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The Aqua Blue Sport thread

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The Aqua Blue Sport thread

06 Sep 2017 23:13

I've resisted starting a thread for the new Hiberno-Anglo-Scandi Pro Continental team until now, primarily because I don't like nationalism in cycling very much and don't particularly support riders because they are Irish. So I'm reluctant to treat a cycling team as a kind of surrogate national team (which would be silly anyway as while the support structure of the team is largely Irish, the riders are very much a mixture of Northern Europeans). As the season has gone on though, I've found myself cheering for quite a number of their riders. Few PCT riders are prominent enough to need a thread of their own, so a collective team thread seems to me to be more useful.

Aqua Blue have an unusual funding model. That they are bankrolled by a rich dude who loves cycling isn't odd at all. The unusual part is that they don't have or look for sponsors other than equipment sponsors. Instead they are part of a single project with a bike and bike equipment sales website. I am very doubtful about whether such a model can raise the kind of money a cycling team can burn through, but it's interesting to see someone try a different way of financing a team in a sport where teams are notoriously ephemeral. For the moment, I suspect it's best to assume that the team will last as long as the owner's patience with spending millions on his hobby. Whether it works or not in the longer term, in the short term it means the highly unusual sight of clean, uncluttered cycling jerseys.
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Re: The Aqua Blue Sport thread

06 Sep 2017 23:31

When the project was announced I assumed that they would start out as an Irish version of One Pro Cycling during the latter's PCT season - a team with a lot of Irish Conti riders around a core of more experienced guys from around Europe. As it turns out they signed only three Irish riders as part of a team consisting largely of experienced WT and PCT pros.

Nordhaug in particular was an unexpectedly big name (not that he has produced much). They also signed Howard and Blythe for the sprints, decent classics riders like Fenn and Norman Hansen and a couple of WT climbing domestiques in Warbasse and Denifl. On the positive side that meant that they had a higher than expected quality level. On the negative side it left them with few riders who could be seen more as an exciting prospect than as a known quantity.
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06 Sep 2017 23:49

The first thing to be said about their season is that they have done a very good job in harvesting invites to races. One of the bigger problems for a non-established PCT team is putting together a decent calendar. They've certainly managed that. They seem to have concentrated on developing a relationship with the ASO, while they've got little or nothing out of RCS.

The second thing is that they've made good use of that calendar.

For the first half of the season, they were highly visible, getting in breaks, getting stage podiums, but they weren't actually winning. Gate, Dunne and Norman Hansen were particularly prominent in breaks, while Blythe was sprinting reasonably well, but the guys who were expected to take most of their wins, like Nordhaug and Howard, weren't doing so. Then they finally did start winning, but perhaps surprisingly for a team biased towards rouleurs, it was the climbers who brought home the bacon. So far the ex-IAM pair of Denifl and Warbasse have won a stage of the Vuelta, a stage of Suisse, GC at the Osterreich Rundfahrt and the US national RR in a couple of months.

The first three of those are all in the five biggest wins by a PCT team this year. Mind you despite those big wins, they haven't matched the biggest established PCT teams (Direct Energie etc) in win volume, or even come close.

They have also signed two actual prospects for next year, Eddie Dunbar and Casper Pedersen, so Dan Pearson won't be the only kid.
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07 Sep 2017 05:22

I don't think they deserved the wildcard to begin with (Deiko Marseille was a better option IMO) and after a weak and anonymous Vuelta from the squad, Denifl pulled this rabbit. Thats great, but otherwise they really haven't contributed much to the race at all.
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Re:

07 Sep 2017 05:33

Valv.Piti wrote:I don't think they deserved the wildcard to begin with (Deiko Marseille was a better option IMO) and after a weak and anonymous Vuelta from the squad, Denifl pulled this rabbit. Thats great, but otherwise they really haven't contributed much to the race at all.


Most wildcard teams don't contribute a great deal to GT's other than a few futile appearances in the break. This stage win is absolutely huge, more than justified their invite and probably ensured another Vuelta invite next year, along with other good races.
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Re: The Aqua Blue Sport thread

07 Sep 2017 05:36

Valv.Piti wrote:I don't think they deserved the wildcard to begin with (Deiko Marseille was a better option IMO) and after a weak and anonymous Vuelta from the squad, Denifl pulled this rabbit. Thats great, but otherwise they really haven't contributed much to the race at all.


I don't think Cofidis, Manzana Postobon, or even caja rural have really done anything either.
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07 Sep 2017 06:23

as i said at the time trial tread i was impressed by the tt of koning and l.n.hansen so Yesterday by the climb , i think they are very happy with these results , but maybe they could win another stage , who knows
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Re:

07 Sep 2017 06:40

Valv.Piti wrote:I don't think they deserved the wildcard to begin with (Deiko Marseille was a better option IMO) and after a weak and anonymous Vuelta from the squad, Denifl pulled this rabbit. Thats great, but otherwise they really haven't contributed much to the race at all.


Well based on results AB is one of the finer PCT teams.
GC in austria, US national champion and stage win in Suisse.
Meanwhile Delko won a stage in Gabon and the Classic Sud Ardèche - Souvenir Francis Delpech, it would've been another tale if Smukulis managed that solo in Burgos or if Siskevicius would've outsprinted Bouwman in the Dauphiné.
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07 Sep 2017 09:12

They certainly have an, interesting, sense of humour on that team.

Image


Also just read a bunch of reactions to Denifl's win; everyone is so happy for him. :D
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Re:

07 Sep 2017 09:48

Valv.Piti wrote:I don't think they deserved the wildcard to begin with (Deiko Marseille was a better option IMO) and after a weak and anonymous Vuelta from the squad, Denifl pulled this rabbit. Thats great, but otherwise they really haven't contributed much to the race at all.

Could you elaborate on what did Delko do to deserve an invitation over Aqua Blue?

Besides, Aqua Blue has been the best wild card team in this Vuelta. Apart from Denifl's stage win, Blythe was visible in the sprints. If you ask me, Caja Rural and Cofidis (teams with much more experience) haven't done any better even if Denifl was caught yesterday. The decision to give them a wild card is proving to be absolutely right.
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07 Sep 2017 10:30

I really think you guys are overestimating this team, but you are right that the 2 automatically invited wildcard teams have been pretty bad once again, especially Cofidis. As I said, before yesterday I don't think they have contributed to a thing just like Cofidis, but its obviously well deserved after such a stage win.

Also, I don't even remember seeing Blythe on the TV-screen...
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07 Sep 2017 12:09

Aqua Blue have been smart in only riding one race at time - This allows to have an increased focus on specific races and they can tailor their preparation accordingly.
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07 Sep 2017 12:17

Eddie Dunbar joining them next season,, will make them even stronger
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07 Sep 2017 12:27

This year between the 12 GT wildcards there have been 2 stage wins (Calmejane, Denifl), zero GC top 10s and zero minor jerseys. Of the 10 teams not named Direct Energie or Aquablue, Jan Hirt also gave CCC some prominence at the Giro while falling just short of the top 10.

In the absence of big stars slumming it at PCT level (Barguil next year), what is it that can reasonably be expected of a wildcard team?
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08 Sep 2017 13:09

Well, that's the crux of the issue, and a major concern that is the result of the current position of the World Tour; because all of the incentives are to be at the World Tour level, and with the introduction of bigger budget teams like BMC and Sky, the number of riders who are of a competitive enough level to create wildcard teams that truly impact the race in the way that they did ten years ago is becoming limited, at least in the big stage races. In the Classics, the more randomized nature of racing means that their impact can be stronger as the longer a race is, the more strength in depth can play itself out and neutralize, or at least minimize, the element of chance.

Depending on your view of the 2008 Astana team (which were Pro Tour, but had their exclusion from the Tour and relied on wildcard selection for both the Giro and Vuelta owing to pre-existing arrangements superseding the Pro Tour at the time due to a standoff between the UCI and ASO flanked by RCS and Unipublic), there has only been one Grand Tour won by a wildcard team in the 13 seasons since the Pro Tour began, that being Juan José Cobo in the 2011 Vuelta. I think that was the end of the strong wildcard era though. The UCI carefully and wisely restructured the Pro Tour into the World Tour and drove greater emphasis onto ranking points, thus negating the problem they had previously had, pioneered by Cervélo Test Team, where the team's budget - including a significant amount saved from not going Pro Tour - enabled them to pick up sufficient star power that they could more or less guarantee they would be granted a wildcard to any race they wanted to enter. BMC's progression in budget in 2010 saw a similar move, as they went from being one of the weakest ProConti teams to a fairly weak ProConti team with Cadel Evans, George Hincapie and Alessandro Ballan grafted on top. They didn't have the same depth as Cervélo, but once more the name value safeguarded invites, being selected for the Tour ahead of Vacansoleil in a controversial decision after the latter's successful introduction to Grand Tours at the Vuelta the previous season. It doesn't help that you have characters like Jonathan Vaughters, too, who successfully built his team up organically through the ranks, progressed through ProConti to become a World Tour team, then started doing everything in his power to push cycling fans and organizers to allow him to shut the door behind him, to prevent other ProConti teams growing strong enough to compete season-round in the same way and squeezing his team out.

The other problem for the ProConti ranks is one that we have two men to thank for: Ivan Basso and Aleksandr Vinokourov. The nature of their returns to the péloton saw an end to the informal agreement that formerly suspended dopers had to serve a period of exile at the ProConti level (this had often sustained teams like Relax-GAM in Spain, and LPR Brakes and Diquigiovanni/Androni in Italy, providing them with worthwhile challengers trying to prove themselves to get a return to the top level) - Basso because Liquigas successfully argued that his ban was not for actual doping, and Vino because his status in Kazakhstan made his return to anybody other than Astana almost implausible. For many years the ProContinental wildcard teams could be sustained by riders who had previous suspension or were under investigation and were no longer wanted elsewhere. That some of the craftiest sponsor-finding second tier team managers, like Gianni Savio and Luca Scinto, reached such a level of notoriety that their teams being at the biggest races became less and less desirable also hurt the eminence of the wildcard teams - indeed, can we really say that losing outré performances like CSF's seven dwarves at the 2008 Giro or Vini Fantini's fluorescent assassins five years later?

As a result, actual frontline contenders on ProConti teams have become a real rarity in the last few years. Yes, sure, there have been a few, such as Domenico Pozzovivo staying in Italy while he finished his doctorate, but after the UCI's quite deliberate marginalization of Geox in 2011 despite a team including winners of all three GTs (and which won a GT that season) and the sponsors' pulling out at season's end, committing the same kind of budget to a team which may not get all the invites they want is a difficult sell to sponsors. On the opposite end of the scale, if you have a guarantor of a set number of invites but your available calendar has certain limitations - take Caja Rural for example - then you become kind of stuck in a rut, as the fact that those invites to the races most important to the sponsors are almost automatic as there's no competition among Spanish second- and third-tier teams at present means there's little justification for upping that contribution; the net result is that the team stagnates as it is seen only as a stepping stone for those on the way up (see how almost all their most promising youngsters, save for Carthy, have been picked up by Movistar in recent years) or a way to try to push back to the top for those whose careers are stalling, either getting back out quickly (like Luís León Sánchez) or continuing on at the same level unheeded (like Sérgio Pardilla). Riders at the ProConti level who show promise are then picked up by World Tour teams, who can offer better salaries and a chance at a much more balanced and exotic calendar with chances to ride the biggest races even if it entails giving up a level of freedom and autonomy (take, for example, Leopold König, who went from winning MTFs and top 10ing GTs to sitting third or fourth in Sky's mountain train, Victor de la Parte, who went from being CCC's top climber by a way to being plugged in essentially to do the same role as Javi Moreno for Movistar - himself picked up from Caja Rural after winning domestic calendar mountainous races in much the same fashion - or Tom van Asbroeck, who went from 1000 CQ points with TopSport Vlaanderen to anonymity as part of Dylan Groenewegen's leadout at Lotto-Jumbo and then on to Cannondale).

When Aqua Blue were announced as a Vuelta wildcard, I was disappointed, to be quite honest. Although their roster is decent for a first year team especially given their funding model, there's nobody who really excites me, and no rider I am excited for the development prospects of. Many of them are journeymen who absolutely merit a ride at this kind of level, but whose ceiling for improvement is comparatively limited. Unlike Cofidis, Caja Rural or Manzana-Postobon, there weren't any riders that I was looking forward to seeing at the Vuelta, for development purposes or for what they could bring to the race. When the team's selling point is "Adam Blythe can get some placements in sprints, and Stefan Denifl is an ok climber in the breakaway", it doesn't exactly have me as interested as Bouhanni's chances in a sprint (at the time the wildcards were announced, not necessarily when the starting 9s were) or the developmental ceilings of the young Colombians or Jaime Rosón. Until Denifl's win I wouldn't say any of the wildcard teams had really added too much to the race; I couldn't remember anything that the Aqua Blue Sport team had done, other than the unfortunate situation with the bus. I remembered Rosón in the break in the Murcía stage, being furious with himself for blowing his chance to stay with the leaders and somehow BSing himself that he could have contended against Trentin and Rojas in a sprint, and I remembered Jetse Bol's quest for the leader's jersey in the Cuenca stage, but of course Manzana-Postobon do have in one way a throwback to the ProConti teams of old - making sure you remember them by making their jersey really immediately clear, as CCC do with their dayglo orange, and in the past Vini Fantini and ISD's fluoro yellow, CSF's green and orange stripes, Relax-GAM's luminescent scarlet and so on. Aqua Blue's jersey is a lot like the team in general, I felt. Classy, strong, but forgettable.

But when I did raise my opinion that, frankly, Aqua Blue were a rather uninspiring and disappointing choice of wildcard, the point was made, who better? There aren't many teams of great depth at the ProConti level at the moment, and the decision that journeymen with plenty of experience competing at this level are more likely to be competitive than developmental prospects and GT débutantes is not without justification. Catalunya and País Vasco have in recent years seen wildcards go to some of the weakest ProConti teams, teams which would have far less business at the Vuelta in their current state than Aqua Blue - teams like Novo Nordisk, Soul Brasil and Israel Cycling Academy. Delko have a Spanish connection which is stronger than that of Aqua Blue, but guys like Ángel Madrazo may be cult favourites, but they're only liable to win in the exact same fashion as Denifl did (i.e. from the breakaway, not necessarily meaning on ESP-categorized mountains), and maybe also they have the issue that Rémy di Gregorio may have his card marked by ASO, as he's done precious little racing in ASO-organized races (one Critérium International, two Paris-Nices and one Flèche Wallonne) since his return. Mauro Finetto's performances this year have as much to offer if not more than a placement sprinter like Blythe, but they both offer relatively little from a GC point of view so it would have been stagehunting from escapes just as we saw from Denifl.

But also, let's face it: Aqua Blue have integrated themselves well into the péloton by smartly using their resources, not overburdening their riders by doing too many races simultaneously or too packed a calendar, and being canny in their racing. However, some of us just want to see wildcard teams racing like headless chickens, and with famously combative guys like Madrazo on board, Delko would have given us more chance of that.
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08 Sep 2017 16:06

I agree with most of that, LS.

The PCT division has been weak by historic standards for quite a few years now and that seems to be caused by structural factors rather than chance. Concentration of money along with a points structure that, at least in years when it is relevant, incentivises raiding the PCT division even further have left the PCT division with very few high level riders. This hasn't just left them trailing further behind the WT, it has also closed the gap with the Continental division. A few years ago I started a thread here about how circa 2011 or 2012, the European Tour rankings suddenly stopped being dominated by PCT teams and instead the results of the strongest CT teams were on about the same level. I haven't checked to see if the European Tour rankings have reverted to the norm since, but that was a clear indication of the hollowing out of the PCT division.

It's somewhat off the point, but I suspect that the concentration of wealth at the strongest teams has been creating a situation where the WT is itself essentially two divisions, with the megabucks teams on an entirely different level to the "ordinary" ones. The smaller budget teams taking on some of the role of the old role of the PCT division. Movistar have been the main argument against that, as an allegedly mid budget team with big results but (a) their last man standing status in Spain gave them a huge recruitment advantage and (b) their budget limits may be about to catch up with them. At the moment it looks like they can afford leaders but not both leaders and quality support.

There are some signs of a PCT revival. Aquablue have slotted in near the top of the division. There will be a team built around Barguil next year, the type of rider we haven't seen much of at this level in a while. Israel Cycling Academy appear to be going on a spending blitz in anticipation of a Giro wildcard and look to have significantly improved, signing riders like Ben Hermans. But any such revival is both limited and fragile. It will make the wildcard competition next year ferocious - 4 Italian teams, Israel Cycling Academy, Rusvelo and CCC all banking on a Giro invite, 5 French teams plus Aquablue and many others trying to get into the Tour. But I'm not sure that it will significantly alter the big picture.
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08 Sep 2017 17:17

The thing is, the wildcards are given by races for a variety of reasons, and ProConti teams have a wide variety of goals too. A team like Aqua Blue, in how they've set up their roster and race calendar, looks to be doing a good job of setting the foundations to grow into a World Tour type team in the same way as the likes of Slipstream (rather than just throwing money on top of the weaker ProConti core like BMC) - the stronger riders have experience, but there's no obvious leader. It seems like they're investing in building a structure that they can then supplement with potential leaders once the base is there. That's admirable as a long term goal, but it also means that picking them as a wildcard isn't always very, well, wild, compared to teams for whom their only realistic goal is to enliven the race in the short term. There is some hope on fans' part (and often but not always race organizers as well) that the wildcards will enliven the race, adding colour and excitement. That may no longer be possible in the way that we got when CSF's seven dwarves were wreaking havoc on the Giro's mountains, or Ezequiel Mosquera was grinding everybody to powder on the Vuelta's MTFs, but at the very least it should be possible in the normal race-animating type of way. Wildcards have given us cult heroes like Pirazzi, Hoogerland and so on, and that's just those who made reliable top level careers out of it; I still remember well riders like José António López Gil and Javier Chacón from the days when Andalucía-CajaSur would be the only team sending anybody up the road, and that was often the sum total of their professional achievements. Aqua Blue are clearly a better team than Andalucía-CajaSur were (except maybe in 2009 when Xavi Tondó was going well for them for much of the year, but he was injured in the stage 3 crash in Liège and so his Vuelta tilt came to a premature end), so just getting TV time shouldn't be the sum total of their aims, of course, but it's no surprise that fans are more enthused for Manzana-Postobon; being the most successful wildcard team and being the most visible are two different things. Until Denifl did his thing on Los Machucos, Aqua Blue had more to show for their Vuelta than the other wildcards perhaps (Blythe and Rosón have one 3rd place each, Blythe in a sprint reduced by wind, Rosón from an escape) but had not been as visible as Caja Rural or Manzana (for that very reason: a placement from a sprint will get precious little TV time whereas an equivalent placement from a breakaway stage or where the race has broken up early means a lot more TV time, so though their results were comparable, Rosón's result was far more memorable to me - albeit this is also compounded by the fact that I've been looking out for Rosón for a while as a promising young climber - precisely the kind of rider we're talking about being lost to the ProContinental level in fact - whereas Blythe is a known quantity who has bounced between the levels for a few years now).

Denifl's stage win makes it a moot point, of course.
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08 Sep 2017 18:09

On Aquablue specifically rather than the division more generally:

When it comes to wildcards there's a useful distinction to be made between a team's likely level and the team's intrigue factor. Both matter. Race organisers have to consider both the likelihood of a team being competitive (or at least competent) and to what degree a team brings attention by offering something unusual or interesting. The presence of relatively unknown riders who may well suck but also have a much less clear upper limit is part of the second element. The Vuelta, I think, did well on both scores. They effectively have two wildcards and they gave one to what was probably the applicant most certain to send a competitive team, Aquablue, and the other to a team of unpredictable level that a lot of people might be interested in seeing perform, Manzana Postobon.

Both teams also score high marks on a third scale, one which applies to the Vuelta but not the other two GTs, the degree to which they will prioritise the race as a centrepiece of their season. There is no reason at all why the Vuelta should be keen on taking any more wildcard teams full of second stringers and Tour leftovers than the one they are obliged to take, Cofidis. Certainly not in a period when the PCT teams are generally weak and there are none strong enough to deserve two nailed on GT spots.

While some people had reservations about the invites, as you note above there weren't really obviously superior alternatives. It's telling that the only team people were putting forward as a counter-proposal was Delko. Delko is fundamentally quite a similar team to Aquablue on paper. A squad of mostly established journeyman pros, with one bigger name hilly rider and one young prospect. The main differences being that their journeymen are from different countries and Delko's are a little older. The other difference is that Aquablue's lot have had significantly better results this year, although as those results postdate their invite they can hardly have been the reason for it. Aquablue probably scored higher on the "intrigue" metric too, not because they are particularly mysterious but because they are a new team and the first team from their country at a GT while Delko would be the fourth French outfit in the race.

The issue here is less that Aquablue are fantastic and more that they are about as good as the PCT division currently gets. Remember, pre-Sagan Bora were first in line for just about any invite they wanted, more or less as a team of journeymen and prospects with a couple of second rank leaders. You don't have to be Cervelo Test Team these days to be at the top of the second division. Aquablue are probably behind Direct Energie and maybe Androni (by which I mean Bernal), but it's hard to argue that any other PCT teams have been clearly stronger this year.

Aquablue did actually sign a leader, one that on paper should be among the very strongest PCT riders, Nordhaug. The only problem being that he has been woeful this year, so woeful that he didn't make the Vuelta squad. If the good version of him turns up next year (a very far from certain proposition), that will be like signing a new leader. Denifl and perhaps Warbasse have now done enough to be considered real leaders (at a PCT level) in smaller stage races with climbing. They've also signed Eddie Dunbar who is still a kid but also probably the only genuinely top espoir to be going to a PCT team rather than a WT one this year. The rest of the time it will be about breakaway stage hunting and trying their luck against weak sprinters fields with fourth rank sprinters. But that sort of thing is the bread and butter of every PCT team, and they are better at it than most.
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08 Sep 2017 18:53

Eddie Dunbar joining them next year and he will win the Vuelta next year :D
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12 Sep 2017 20:37

Casper Pedersen winning the first stage of the Tour of Denmark must have Aqua Blue management feeling pretty smug. They have only announced two new signings, both espoirs coming from the Conti ranks, but Dunbar and Pedersen look like seriously talented kids. Dunbar was an obvious choice, but whoever picked out Pedersen (presumably Nicki Sorensen) seems to know what they are at. That's two big wins for him in just over a month.
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