For Drops-Le Col s/b Tempur, the 2021 season has been one of their most successful in recent years. After becoming a UCI team in 2016 the British-based squad have built up a reputation for identifying talent and punching above their weight in big races, but it is the character of the team that makes them stand out.
Last time Rouleur caught up with Drops, they had just launched their rider wellness programme, a series of steps to improve the welfare of riders both mentally and physically. The programme included menstrual cycle tracking, sleep monitoring and nutritional support with help from former pro Dr Claire Rose. Six months on, how has the team found the programme in action?
“We've been discussing this the last few weeks,” says Drops-Le Col general manager, Tom Varney. “We could have definitely learned more from it. But it's not for the want of trying, it's more down to budget and time.”
The time and resource constraints meant that the team had to prioritise riders with immediate needs. “There have been a couple of riders that have got their period back which has been really amazing and essentially one of the goals of the whole programme,” Varney explains. “But we've definitely missed having more support from a nutrition point of view or maybe a psychological point of view. And that's something we're working on.”
The first year of the programme, he concedes, “was more about starting the conversation. Some riders gravitated towards it more than others, some learned a lot, some didn't learn much, because they were already in sync with it.”Drops Le Col general manager Tom Varney
Despite being a work in progress the team have seen improvements as a result of the programme. “Just general wellbeing and starting that conversation for riders to really think about it has been really beneficial,” says Varney. “Whether it's sleep or nutrition, or menstrual cycles. It's looking at that time off the bike, what they are doing is definitely as, if not more, important than what they're doing on the bike.” And there is more to come: “There's a few things we've got planned, performance testing, blood values, bone densities and that whole programme will expand a bit more.”
While rider wellbeing is at the heart of the programme, the team have seen tangible performance improvements since implementing it: “In performance terms we've gone from 33rd in the world to 16th,” says Varney. “So we're doing something right.”
The diligence the team applies to rider wellbeing also extends to the technical and logistical elements of racing at the highest level. Before the inaugural Paris Roubaix in October the team had completed multiple course recons and worked with their sponsors to ensure that the riders would be armed with the best possible equipment. On the day, 25-year-old Marjolein Van 't Geloof rode to 13th place – an impressive result for a Continental rider. “She recced that [course] five times,” says Varney. “Three times with ourselves and she went twice by herself. So for us it was no surprise she was going to do well.”
The team’s biggest breakthrough of 2021, however, has been Joscelin Lowden. The 34-year-old has been part of Drops since 2019 and the squad have nurtured her developing career after she started out late in the sport. From the 2021 season Lowden’s results include, the overall at the 2.2 Tour de Feminin, 5th place at Brabantse Pijl, and, in October, she claimed the Hour Record.
Joss Lowden (Photo credit: Rhode Photo)
Lowden’s results were enough to catch the eye of multiple WorldTour teams, but it wasn’t until one with a similar emphasis on rider wellbeing came along in the form of Uno-X that she put pen to paper. “I think she has benefited from the environment we have. But there's no doubt that she's one of the most hardworking and focused riders I've ever had the pleasure to deal with,” says Varney. “It's a shame she's leaving... she is added to the list of riders that have gone through the programme into the World Tour and hopefully one day we'll go with them.”
The team have long had ambitions to join the highest tier of the sport, but, says Varney: “We don't want to just go to the WorldTour, we want to do it the right way. We've not necessarily had a chance to do it at all. So we also need to be aware of that, but we want to sign big riders and be able to support them and have everything in place to be able to do that.“
Varney explains that the team wanted to apply for a 2022 WorldTeam license but, in the end, couldn’t gather enough resources to apply. He is pragmatic about spending another season at Continental level, however: “I think, one more year will do us the world of good, [to get] a bit more budget in the team,” he says. “So this year we had a focus on staff and infrastructure, we moved to Belgium, again, everything's set up there to support a bigger programme. This next year, there's more of a focus on getting the processes right. So the same staff are all staying, three of them had WorldTour offers and they've stayed. Then it's increasing the infrastructure, having the staff more within the team so the processes are correct.”
Dani Christmas of Drops Le Col leads the peloton (Image: Rhode Photo)
After spending years in women’s cycling Varney has his own opinions on the way the sport is going. “I think over the next few years, we'll get more specialists in women's cycling,” he says. “At the moment the best riders ride all the races, when on the men's side you wouldn't see Alaphilippe riding Roubaix, and seeing what's happened this year with Niewiadoma and Van Vleuten I'm kind of not surprised.”
Like many, he supports the idea of a more structured development pathway and would like to see a ProContinental tier introduced “but races also need to be happy to be a second level race,” he says. “So the whole thing needs a bit of thought from the UCI point of view. Not every race can be WorldTour, not every team can be WorldTour, not every rider can be WorldTour.”
“I'm not sure it has enough riders for WorldTour, being perfectly honest, or that level rider. So I think there's a need to develop the right way,” he adds.
Development has been a core facet of the Drops programme from the outset and in particular nurturing promising young British riders. For 2022, the team has signed two talented youngsters in the form of 18-year-old Flora Perkins and 19-year-old Eluned King. “I don't feel like we've had the best youngsters for a while or a couple of years, so to get that back was quite important [and] with Flora and El, that's happened,” he says.
Naturally, Varney is hoping to better the team's successful 2021 as they prepare to make the jump to WorldTour the following season. “The team will be stronger on paper next year. And the way that we run the team and the way it's communicated to the riders that they're fine working for each other at different times, and they know they get it back. There's a really good atmosphere there,” he says.
Whether the team reach WWT level in 2023 or beyond, Varney’s ambitions are clear: “We want to be the best team in the world,” he says. “It seems like such a big thing to say. But we're deadly serious when we say that.”