Aqua Blue Sport mak­ing Ir­ish sport­ing his­tory

Cork busi­ness­man De­laney and his team are not there to just make up the num­bers

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Shane Stokes

When Cork busi­ness­man Rick De­laney laid out his goals for his new Ir­ish pro cy­cling team last au­tumn, tak­ing part in one of the sport’s three week Grand Tours was one tar­get. It was a lofty am­bi­tion for a new team, and some­thing that would rely on a wild­card in­vite from the race or­gan­iser.

Some within the sport were un­sure if that was re­al­is­tic for year one but, sure enough, the Vuelta a Es­paña (Tour of Spain) re­vealed in March that his Aqua Blue Sport team would in­deed par­tic­i­pate.

Fast for­ward five months and De­laney’s squad will make his­tory to­day. When the Monaco-based squad rolls out of the start house in Nîmes, France, to be­gin the 13.7 kilo­me­tre team time trial, it will be a huge mo­ment in Ir­ish sport. In the 114 years since the first three-week race was held, no Ir­ish squad has rid­den a Grand Tour. That is about to change.

“It means every­thing,” De­laney told The Ir­ish Times yes­ter­day, re­fer­ring to that stat. “It is a great hon­our. It is a dream come true. This time last year it was an idea, and 12 months later we are here. It is fan­tas­tic.

“We went on a re­con ride of the team time trial cir­cuit this morn­ing. And to see the fans out with the cam­eras and cam­era phones tak­ing pho­to­graphs, and the jour­nal­ists and just the razzmatazz – it is very spe­cial. It is a bit sur­real. Very much so.”

De­laney is 49 and comes from Turn­ers Cross. He has prop­erty in­ter­ests but said that the core of his busi­ness is al­co­hol dis­tri­bu­tion via the Aqua Blue com­pany. That has been a big suc­cess and saw him re­lo­cate from Cork to Monaco sev­eral years ago. That, in turn, led to him set­ting up the team.

“I have the lux­ury of cy­cling with some of the world’s best cy­clists there,” he told this news­pa­per last Oc­to­ber. “I thought, ‘how it cool it would be to have an Ir­ish pro­fes­sional cy­cling team?’ And that is re­ally how it started. We thought we’d re­search it, give it a go, see who we could get on board and it just snow­balled from there.”

Strong plac­ings

That snow­ball soon gath­ered pace. Early per­for­mances in­cluded Ir­ish rider Conor Dunne’s King of the Moun­tains prize in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race last Jan­uary, Bri­tish na­tional cham­pion Adam Blythe’s run­ner-up slots in the Danilith–Nokere Ko­erse and the Handzame Clas­sic in March, plus sev­eral other strong plac­ings.

The first win came with Amer­i­can Larry War­basse’s stage vic­tory in the Tour de Suisse in June, a break­through mo­ment for team. That was fol­lowed soon af­ter­wards by his vic­tory in the US road race cham­pi­onships and Ste­fan Denifl’s over­all vic­tory in the Tour of Aus­tria in July.

And now the team is at the third-big­gest stage race in the cy­cling. De­laney and the rid­ers are de­lighted to be there, but they don’t plan on just mak­ing up num­bers. “I sup­pose the aim is just to go and rep­re­sent our­selves as best we can,” he says. “To do our­selves proud. To do the jer­sey proud and – say­ing it quickly – try­ing to win a stage.

“I think we are ca­pa­ble of do­ing that. The likes of Larry, ob­vi­ously, is com­ing into some great form. Ste­fan is com­ing into great form. Adam Blythe is pro­duc­ing great num­bers at the minute. And Peter Kon­ing too. They are very, very strong, so it is very doable. If Lady Luck is on our side and the stars all align, it is pos­si­ble.”

The nine-man squad in­cludes Dunne, who has made se­lec­tion thanks to his strength and con­sis­tency this year. He is hop­ing to be ag­gres­sive and be in­volved in sev­eral break­aways, some­thing he has proven good at, but is also pre­pared to ride for oth­ers. He knows that those men­tioned by De­laney are in a bet­ter po­si­tion to win stages.

That’s fine. He’s still de­vel­op­ing and learn­ing and, be­sides, be­ing part of the race puts him in a se­lect group any­way. Only 14 Ir­ish rid­ers have rid­den a Grand Tour be­fore and, when the clock be­gins to­day, he will be­come the 15th.

“I am su­per-hon­oured and proud, re­ally,” he said yes­ter­day. “It feels like a bit of a big deal to be on that list, along­side some big names in the sport in Ire­land. I am re­ally proud to add my­self to that list. It’s been a bit of a sur­real feel­ing over the last few days that I will be start­ing a Grand Tour. I am re­ally look­ing for­ward to it and getting stuck in.”

De­laney is equally proud to see his rid­ers line out, but he wants to keep step­ping things up. Riding the Tour de France is a ma­jor am­bi­tion for the team, and some­thing he wants to see hap­pen within the next three years. But could it hap­pen in 2018? “I think any­thing is pos­si­ble,” he an­swers. “I think we have proved that. I think the an­swer to that ques­tion is I gen­uinely don’t know. Ob­vi­ously we are lob­by­ing very hard. [Tour or­gan­is­ers] ASO like us, race or­gan­is­ers like us. I cer­tainly think we are go­ing to be around the short­list.”

PHO­TO­GRAPH: KAREN ED­WARDS

The Aqua Blue Sport team in Nîmes, France, prior to to­day’s start.Conor Dunne (fourth from right) will be­come the 15th Ir­ish rider in a Grand Tour.

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