The 2021 racing season is officially underway.
WorldTour teams have held their traditional winter training camps in warmer climbs and the Grand Tour contenders are finding their race legs in France at Étoile de Bessèges, while other star riders will be heading to the Middle East later in the month to rejoin the peloton.
While those at the top of sport are determined that the biggest events will go ahead this year, the British racing scene can’t rely on such guarantees.
Continental outfits in the UK are fast approaching the 12-month mark since British Cycling suspended racing and most still have months to wait before they can pick up where they left off.
With a number of prestigious British domestic events added to the cancelled list, Conti teams have also been hit by the loss of early season European stage races that often extend invites to compete.
To see how they’re coping in the early days of 2021, Cycling Weekly spoke with a number of stalwart British teams to find out how they’re coping with the pandemic.
“I don’t think you can let yourself feel like you’re in limbo, that’s the problem,” said Jack Rees, director of communications and rider for Ribble-Weldtite.
“Once you lose a bit of momentum around performance, planning, structure and obviously the work that we do to support and develop the relationships we have with our partners, then once you start to take your eye off the ball then there’s a danger in my opinion of it coming off completely.”
Ribble-Weldtite had kicked off their 2020 season with an ideal start, racing against WorldTour teams in the first ever Saudi Tour and winning five races at home in the UK before the national lockdown hit the country, stopping them in their tracks.
Rees, who competed with the team in Saudi Arabia, said: “I think it was a bigger hit [last year]. It was a bigger adjustment and disappointment in March last year, because we’d had a two and a half week training camp, we’d come off the back of the Saudi Tour, we’d won five races in the UK, we were really moving at that point, and we would have had a fantastic year so at that point it was harder than it is now.
“Now we’re in this cycle of almost repetition, every day is the same. There’s nothing to focus specifically on, but I think as a team and we’re doing really well and have done well over the past six months to keep focused.
“I think, providing racing happens, wherever it happens we’ll be in a fantastic place to just pick up where we left off really.
“That hasn’t come easily. I think it’s testament to the lads and the partners that have stayed completely committed to what we’re trying to do.
“We’ve just pressed pause and we’re ready to press start again whenever we’re able to.”
Cancelled races and a delayed season
With the cancellation of events like the Saudi Tour and the recent announcements from British Cycling and the Tour Series about the delay to the British racing season, Ribble-Weldtite are hoping to start racing again in Europe in April and continue competing through until September and the Tour of Britain, a big focus for all British Continental teams.
Not all Conti teams have had to pause the racing however, as Hampshire-based Canyon-Dhb-SunGod were able to compete in the one-day Clásica Comunitat Valenciana in late January, scoring a top-10 with Rory Townsend.
But the lack of racing can be an opportunity for the other British-based teams, giving them an opportunity to work behind the scenes without handling the logistics of bike racing.
Richard Pascoe, team principal of Cornwall-based squad Saint Piran, said his outfit are taking the chance to work on their rider development and prepare for the season restart.
He said: “We’ve taken the opportunity to really strengthen various aspects of what we do.
“So we’re spending a lot of our time working on rider development, partner development, our management team. We’ve had some really great invites so our main focus is the Tour of Britain.
“Things are moving towards the end of the season more, so that’s not a bad thing. It gives us that sort of longer viewpoint as well. If you start racing in February-March you have to have big pockets, a deep team, a number of riders in order to still be going really well at the end of the season so your resources are less stretched.”
Saint Piran, who support men and women from development to elite level, joined the Continental ranks in 2021 and hopes to strengthen its Cornish identity even without racing.
Pascoe said the team plans to hold a training camp in Cornwall to overcome any travel restrictions and to show the great riding the county has to offer.
Dipping into the budget
While WorldTour teams can give their sponsors assurances about which televised high-profile races are likely to go ahead, offering the much coveted exposure that allow cycling teams to exist, Continental teams operate on an entirely different scale.
Andy Turner, partnerships manager and rider with SwiftCarbon Pro Cycling said: “We haven’t had to travel for racing last year so actually the amount of budget we’ve required or what we’ve dipped into with the budget has not been massive.
“The budget is more working on covering the necessities for now and then when racing comes in the money comes in as well so that way the sponsors are not feeling like they’re just putting say a lump sum at the start of the year, but they fund what is necessary.”
SwiftCarbon, based in Yorkshire, works with partners like Cambrian Tyres, Rule 28 clothing and Secret Training nutrition. Ribble-Weldtite works with Huub clothing, One Pro Nutrition, and power infrastructure company Durata, among others.
Saint Piran is backed by Pascoe’s cycling retail stores, along with the likes of Castelli, Colnago, while also relying on the sale of its own product lines, and community support.
On Ribble-Weldtite’s sponsorship, Rees said: “We have this British element to the team, to a majority of our partners are fairly significant British brands and there’s a good percentage in the bike industry which obviously as we know is doing really well.
“So none of our sponsors have been impacted by [the pandemic] so that’s been a big help.
“I think if we were in a position where we were backed by a chain of restaurants and bars then we might be having a different conversation.”
But for Britain’s domestic teams it’s not just the logistical issues that make the pandemic a struggle, there’s also the motivation.
Running the team and racing
A number of backroom staff at these Continental squads double-up as racers, like both Turner and Rees.
How do these riders keep up the motivation while also helping to keep the wheels turning behind the scenes?
“Before Christmas I got into quite a motivational phase with Zwift racing,” said Turner.
“I go through phases of really enjoying it and then probably going a bit too far and overdoing myself. So I’ll have like a month of flying on there where I’m setting power PBs and then a month of realising that probably wasn’t a very good idea. I’m currently in the second phase.”
Turner has also taken up running, giving him some new PBs to work towards while also offering a cardiovascular workout and helping to maintain bone density.
He added: “I think that’s what most of the guys are doing – they’re just ticking over, they’re not doing masses of training to build up the fitness because it’ll get to the point where’ll need a month off and then suddenly you’re racing in a month.
“I think if you keep that fitness endurance just ticking over it doesn’t take too long to finish it off and fine-tune it.”