“Every day I wake up excited and each day something wonderful happens.”
Bob Varney is having the time of his life as sports director and impresario of the Drops Cycling Team, a new women’s squad registered with the UCI.
When his father died last year, Varney promised himself an adventure. He was going to travel, but seems to have had an epiphany at last year’s Tour of the Ardèche, while supporting some of the riders now at Drops.
“We said before Ardèche: we’ll only go if you promise not to cry. I was the only one crying because they were all so wonderful.”
Varney is a larger than life character with his heart pinned to his sleeve. He is not afraid to dream, but has his feet firmly on the ground when it comes to the day-to-day business of running a cycling team.
“There will be races that we’ll accept an invitation to and be lucky to get in, that we probably shouldn’t go to. But then again, if you didn’t do anything you shouldn’t do, you wouldn’t get anywhere.”
Varney is a successful businessman, and his riders marvel at his attention to detail. He has some track record with development teams too: he ran the Team Keyne-Trek squad that included a young Ian Stannard.
Trek are backers of Varney’s new team, supplying a fleet of mint green machines. Santini is a sponsor too, via clothing specialists Prendas Ciclismo. Drops will make its debut next month at Le Samyn des Dames, a UCI 1.2 race won last year by Boels-Dolmans’ Chantal Blaak.
There is a sense of momentum behind the team. The other palpable quality is team spirit. Varney has a mechanism for delivering this often elusive quality: each rider had to be vouched for by two others.
He has tried to blend youth and experience and to cover all the necessary team roles, from GC riders to domestiques. Sprinters Karla Boddy and Lucy Shaw might be taken as a case in point.
Boddy, 30, is a past winner of the Cheshire Classic and will serve as DS, as well as road captain. She will mentor 18-year-old Shaw, another fast finisher who for two years was a member of British Cycling’s Olympic Development Programme. Shaw chose Drops instead of applying to continue with BC’s vaunted, but track-oriented academy.
“To me, all of these things are just so much common sense,” Varney says. “If I had a daughter, I’d want her to be knocking around with Laura Massey.”
Former rower Massey, 34, the British Masters champion, and winner last year of the Curlew Cup, is another of whom Varney anticipates big things.
He has a refreshingly down-to-earth perspective on women’s cycling. He describes himself as an ‘equalitist’, and concedes that the women’s sport gives him opportunities he might not receive in the men’s.
“The increase in women’s cycling is great, but I’m not in it because my daughter rides, or my wife rides. I’m in it because I like bike racing,” he says.
“I was asked to help out with the team, and I did. I engage with them as bike riders. It’s the strategy and building the team that really drives me on.
“With women’s cycling the curve is very steep, and there are a lot of opportunities. That’s helped us progress much quicker. People have engaged and I’ve been accepted in an area where I wouldn’t have been accepted in the male equivalent.
“To be doing that sort of stuff, you need to be an ex-pro, rightly or wrongly. I always point out that in football parlance, Arsène Wenger was a decent amateur and nothing else, and José Mourinho was an interpreter.”
His face lights up when we discuss the sports director’s role during the race: behind the wheel of the team car, calling the shots to the riders on the road. “That’s the best bit – absolutely the best bit!” he grins. He will share those duties with his son Tom, and with Boddy, who will DS for seven weekends this season and ride for the others.
The team’s race programme has already escalated and Varney hopes the riders will have the opportunity to race abroad twice a month and at home once a month, with one weekend off each month.
Boddy had not intended to race, agreeing initially only to DS duties. When the team became UCI registered, she had to decide whether she should sign up as a rider too. She has no regrets, paying tribute to Varney, his son Tom, and to press officer Lisa Hutton for a level of organisation she had not previously encountered.
“We don’t need to think about anything,” Boddy says. “Not a single thing. That’s going to be the bit that makes us different from other teams that are trying to do what we’re doing.”
She offers the team’s training camp in Mallorca as an example: riders received a schedule of evening meals two weeks in advance, with details of the menu and cooking roster.
Boddy was training with Massey in Denia last February when they met the man who would become their team director. Varney kept in touch and asked Massey to guest for the then Corley Cycles-Drops RT team in the Ardèche.
Boddy echoes her manager’s grounded, but ambitious stance.
“We’re not delusional,” she says. “We’re not sitting here thinking that we’re going to win the Ardèche, or win some single-day Classic race in the UCI. [The goal] is to optimise our opportunity in every single race situation, whatever that might be.”
Like Varney, she rejects the tag “professional”. The goal instead is to be “the most professional amateur team.”
The team’s launch day at the London Bike Show ends with a private party on a floating hotel. Varney is called upon to make a speech. He tells his riders that the team has won nothing yet, and exhorts them to work hard.
“Grasp the opportunity,” he says. “Train hard. Live the life of a professional. Ardèche was just the tip of the iceberg.”
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