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Wildcard invites or not, Aqua Blue racing to win after successful debut season

Aqua Blue Sport still has many races on its schedule in 2018, despite the perception the squad is getting snubbed this year.

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Aqua Blue Sport enjoyed a strong debut last year, but 2018 is a brand new season.

The Irish Pro Continental squad nabbed WorldTour stage victories at the Tour de Suisse and the Vuelta a España in 2017, proving the invites the team received were well deserved. Now in its sophomore season, Aqua Blue is hoping to deliver a worthy follow-up campaign.

That may not be an easy task. When the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France both announced their respective wildcard invite lists last month, Aqua Blue was left on the outside looking in for both races. Invites to the WorldTour one-weekers haven’t been easy to come by either.

Will any of that change Aqua Blue’s style this season? Don’t count on it. Sprinter Adam Blythe says the team is going into races with the same mindset as before. Regardless of the UCI rating of this or that event, he wants to win and so do his teammates.

“I know there’s a few things in the press about us not getting race starts, blah blah blah, but no, we’re getting plenty of races for sure,” Blythe told VeloNews at the Tour of Oman, rattling off a number of upcoming races on his calendar. Le Samyn, the Ronde van Drenthe, and Dwars door Vlaanderen are among the events Blythe and Aqua Blue will target next.

That doesn’t mean the Giro and Tour snubs had no impact on the team – Blythe and Co. just know it’s more productive to focus on doing their jobs.

“It’s not that we’re trying to ignore it, it’s just that it’s not up to us. We’re not paid to get into races. We’re not paid to ring up organizers and ask if we can race or any of that stuff,” Blythe said.

“People might look at say Nokere Koerse or other races like that where yeah, it’s not a WorldTour race, but I’m sure 80 percent of the WorldTour wouldn’t just be able to step into Drenthe and win it, and vice versa. It’s as hard as any other race, it just hasn’t got the label of being WorldTour or a classic or anything like that.”

Blythe has raced for multiple WorldTour-level teams in his career. He rode with Omega Pharma-Lotto, BMC Racing, Orica-GreenEdge, and Tinkoff over the course of the last eight seasons. He doesn’t see much difference between the squads at that level and his current Pro Continental outfit.

Moreover, he doesn’t see himself or his teammates racing any differently just because they ride for a smaller-budget squad. Indeed, that seems to be crucial to their approach as a team.

The blue and gold squad may focus slightly less on closing down breakaways than the likes of Quick-Step or Katusha-Alpecn, but Blythe says the lead out game in a sprint finale is otherwise the same, no matter who his lieutenants are.

“We’re not a big team that’s going to jump on the front to bring it back for a sprint. That’s up to the guys that are paid millions rather than us,” he said. “But 15k, 10k to go, we still do the same things they do.”

Blythe and several of his teammates made their first starts of 2018 at the Dubai Tour and Tour of Oman. Aqua Blue didn’t come away with any wins – and Blythe was disqualified from the Tour of Oman on the final day for an illegal bike change – but early returns in the sprints were respectable. Blythe landed a third-place finish in Dubai, ahead of several big names.

Breakaways are another strong point for the team. The strategy is the same: Focus on winning, don’t worry about the rest.

Mark Christian, who kicked off his 2018 campaign with multiple days up the road during the team’s two races in the Middle East, says Aqua Blue is actually more relaxed in season two.

“There’s not as much pressure on us this year. Last year we were the new team and we really wanted to show ourselves, so it was quite an important thing,” he said. “But it’s quite relaxed [now], we can follow moves if we want.”

The wildcard invite situation does not change that. Nor does the more general fact that a swell of Pro Continental upgrades last offseason has made competition fiercer than ever. It comes back to that focus on staying the course and racing the way they want to race no matter the venue.

“Maybe a little bit, but I think that’s what we do anyway,” Christian replied when asked if the team is riding more aggressively to prove themselves. “Naturally, by going for the results in races, we’re in the race and showing ourselves anyway. So not so much pressure, because that’s what we always want to do anyway as a team.”

As the season progresses, expect more of the same whether Aqua Blue is fighting with other Pro Continental teams at Europe Tour events or mixing it up with the WorldTour squads when given the opportunity.

“At the end of the day, it’s our career,” Blythe said. “If we don’t win bike races, or do our job as such, we’re not going to get another job are we?”