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Ro De Jonckere Q&A: A chat with the only female team manager of a men’s pro team

The Belgian previously worked for Quick-Step and Dimension Data, and she will take the helm of the American squad for 2023.

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Ro De Jonckere is in a small club as a female team manager in cycling.

The Belgian was recently promoted to team manager at the Human Powered Health squad, which runs a Women’s WorldTeam and men’s ProTeam, as the American outfit looks to firm up its European roots.

With her promotion, she becomes the sole female team manager of a men’s professional squad — Yana Seel previously held the role at Astana but left in 2021 — and will be one of less than a handful of women working the same position at a women’s team. She’s hoping to keep the women’s squad at the top of the sport while bringing the men’s team to the same level.

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VeloNews sat down with her earlier this month to talk about her new role, what she’s hoping to achieve with the team, and what it’s like to be in a club of one.

VeloNews: How has it been stepping up into the general manager role?

Ro De Jonckere: It’s something that I grew into already a little bit this year, because I joined the team this season in the position of European operations manager. But basically, since like 95 percent of the activities are happening in Europe with cycling in the States is going through some difficult times right now, I was already handling a lot of stuff. That is also a little bit the reason why the team decided to give me the GM title.

There’s a few more responsibilities that have been added more on the on the budget side and I hiring our staff, but a lot of things that are part of this job have already been on my on my plate in the past season. It does give me the feeling that they were happy with what I was doing last season. So, it’s very nice that they put this trust in me.

VN: How did you kind of come to join the team in the first place? And what was it that drew you to Human Powered Health?

RDJ: I was actually in team Qhubeka at that time. I had been there for five years. But the team came to an end. Unfortunately, that year, they lost their WorldTour license. They were able to continue as a Continental team, but it was all very unsure at that time. And I got the call from the people from Rally back then. Because cycling is a pretty small world and I know a lot of people and so they knew what I had been doing in the past and you could also say that there are some similarities between the Qhubeka team and this team, by the fact that Qhubeka team was also managed from outside of Europe.

In this case, our current management team is mainly based out of the U.S. and, for them, it’s very convenient to have somebody on the ground here in Europe, where all of the action is happening right now.

VN: How did you first get into cycling?

RDJ: I kind of rolled into it, you could say, because back in the days where I lived with my parents and Nico Mattan, a rider, came to live next door. At that time, my father was a marketing director of the of Domo. Nico Mattan, put him in touch with Patrick Lefevere. And that is how the Domo-Farm Frites team got started back in 2001.

So my father knew Patrick Lefevere pretty well and when I graduated in 2004, they were looking for somebody in their office. I had studied languages, which is very convenient if you work in such an international environment. So basically, I got that job straight from school with zero experience in the cycling world. I grew into it pretty quickly and I’m still very thankful that Patrick took me in with no previous knowledge. I think I can safely say that I’ve learned from the best. I worked for Patrick’s team for 13 years and those years were pretty amazing.

And then doing the move to Team Dimension Data in 2017 was bit of a new challenge. This team that was coming from South Africa and trying to get organized in Europe. So again, I learned a lot there and it was also a time that showed me how important cycling can be. I’m not only talking about the sporting side of things then but with the Qhubeka projects. That was a real eye opener. I got to go to the Qhubeka bike handover in South Africa and I think that was one of my most memorable moments in cycling.

VN: Going forward with Human Powered Health, what are you hoping to achieve with the team?

RDJ: We are very happy and proud that we can say that we are kind of a pioneer in the fact that we are the only team where our women’s team went to the higher level before our men, because our women’s team is on the WorldTour level. [editor’s note: Uno-X also sent a women’s team to the WorldTour in 2021, though it was a completely new squad]. We hope one day to bring our men to the WorldTour too, but we are being realistic about it. Because if you ask around, every team will say that’s the ultimate goal. We know it’s not that easy, not only because of budgets, but also because yeah, the number of spots is limited. With the points system, it’s not just a matter of putting the money down and that’s it. But that would be our ultimate goal.

VN: You mentioned keeping the women’s team in the WorldTour. That’s obviously going to become significantly harder, starting in 2024. The women’s team finished bottom of the WorldTour teams for this season. Is it possible to make back that deficit and make sure that the team stays up there for 2024?

RDJ: We for sure hope we and will do our very best. The thing is that our team this year was very young. We have a lot of very young girls in the team, and I think I can say that it’s a bit of a general problem. In women’s cycling at the moment, the pool of very good riders is still pretty small. There’s, there’s kind of a big gap with everybody else. I truly believe that in three or four years it’s going to be very different because so many teams are now investing in women, and also in the youth. In a few years from now, we will have a much broader field of really good and experienced female cyclists.

We have a lot of young girls on board, and we hope that we can further help them to develop and to reach their full potential, in the next few years. We’ve also strengthened our team. We have a new performance manager who will be focused only on the on the women’s team. We have hired a nutritionist, and an extra coach. So, we are also trying to improve our whole structure around the women’s team, so that we can hopefully push our performance.

VN: There have been some very big changes to the lineup of the men’s team. Why has there been such a big overhaul of the men’s team?

RDJ: We had a few riders leaving the team, we had a few riders quitting their career. And we also feel that we have to move away from being an all-American or Canadian team. If you look at our roster, you will indeed see that we have many more Europeans from next season. We feel like if we want to reach the level that we need in order to be able to score points in Europe, we have to move away a little bit from having that all-American team.

VN: And is the aim with these changes to hopefully maybe be up kind of around the promotion area for three years’ time?

RDJ: The ultimate goal would be one day to also bring our men’s team to the World Tour. But in order to be able to do that, we need to move up in the ranking. So that means we need to score points. If you want to score points, you need good riders. We’re working towards that goal in the end, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

VN: At the moment, you’ll be the only female general manager on the men’s side for the top two tiers in 2023. There’s not that many female team managers on the women’s side either. How does that feel to kind of be one of very few or the only one in the case of the men’s side of the sport?

RDJ: We hadn’t thought about it that much until the media started to point this out that it’s pretty uncommon. I’ve talked about it with our team owner, Charles Aaron. He said like it was not exactly the goal that they wanted to put a women on this spot. He said, ‘we were working with you and we just feel that you are the right person.’ But then, if you see how few females there are, on this top level, it’s actually quite surprising.

I think, and I hope that in the coming years, this will also change a little bit with, with the women’s cycling, being on the rise. I hope that in all levels of cycling, women can step up. To me personally, it’s never really felt that special, but maybe I was very lucky. I personally never had the feeling that I had to fight harder, or prove myself more, because of my gender. At least not inside the team environment.

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