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Lifeplus-Wahoo boss Tom Varney says that the British team was hours away from folding last year when a key sponsor pulled out at the eleventh hour.
Last November, Varney received a call from co-title sponsor Le Col saying that the clothing manufacturer would not be able to fulfill its contractual obligations. It left the team with a hole in its budget of about 400,000 euros, about 45 percent of its expected annual budget.
Some tough weeks followed with some of the team’s top riders being moved on to other teams to lighten its financial burden in an effort to salvage the squad. Thanks to an introduction via rider agent Jamie Barlow, holistic wellness brand Lifeplus signed up as the new title sponsor in December, but Varney was close to shutting down the team after seven years of operation.
“We were hours, if not minutes from finishing the team,” Varney told VeloNews in a recent interview. “I certainly went to training camp in January with let’s say, I didn’t have as much enthusiasm then as I do now about the project.
“We changed more riders than we wanted to but that was no fault of our own with the situation. Of course, we went shopping on the 12th of December to finish the team and when you’re shopping in December compared to now, you shop in a different supermarket, with all due respect to everyone involved. I feel like we’ve got a fantastic group of people and we’re maximizing developing each and every one of them.”
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When Le Col and Wahoo originally came on board for the 2022 season, there had been hopes of the team going into the WorldTour for 2023. While that plan was downgraded part way through the year, the team still racked up one of its best seasons to date, putting it ahead of some top-tier teams in the UCI’s rankings at the end of the year.
This season was supposed to be about backing that up, but the dramatic off-season meant that Varney and his team had to refocus and come up with some new targets.
The team has not enjoyed the same success as it did last year, but it has been out-performing its revised expectations with new signing Ella Wyllie getting the team’s first podium at the Navarra Women’s Elite Classics earlier this month.
Another new signing, Vigie Margaux has also been one of the team’s star performers while April Tacey, one of just two riders to stay on from the 2022 squad, has seen some good results this year.
“I would say I would say we are surprised,” Varney said of his team’s performance this year. “I don’t mean that in a negative way. I think there are many people in the team that have faced a tricky time or some adversity during the period that we did. I think that a lot of people that are successful in life go through adversity, and they use that to their advantage.
“There was an element of galvanizing everyone towards a common goal and it’s something we’ve done in the past. The time that we had together during training camp was spent on trying to make a bunch of strangers a team, and we certainly left that first training camp feeling together, and excited to move forward for the season.”
A brighter future
Last winter was not the first time that the team has faced a tough time due to sponsorship issues.
Back in 2018, the team lost Trek as a title sponsor as the bike manufacturer looked to set up its own team for the following season. It managed to secure a new sponsor, but the deal fell through as the sponsor signed up with a different squad for less money.
On that occasion, the team was helped by a few minor sponsors, but it had to pump its own money into the squad to keep it going. This time the outlook is very different with Lifeplus signed on for at least two years, with the potential for more.
Just five months into the 24-month deal, Lifeplus CEO Malcolm Vincent — who has been a fan of the sport for over a decade — wants to help grow the team in the longer term. His 10-year-old daughters have become fully invested and created a cheer dance to show the riders their support.
“The timing was from our perspective quite good and the stars seemed aligned at that point in time to get involved and to be part of something and to get involved with, if you like, the underdog and getting them punching above their weight,” Vincent told VeloNews. “I’ve got a son who’s 11 and my twin girls are 10 and I want the girls to feel they have the same opportunities to race and be as amazing as boys and get inspired. A team of inspirational professional women athletes, give that to young people, not only girls, but everybody.
“We’re a quarter of the way into our agreement. The two years that we’ve signed up for, I see no reason why it can’t be longer than that. It’d be nice to think that we could be part of a journey together in terms of helping the team be successful.”
With a more stable future on the cards, dreams of going to the WorldTour have been reignited. The team is still in the fight for promotion at the end of this season, but Varney doesn’t think that now is the right time to do it.
Instead, he would prefer to take stock and stabilize the team before trying to get into the top tier. The next opportunity for promotion will come ahead of the 2026 season, and Varney believes that this presents a better timeline for the team.
“We want to be a WorldTour team, but we want to do that in the right way, so I imagine that not happening this year,” he said. “I think we should take the next two-year cycle of licenses to keep going step-by-step — whether it’s budget, whether it’s the riders, whether it’s the structure, a little bit like we did the last two years — and growing.
“If we could stay where we are now as one of the best two Conti teams, that would be an additional bonus. Obviously, it brings guarantee in advance, amongst other things, but I think it’s important just to focus on the process, even more than we are now, and to keep growing in the right way.”