When the EF Pro Cycling team joined forces with Rapha a couple of years ago and first announced their plans for a so-called “alternative calendar,” it got a decidedly mixed response. Elite pro riders taking time off to go to local mass participation events like Dirty Kanza and Leadville? What if they won the event – how popular was that going to be amongst the crowd of amateur enthusiasts? Or what if they showed up and didn’t win – they’re professionals after all? What if someone got injured when they were off on one of these larks, and couldn’t participate in their regular WorldTour schedule – what were sponsors going to say then? To many skeptics, there seemed to be a lot more questions than answers. But after one year of the “alt-cal,” a retrospective look suggests that the program was actually a resounding success. And before the COVID-19 era set in, the team was looking to expand the program – and indeed other teams seem to be taking notice as well.
Where did the idea for an alternative calendar come from? “We wanted to find new ways to connect professional cycling with the rest of the sport,” says Rapha CEO Simon Mottram. “We had just concluded our two-year research project (the Rapha Roadmap report) which looked at the challenges and opportunities facing pro cycling.” One of the conclusions of that report was that too little had been done to connect the traditions of European racing with the developments on the mass participation side. “We saw a chance to tell new and different stories by breaking the mold – by bringing WorldTour pros to an alternative calendar, and by documenting the whole thing,” says Mottram. “After two years of work, and lengthy discussions with EF and its riders, it seemed like an exciting possibility.”
Although the initial “alt-cal” received a lot of media attention, in reality, it was a fairly minor part of the overall Team EF Pro Cycling program and involved just three riders participating in a few days worth of alternative events. “It wasn’t really as big a deal as the media made it out to be,” says Alex Howes, who along with Lachlan Morton and Taylor Phinney were the initial participants in the program. All three rode the popular Dirty Kanza (DK) event, and Howes and Morton both participated in a couple of other U.S. events.
As the primary participant, Morton also rode the 2,000-kilometer solo self-supported GBDuro contest from south to north across the full length of Great Britain. In all, he estimates he spent a total of about ten days actually racing alt-cal events, along with a few additional days of training and travel time; his unconventional exploits have been well-documented in several films produced by Rapha. “It was a very positive experience for me. The GBDuro was the biggest event; before it, I did a few ten-hour days on the bike, just to see if anything on my body would fall apart. I’ll admit – I felt a little bit of panic a few days before it – the new bike, all the camping equipment and so on. We went into it a little bit blind, but it turned out to be a lot of fun!”
How were these riders chosen? “The team didn’t really handpick who to participate,” says Oliver Duggan, a Rapha executive who oversees the marketing of the alt-cal program. “Team members just stepped up – some of them had already done these kinds of events,” Morton says the opportunity to do the alt-cal program was the primary reason he signed with the team. “I knew they were planning this, and I put up my hand.” Duggan adds, “We knew Lachlan could be the linchpin; he has this infectious enthusiasm for exploration, and that proved really important for us during the first year.”
“Alex was an obvious partner in crime – he’s always down to try anything,” adds Morton. (As if to underline that, last Thursday, Howes hopped on his bike in Colorado and rode 220 miles to the Kansas border, to honor the 2020 DK originally scheduled to take place last weekend.) Howes adds, “I’m riding on dirt roads about 60 percent or 70 percent of the time anyway, and I live in Colorado – closer to DK and Leadville — so it was an easy decision. I could pretty easily drive to all the events.”
Howes and Morton are both strong proponents of the program. “The idea of mixing it up a bit, and doing some other races, was like a breath of fresh air to me,” says Howes. “In a lot of ways, those three races were like the highlights of the year for me.” Both racers emphasize the importance of creating a closer interaction with the broader cycling community, “but we definitely came to race,” says Howes; the duo finished third and fourth in the DK. They insist there is no interest in trying to “corporatize” these events – they just enjoyed competing and mixing it up with the crowd. Howes specifically adds, “We certainly don’t want to ruin gravel.”
The alt-cal program was generally well-received within the team. “Some of the more traditionalist guys were maybe a bit worried at first,” says Howes, “you know, that we’re going to put on some tie-dye shirts and just go out and screw around. But after we put in solid rides in both the alt-cal and in road events thereafter, I think everybody came around.”
Some observers were initially worried that it might negatively affect the team’s road racing performance, but in retrospect, it may well have been a positive. “I didn’t have any trouble jumping between the two,” says Morton. “I think a lot of road guys could do this. You have to remember – WorldTour racing is pretty demanding too.” Team manager Jonathan Vaughters agrees. “I don’t think it hindered our performance at all on the WorldTour level.”
This is borne out by the fact that just weeks after the DK, Howes was crowned as the U.S. national road racing champion, and Morton bagged a stage at the Tour of Utah. “I think the program demonstrated that riders can do both – it doesn’t have to be an either/or decision,” says Morton. “Ultimately it was fun to do something new, no matter what,” adds Vaughters.
And finally, there is the all-important issue of sponsor support. “Over the last two years, there’s been a really open dialogue between all the sponsors and partners, and the alternative calendar has been a big part of that,” says Rapha executive Duggan. “It’s helped to get broader backing and support for the project. We think the alt-cal helped a lot from a sponsorship perspective – and we reached a lot of new fans, in person and through millions of views of the films.”
“I think the sponsors loved it,” says Howes. “We achieved the goal of really reconnecting with fans on the ground – instead of standing behind a velvet rope by the team bus signing autographs for five minutes. We were there at the race before and after. Any time you have good fan engagement, I think the sponsors are going to be happy.”
In looking back at the first year of the program, CEO Mottram concludes, “The alt-cal gives us a platform to do two things. First, it allows us to connect the sport in a really tangible way with all these communities and audiences around the world that, in their normal lives, probably wouldn’t think twice about a lycra-clad road team. And second, it provides the stage for us to tell the kind of stories that we think can transform people’s view of the sport, stories that illustrate the real characters and personalities, and heroes, that the sport has.”
What about the future? The team was set to expand the alt-cal program this year, with additional events and new participants, but obviously that is in flux at the moment. Team manager Vaughters is definitely bullish on the future. “I think we’re seeing and understanding a different side of cycling, and the interest level is definitely catching on inside the team. Lachlan’s ride from one end of Great Britain to the other?? Doesn’t matter what kind of a rider you are, that’s an amazing ride, and I think everybody on the team is excited about the potential. I think the more of these races we do, the more you’ll see some names that might surprise you.”
Lachlan Morton speaks like the real messiah for the new movement. (Just this past Saturday, he set a new record for an unsupported ride across the 150-mile Kokopelli Trail through the Utah desert.) “The program kept me motivated throughout the year; I like having new goals and challenges. And when I came back to the team environment and returned to road racing, the whole experience made that seem fresher, too. I think the results speak for themselves – it’s sort of like the body follows the mind. If you’re a happy racer, you’re going to be a better racer.”