‘The only preparation I’ve done is thinking and a bit of worrying’: How Brexit is affecting British riders and teams

We spoke to riders and teams who earn their livelihood in mainland Europe about their concerns over the UK's looming exit from the EU

If there’s something we can all agree we’re sick of, it’s Brexit. Wonky bananas, blue passports, backstops, people’s vote, prorogation. Enough.

With the actual end of Brexit maybe, definitely maybe nearly, in sight, the changes will soon be felt by people on both sides of the English channel.

>>> Meet Joe Truman, the only British keirin rider in Japan

One group of people whose livelihoods are set to be directly affected by Brexit, and are of particular interest to this publication, are the British riders and teams who regularly race on mainland Europe.

Little is yet known about the exact arrangements as to how British people will be able to travel, work and live in Europe, so we reached out to a British rider about to step up to the WorldTour for the first time, as well as his old team boss, to find out how they expect Brexit to impact them, their concerns, and whether they’ve already started making preparations.

‘We’ve been listening carefully these past few months’

Flavio Zappi is a former pro racer, runner-up in the King of the Mountains classification at the 1984 Giro d’Italia, who now owns and coaches the Holdsworth-Zappi team.

Combining his Italian heritage with having lived in Oxfordshire for a number of decades now, Zappi brings a distinctly Italian vibe to his U23 men, junior and youth squads. Zappi works with mostly UK riders to provide them with a platform to have a crack at the European racing calendar, taking part in races in Belgium, Spain, Portugal, France and of course Italy and the UK.

The economic model of the team isn’t the most conventional. Instead of relying on corporate sponsorship and advertising, the families of young riders good enough to compete pay for Zappi to take them to the races where they will hopefully prove themselves and begin to build their careers.

The UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe is crucial to Zappi’s entire livelihood, yet the 59-year-old seems relatively relaxed about Brexit. When your job consists of carting a dozen young men around Europe to bike races, geopolitics is unlikely to be high up on your list of immediate concerns.

“We’ve been listening carefully over the past few months but if we can sort out passports and insurance we should be okay,” Zappi says.

“We always have insurance anyway because it’s important for the boys to have the tranquility of mind to know they’re able to come back to England if they need to.”

While logistical problems don’t seem to faze Zappi and his operation, the economic consequences of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union have already hurt his wallet.

“The only major problem I do have [with Brexit] which is a major problem, is the exchange rates,” Zappi says.

“I charge my boys a contribution [in order to be in the team], my sponsor is small and so 90 per cent of the budget comes from family contribution. They pay me to take the boys to races, for accommodation, food, for the season.”

>>> ‘I don’t know how depressed people feel, but I think I went in that direction’ says Marcel Kittel, who also reveals post-cycling plans

While Zappi receives his money as sterling, he has to pay for everything in euros. At the start of the season in January, the pound was worth €1.10, going on to peak at €1.17 in May before hitting a low of €1.07 in August. At the end of October, the value was back up to €1.15.

“My major calendar is in France, Holland, Italy and Spain. Because they use euros and I get paid in pounds I’ve lost 15 per cent over the past year because of the exchange rate.”

While Zappi is not too concerned about the impact on him personally, he does think it’s bad news for cycling in general.

“I’m not too worried, it shouldn’t impact too bad for me, but it’s bad news for cycling in general. I’m a remainer from day one and I’m European, it’s bad news for the economy, cycling and sponsorship. Maybe [Brexit] is one of the reasons other teams are losing sponsorship.”

Another year of loss in the British scene

This year has been another unkind season for British teams. Wiggins – Le Col announced in August they would cease operations at the end of the year, while a couple of months earlier Madison-Genesis called time on seven years of racing, saying they planned to fold at the end of the season.

This followed the British racing scene being branded “the worst it’s ever been” in 2018, after JLT-Condor and One Pro Cycling shut up shop.

Stage three of the 2019 Tour de Yorkshire (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

Giving his opinions on where things are going wrong, Zappi explains that Brexit is, in his view, only one half of the problem.

“I think there are two reasons [that British teams are struggling]. One is the uncertainty, they don’t know where things are going. The second one is about ten years ago, when cycling was sort of a brand new thing in England, everyone needed new kit and now everyone has stuff in the garage. Maybe the bubble has burst a little bit, but there is still passion in the UK.”

A further blow came just last week, when the organisers of the Tour of Britain, the Women’s Tour and the Tour Series began the hunt for a new headline sponsor after OVO Energy brought their sponsorship to a close after three years, leaving the races without a main backer.

Riding into the unknown

Holdsworth-Zappi’s formula seems to be working, though, with James Knox being their most famous rider of recent years, progressing on to Team Wiggins before stepping up to the WorldTour with Deceuninck – Quick-Step and recently completing his first Grand Tour at the 2019 Vuelta a España. Another is Mark Donovan, who has secured a three-year deal with Sunweb.

Following in Knox and Donovan’s footsteps, Charlie Quarterman will be the latest Zappi graduate to step up the WorldTour, having recently signed a two-year deal with Trek-Segafredo.

It’s certainly an interesting time for a British rider to be setting off for Europe with ambitions to make it as a professional cyclist. Quarterman, 21, says he has been following Brexit, not because he’s a cyclist who could be affected by it, but because of his nationhood and the topic being quite unavoidable in the news and on social media.

“No one knows what’s going to happen so I don’t really know what I’m going to do,” Quarterman says, “the only preparation I’ve done is thinking and a bit of worrying.”

Charlie Quarterman – third from right – at the Brussels Cycling Classic 2019 (Getty)

The fact that Quarterman plans to continue living at home and only travel to Europe for races and training camps will simplify his situation somewhat. He says he hasn’t spoken to Trek-Segafredo about Brexit or any complications it might bring, which seems to suggest that Brexit may not be as big a problem for British riders as it initially would have appeared.

 “For me, it’s a slightly different problem,” Quarterman says,”I think European teams might look at a British rider in a slightly different way. And they may project the negative feelings.”

If this is true, it’s lucky that Quarterman has already managed to get himself onto a WorldTour roster.

“I feel it’s a very emotional thing, and when team managers feel a certain way it can affect things,” he adds.

What about non-British riders he’s raced with and against? Do they now ask questions, tease, or treat him differently because of his nationality?

“Normally it’s only jokes, especially with my old team-mates at Leopard-Trek,” Quarterman says. “It’s such a fast-paced environment you don’t necessarily have time for lengthy discussions about these things.”

There are bigger issues than Brexit

For Zappi and his roots split between Italy and Britain, he is able to see a bigger picture that many can’t – the world keeps turning despite politicians, the media and people on Twitter becoming consumed by Brexit.

“I’m very grateful to the British for what has happened to me in my life,” says Zappi. “My family is half-British and I believe I still want to help British boys to help fulfil their dreams. I still believe the British cycling scene needs to do more to compliment them.”

Instead of Brexit, Zappi has other priorities to improve the lives of his riders. “The number one problem I have is I don’t want my boys to race on open roads.”

Last month, news emerged that 19-year-old Dutch rider Edo Maas had been told he may never walk again after a collision involving a car that had entered the course during Il Piccolo Lombardia last month.

Even last week, a Brazilian stage race was stopped by a protesting peloton after a car entered the course and hit a rider.

“But also with Wiggins and other teams closing down, young riders still need the space to grow,” adds Zappi. “So I’ve extended from 10-12 boys in the team to 20 next year. 16 will be British, others will be European and another from New Zealand.”

While much remains unclear about the future relationship of the UK and Europe, it seems that thanks to people like Zappi and young British riders hungry to test themselves on European roads and mountains, the seemingly uphill struggle of Brexit will sit below saddle sores and dropped chains on the British cycling community’s list of problems.