sure I was going to be okay. In the Vuelta I wasn’t stressed; I knew I was riding well. In Poland I had a great results. I thought it would be fine.”

One WorldTour contract after another fell through. Only so many rungs can break on that ladder before a rider falls. The market narrowed as autumn pressed onward, and the spots that might fit a rider like Warbasse began to close up.

“It was a really tough year,” he said. “I’ve been in contract situations before. They’re always stressful; this year was by far the worst. It didn’t really stress me out until it started to get late, then it was just like everything came quick.”

By the end of the Vuelta, most WorldTour teams have most of their rosters finalized. Warbasse had to branch out.

That meant a call with a man called Rok, real name Leigh Bryan, a coach based in Monaco who works with well-known Australian riders like Matt Goss, Caleb Ewan and Simon Gerrans. Rok, along with businessman Rick Delaney, were building Aqua Blue, the new Pro Continental team named after Delaney’s alcohol distribution business. After a two-hour meeting in Nice, France, Warbasse was pleased to find that he saw eye-to-eye with the founders. He signed a two-year deal.

So it was fine, just as Warbasse predicted, if you define “fine” as signing a contract, staying in Europe, continuing on the approximate path he has been on since 2012. But he’s not in the WorldTour anymore. It is technically a step down. But that’s fine, too, he said.

“The only thing you lose is the slight prestige of WorldTour,” he said. “To be honest, the only thing that’s any good for is your ego. As long as you can get over that, then Pro Conti is not a problem.”

After his unfortunate exit from the Giro this year, Warbasse wants another shot at the Italian grand tour. He wants another shot at any grand tour, actually. They seem to suit him, and his style. He gets better and better as a race goes on.

This year, Aqua Blue is unlikely to receive any grand tour wildcards. The team is full of former WorldTour riders (the buyer’s market in action), so it should see results that set it up for future invites. Warbasse’s decision to go with a two-year contract is proof that he sees the team’s fortunes rising.

“I felt like this year at Vuelta I was capable of wining a stage, and that’s a huge goal of mine, winning a grand tour stage,” he said. “But I’m confident we’ll be in a grand tour in 2018. I have some unfinished business.”