Having started their debut season in 2016 as the new kids on the block, the Bletchley based Drops Cycling Team firmly stated their intention to move into the top echelon of women’s bike racing by committing a ten-strong squad – 6 riders and four support staff – to nearly four weeks of full time training and racing In Australia as the 2017 racing season got under way last month.
And that huge commitment paid dividends with a hat-full of top ten stage placings and a team stage win in the season’s opener, the Santos Women’s Tour, followed by Drops newbie in 2017, 24-year-old Italian Susanna Zorzi – a former European U23 champion – taking sixth place at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.
Team Director Bob Varney explained Drops trip to Australia this way, “Coming this far so early in the season, that demonstrates our big commitment as a team. We want to be in the top teams of women’s cycling by 2018 and there’s no better way to achieve that than to do the biggest races at the start of the year”.
And that commitment has already been noticed by others. “We’ve had compliments from some of the top teams in women’s racing such as Orica – Scott and Cylance Pro Cycling and we’ve now received invitations to three of the early season Women’s World Tour races”.
In addition to the top ten stage finishes, the roll of honour in the Santos Women’s Tour finally ran out to three top 11 placings in the final overall standings, third and fourth overall in the Young Rider’s completion, winning the team completion in the final stage – a fast and demanding crit around the streets of Adelaide – and second overall in the important Team completion, all highlighting Drops consistent finishing positions in all of the frantic four stage race programme.
And for Alice Banes, already twice winner of the British U23 road race championship and one of Drops stand-out riders in 2016, she again proved her talent by never finishing one of the four stages any lower than in 11th place overall!
“To me, the highlight of the race was the level and overall performance of the team as a whole’ explained Bob. “I’d hoped we’d move up a notch at the start of the year but in fact I think we’ve moved up a couple. At least. Finishing second overall in the team competition in the Santos, that’s a great achievement.”
But to keep improving the team’s standing has involved a lot of investment over the winter and that, in part, has been achieved by bringing some new riders into the team’s line-up which is now sixteen strong. And when you look at the squad’s palmarès as a whole you’ll see it’s littered with national and European champions – both on the road, track and time trials - and Olympians!
“All of our three new international riders have been brought on-board to help the team develop, it’s really the next stage of our evolution. That international flavour’ Zorzi, Ann-Sophie Duyck and Martina Ritter, the latter two both being multiple national time trial champions – ‘will strengthen the team as we target more top level European and World Tour races.
“For example, in the Santos race Susanna was our road captain and was often seen from the team car talking and encouraging the riders. That’s the sort of example we wanted from her and will be a great help to Alice Barnes as the team tackles races such as the cobbled Classics in March and April, especially the Tour of Flanders.”
Those months will be very hectic for the team as they’re presently scheduled to take part in 18 different races from the end of this month until they finish their early season programme on home roads in the Tour de Yorkshire.
But the core of the team is still very much British based and Bob took time to praise the Australian efforts of two of the team’s young talents who joined Drops from the 2015 Corley Drops RT outfit.
“Abi Van Twist is only 19 years old but has already proved to be a very accomplished rider for us. I think she’ll be a good climber but she’s also not afraid to commit herself in a crit’ which is a completely different racing discipline. ‘She had some outstanding performances in the Santos Women’s Tour and it’s going to be exciting to see how she develops”. Abi went on to finish her Australian journey by taking 17th place overall in the Cadel Evans race.
Although part of the Drops line-up in 2016, Yorkshire’s Becky Womersley spent a lot of last year completing her studies at Uni but after a solid winter’s training she proved her worth in January’s opening races. “Although we see her as a sprinter, in the Santos race Becky was on domestique duties which is an incredibly hard role for any rider. She was immense in the Australian heat, selflessly fetching and carrying water bottles for the other riders. As the early season progresses we hope to see Becky putting in some good rides as part of our Classics squad”.
As Drops continues to grow as a team, the riders will also continue to be rewarded and, for a professional team, the biggest immediate move forward in 2017 is that of all riders now being paid as “proper” professionals as co-team owner Tom Varney explained.
“This is a huge step forward for us as a team and, really, as we see women’s racing grow and improve as a product. With our riders now being paid they can fully focus on riding their bikes and that will, we hope, be reflected in the even better results we hope to achieve.
“And with better results we want to see our end-of-season placing improve from being a top 35 team in 2016 to moving into the top 20 in 2017”
To help with that overall improvement Drops now have a carefully selected team of 15 sponsors and partners including new lead partner Alupro – who run campaigns to engage and encourage people to recycle the aluminium packaging they use at home, work – and Sportful who make Drops team kit.
The very colourful team kit worn by Drops in 2016 – making it one of the stand-out teams in the women’s peloton – has not undergone major changes in 2017 and there’s two main reasons for that decision. Tom Varney – “Our kit is very visible but that will make it easier for fans and race organisers to remember us as we go back to some of the races we competed in last year. And it’d be unfair on those of our fans who bought replica kit if we made wholesale changes at the start of the new year”.
The growth of the squad will also enable it to run a two-race programme throughout the year. “Because of the structure we now have in place’ explained Tom, ‘we’ll be less limited in the number of races we can compete in. So if there’s a clashing World Tour race, we can still compete in, say, the televised Matrix GP series in the UK. And that will really be a big target for us in 2017. But this approach will also help us in one of our committed aims as a team, to develop some of our younger riders as they hone their skills in their ‘home’ races.”
With all these changes and, already, a team training camp in Majorca completed since the Aussie sojourn – and the hope that Drops will continue to grow as a team in 2017 – we can fully expect them to live up to their Twitter tag line ‘ColourTheRoad’!”