Inspiring new amateur women’s cycling outfit talks Philip Malcolm through its game plan
Women’s cycling is going through something of a purple patch in the UK at the moment and along with Lizzie Armitstead’s dominance of the international calendar and Wiggle-High5 showcasing some of Britain’s top riders, first-year amateur team Drops Cycling are aiming to make waves both at home and in Europe.
Bob Varney, owner of Drops has a vision for his team. “The idea is to become the dominant women’s team in Britain. But to do that we want to go and race on the Continent and learn, then take that back to the UK and apply it.”
To match this ambitious calendar, the team has signed a group of riders and staff blending international experience and domestic wins as well as youth and maturity.
Ellie Dickinson, 18, is a medallist at the European Junior Track Championship who recently sprinted to a top-15 place in Dwaars Door Vlaanderen on junior gears.
Laura Massey, 34, is current UK masters champion who recently scored a top-20 finish in a world-class field at the five-day Euskal Bira in the Basque Country shortly after finishing the Tour of Flanders — the team’s first WorldTour event — four minutes down on winner Armitstead.
Who are the riders to watch this year?
Louise Robinson, multiple cyclocross national champion and world silver medallist in 2000, is a mentor for the team.
The secret to the evolving success story at Drops is building what they eventually hope will be “the most professional amateur team in the world”.
None of the riders take a wage — many riders are still at school and Jen George, seventh in Yorkshire, is on sabbatical from a job in the pharmaceutical industry — yet at any race they turn up to, the team are always clad in matching off-the-bike clothing and trainers too.
Rebecca Durrell says: “Bob and the team give us the best equipment, the best places to stay and the clothing and everything is so well organised. It just makes you want to do everything you can to justify it. It sounds stupid but it already feels like more than a team. It’s a bit like a family.”
Strength in depth
The strategy of bringing the lessons of the big races home to the UK seems to be paying off. At the Lincoln GP the team dominated proceedings, taking a clean sweep of the podium and putting Dickinson in eighth to take the junior national title. Dickinson also took second overall and first junior at the recent Tour of the Reservoir.
These successes have seen the team expand their roster in recent weeks, which allows the team to compete in both the domestic and international scene as their schedule gets increasingly hectic.
British under-23 champion Alice Barnes, who raced the UCI Road World Championships last year and will switch back to road this summer as GB hasn’t qualified for the Olympic Games in her preferred discipline of cross-country mountain bike, joins Annie Simpson, who brings with her the experience of national championships on the road and cyclocross.
“California is another huge bonus for us, a great opportunity to continue to develop our riders,” says Varney, a former amateur racer turned coach.
Lucy Shaw is full of praise for the way the team is organised. “Before Drops I have never really felt like part of a team,” she says. “I have had some bad experiences in the past but the whole team atmosphere is great and it’s not just the riders who get on great too, everyone involved with the team works really well together.
While starting an amateur women’s team would represent a gamble on its own, setting one up with the expressed ambition of becoming the best team in the UK as well as the most professional is a huge risk for both riders and management.
“The learning curve has been steep but we haven’t stumbled yet,” Varney says. “The riders are embracing the challenges and ticking them off one by one.”
Varney can be happy to see his riders progressing towards their goals as well as his own vision for the team. His athletes are getting to ride some of the biggest races on the calendar and are starting to get results at home.
It could be that, away from the current crop winning at the highest level, this high-aiming set-up are showing that there is a bright future for women’s cycling in Britain.