***Long-time Snarker, First-time Author...be nice...***
Some news I'd been hoping on for a while finally arrived a little over a week ago, in the announcement that UK-based team Endura will be moving up to the Pro Continental level for 2013. However this was dulled somewhat by reading that this will be achieved in the form of a merger with German-based Team NetApp.
Endura's operations are based in my home town, and the team was born in my local bike shop, as a regional team used to doing crits managed to get the backing to go national. This coincided with the birth of Team Sky, and increased media exposure for the sport in the UK, including the national Halfords Tour Series of city-based criterium races. One of the team's original riders and one of the team's founders still operate the store. The Endura team has pushed on to greater things, not least of all the (almost inevitable) recent Tour of Britain by rising star Jonathan Tiernan-Locke.
That triumph however points me towards my worry. Endura in it's 2010-12 state has been an excellent tier that mixes domestic racing with the opportunity to line up next to and test yourself amongst the top names. The step up may allow the next tier of UK cycling's stars to get an Pro Conti opportunity, or it may remove what was becoming an important stepping-stone.
So are Endura turning a corner in their existence? Read on after the jump...
2012_CritChamps_Endura_Bibby02 (via Endura Racing)
In their first year, 2010, Endura pulled off some relatively impressive signings for a new UK domestic team. They brought in New Zealander Jack Bauer, who almost immediately won his first race under contract with victory from a break in the NZ road race. French sprinter Alexandre Blain joined from Cofidis to spearhead what was hoped to be an attack on the British Premier Calendar and gain race invites to France. Basque rider Iker Camaño was also later signed from Fuji-Servetto (I presume he'd quit in protest at joining Footon and wearing the Yeti jersey) in advance of the Tour of Britain. Behind the scenes Olympian Rob Hayles joined as rider-coach, and former British RR Champ Julian Winn as team manager.
The contacts of Rob Hayles and Blain amongst others managed to get the team some nice continental sojourns, and Bauer was noticed in the Tour of Murcia where he took a top-20 placing, including coming 12th in the ITT despite never having ridden his TT bike until the week of the race. They continued to place a rider in the top 20 in all but one of their continental stage race visits throughout the year including British rider Rob Partridge coming 8th in the Tour of Britain.
They also fared reasonably well on the home front, contending in both British competitions.
The following season the budget was increased, and a multiple focus grew. More riders with World Tour or Pro Conti experience arrived, with Paul Voss from Milram, René Mandri from Ag2r, Swedish TT'er Alexander Wetterhall and Dutchman Maarten De Jonge. On the domestic front, two of the Premier competitions most sought-after riders, climber Dave Clarke and sprinter Ian Wilkinson, joined the squad. The team's aims become success at home in the Premier series, the Tour (Crits) series, and earning more respect abroad. At the same time, the company's sales were going on a pleasant rise. It was suggested even at this time in 2011 that the ultimate plan was to go Pro Conti.
Results continued to rise with Blain winning the 2.2 Tour de Normandie and Camaño the 2.2 Cinturón a Mallorca whilst Mandri and Bauer won stages of the Tour de Bretagne and Tour of Utah respectively.
In 2012 with the additions of Russ Downing and Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, the team leaped up through the gears. They secured so many wins I won't even try to list them, but it was enough for a rider from a backwater Conti team to get picked in plenty VDS teams, and the Tour of Britain win - a healthy result given the riders and teams contesting. They also stormed the domestic competitions, with Scott Thwaites winning the Premier Calendar and the Endura team finally winning the Tour Series, as they had the squad to battle on all fronts at once.
Now however the team is trying to take the next step, and part of me is super excited about it. However part of me feels that it may be destroying much of what they have built. The team was in some ways bridging the gap between the British domestic circuit and the Continental tour. Riders would be rubbing shoulders with semi-pro racers one week then riding alongside Astana and Movistar the next. It gave some of the British riders a chance to test themselves against the best, not in winning races but in being a support rider at the higher level, and that to me was an excellent breeding ground to be able to offer.
They could have been, and some might suggest were starting to become since the rise of Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, a development team for Sky. Not a position to be sniffed at, and one that British cycling could probably do with for the development of the next generation. If you look at the career path of Adam Blythe, he didn't feel as though he fit in Brailsford's world, and he had to put his home on his back and try his luck in Belgium. Endura had grown to potentially become that alternative path, if the Sky-feeder wasn't a route they wanted to go.
Now they are instead in at the deep end, and in the process are likely to shed all bar maybe 2 or 3 British riders. By moving up to Pro Conti level they also become ineligible to compete in the Tour Series, as the UCI bars teams of that level from domestic competitions of this sort.
In the official announcement, it was confirmed that 8 riders from Endura will make the cut, with apparently 12 coming from the 2012 NetApp team.
The new NetApp-Endura team will presumably continue to be led by former Telekom rider, Tour de France stage winner and former German National Champion Jens Heppner, who was the NetApp DS in 2012. However many of the Endura staff will be retained - including Brian Smith and presumably Rob Hayles and Winn.
With Tiernan-Locke all but a Sky rider, that leaves us to guess the eight out of fifteen 2012 Endura riders who will make the move, with the other 7 riders and presumably numerous support staff now looking for work.
Camaño, Mandri and Zakkari Dempster have been consistent performers all year, and Thwaites is an obvious up and comer. Russ Downing has top level experience but at 34 may not want to step back up. NetApp have many reasonable riders themselves with Bartosz Huzarski, Leopold Konig and Jan Barta likely to lead the team and promising Austrian sprinter Daniel Schorn capable of a fast finish when he's not being ordered to work for Team GB.
I think this new 2013 Pro Conti team will be an exciting endeavour, and I will certainly be cheering for them at the couple of races I hope to visit this coming year. This move solidfies the economics for another team that will hope for some Grand Tour wild card spots.
On the assumption however that JTL is gone to Team Sky, I find it difficult to see where this improves either side on the road, and as my notes above suggest it actually closes some possibilities on the home front. They will no doubt hope that the financial stability however and potential appeal to the German-speaking market may entice big-race invites in 2013 and beyond.
And hopefully this new British-connected addition to cycling's 2nd tier offers future opportunities to the up and comers that it is hoped the recent boost to cycling in this country will create.
Endura picture by by Larry Hickmott | www.VeloUK.net, used under a creative commons license