The UCI women’s pro continental team Drops has the chance to make history this weekend — in more ways than one.
The British team is currently sitting in second place in the GC of Zwift’s Virtual Tour de France, with 19-year old breakout star April Tacey having claimed two stage wins. The team holds the polka-dot and white jerseys, honoring the prowess of their climbers and young riders. With just two stages remaining, the team may well oust Team Tibco-SVB from its current throne. If Tacey, who made a strong comeback from injury this winter, is the first woman to cross the finish line at the Champs-Élysées Sunday, both her and Drops’ names will forever be associated with the first virtual women’s Tour de France.
Yet the real history-making would be if the win led to the riders receiving paychecks.
Drops’ team director Bob Varney has pursued title sponsorship since he started the team in 2016. And now, Varney has chosen 2020 to make the case for the Drops’ next step: becoming a UCI Women’s WorldTeam.
Start-up, not salaried
When Drops became a UCI continental team in 2016, Varney says it did so with the single aspiration to be “the most professional amateur team in the world.” He and his son, co-founder Tom Varney, considered 2016 to be the team’s “start-up year.” In his eyes, if riders invested the effort, the financial return would come in time.
The team went big, early. Drops raced in 13 countries in 2016, and riders lined up at races like the Amgen Tour of California and the Tour of Flanders. Some of Drops’ riders went on to sign contracts with bigger teams, including Alice Barnes who inked a deal with Canyon-SRAM. Varney kept the budget tight, and his team steadily made a name in the peloton.
“In the first year, all of the girls got all of their expenses paid,” Varney told VeloNews. “Hotels, flights — even missed flights. They had great equipment. But at the end of the day, you need a salary.”
The team went on to pay riders during its second and third seasons, but funds were always scarce. In 2018 the team held a crowdfunding campaign after bike sponsor Trek left to start its own WorldTour squad, and another sponsor reportedly backed out.
For Varney, who ran a printing company for 35 years, not giving riders the same employment benefits that he gave his printing employees was mystifying. Nevertheless, since cycling operates on a business model that relies strictly on sponsorship, he understood the financial limitations.
“Where do we get money?” he said. “Not from TV, not from bums on seats in stadiums. I spoke to a guy yesterday who wanted to provide product and have his logo on our jersey, and I said it costs £50,000. He was shocked. But it’s like, we can’t put your name on the jersey because you gave us some massage oil or something. There has to be a commercial value.”
In a letter that Varney posted on the team’s website on July 6, he admitted that the team was embarrassed it had been unable to provide riders with benefits such as maternity rights, medical support, full-time staff, and minimum salaries. While he had been asking for sponsorship dollars to provide those things for years, the advent of the Women’s WorldTeams and the coinciding reforms in 2019 helped push him to seek bigger things for 2020.
In Varney’s opinion, seeking WorldTeam status also made more sense from a marketing perspective.
“We already wanted to do those things, but by wrapping them up in the WorldTeam banner, you do them easily,” Varney said. “If you go and say you want to raise money to pay the girls and have a doctor, they [sponsors] think it’s odd you’re not already doing it and you’re underachieving.”
What’s truly odd is that there are only eight teams who are required to pay women cyclists a very minimum wage.
Haves and have-nots
The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on professional cycling have further laid bare its tenuous economy. Varney says that what is being asked of teams in order to comply with the UCI’s COVID-19 racing protocols stands to further divide the haves and the have-nots of the peloton. He’s heard estimates of a cost of around €20-25,000 per women’s team to implement all of the UCI protocols, such as having a full-time paid medical staffer to be at each race.
“Very few teams will be able to magic that figure out of the air,” Varney said. “I wouldn’t even think the top eight teams would be able to magic that. Certainly not the 23 teams on the start line in the Basque country next weekend.”
Varney worries for some of the smaller Italian and Spanish teams traveling to the three one-day races in Spain next week who won’t have the funding to test riders or have medical personnel on-site.
Whether the inability of teams to comply with the COVID-19 protocols will force the UCI to loosen them or simply turn a blind eye remains to be seen. Nevertheless, as topical as it might seem to be discussing the concept of having a dedicated team physician, Varney says he’s been grappling with it for years.
When Drops’ British Olympian, Elinor Barker, crashed during the final minutes of the RideLondon Classique last summer, it further reinforced the reality of just how much of a shoestring Drops’ was operating on.
“We were there with three staff — a soigneur, mechanic, and me, and that was normal,” Varney said. “We had to get riders home, get Elinor to hospital. It was just a million miles away from where I wanted to be as a team.”
If having medical personnel on staff would have been helpful in 2019, it is more important now, given the costs of COVID-19 consultation and mitigation. Such a reality begs the question: Could Drops have perhaps picked a better time to seek out a corporate partner?
If not now, when?
Although there are myriad reasons why 2020 might be seen as the wrong moment for a sponsor search, Varney believes the opposite could also be true. The collective spotlight is shining on inequality in cycling along racial and gender lines. Companies may view women’s cycling as a way to contribute towards gender equality in sports.
“Hopefully the fact that we’re a women’s program will only benefit from the perceived move towards equality in society globally,” he said. “That’s going to take a while, but we’ve already been on that journey.”
While the coronavirus pandemic has caused a major upset in cycling sponsorship across both the men’s and women’s pelotons, Varney also sees stories of success: Both Bigla-Katusha and Boels-Dolmans were able to secure new corporate sponsors mid-season.
For some businesses, the minimum funding required for a women’s world tour license of €1 million per year, secured on a three-year contract, is a drop in the bucket. For Drops, it is the bucket.
“An ethically-minded partner is utopia for us,” Varney said. “We could have a 16-rider roster and continue to concentrate on younger riders. We could be more competitive in bigger races, look for podiums and top fives. We already have five riders under 21 from four countries. Imagine if we could continue to develop them and mix them in.”
Varney is hopeful that the team’s showing at the virtual Tour de France helps to make its case for sponsorship and says that he’s already received a lot of general inquiries and an increase in following on social medial channels. He’s also aware that e-racing isn’t without its critics, but he believes that the genre is legit.
“Yes there are quirks to online, and it’s a computer game, but it’s generated by blood, sweat, and tears,” Varney said. “You have to have an understanding of the rules and tactical acumen to know when to use your power-ups. It’s a different genre of cycling but it’s certainly credible.”
Plus, Varney added, “you have to be pretty damn fit to suffer like that.”