Marcus Maher speaks to cyclist Matt Brammeier and Rick Delaney to chart the journey
I meet four-time Irish national road champion Matt Brammeier at the Federal Café in the pretty town of Girona, northeast Spain on a chilly December day to talk about the first ever Irish cycling team to come from these shores to tackle the tough and relenting world of Pro bike racing.
Brammeier, a seasoned professional, broke his leg in an incident that nearly ended his career in 2007 and suffered another horrendous crash in 2015 at the Tour of Utah.
He was denied a chance to ride at the Olympics in London in 2012 even though he had won the Irish national championships that year. So it’s true to say he’s seen his fair share of travails down the years, both personally and professionally.
He smiles: "You’ve kind of pinpointed the worst parts of my career. For those four negatives there have been hundreds and hundreds of positives".
Brammeier is an affable guy, who shares a similar history to myself as we both originally hail from Liverpool and like most Scousers with Irish roots, he is straight talking and socially aware. His progression is more than just cycling he tells me. The team he rode for previously, Dimension Data, the first African Team to have competed in the Tour de France brought an awareness of cycling into the closeted world of European bike racing that had not been seen before. Brammeier helped raise awareness by giving back to communities a bicycle scheme fund to help those under privileged in the poorer parts of Africa.
"We cyclists can be selfish and this charity Qhubeka was something I wanted to be part of. I look back and the team tell me they are very grateful to me for what I have done. I feel the opposite. I feel I kind of owe them for what they have given me," he says.
Now, Brammeier’s next journey is with the Aquablue team and it feels like he will be coming full circle as it was with Sean Kelly’s continental team ‘An Post’ that he established himself in the professional ranks.
"I started quite late. I still feel quite young and this team feels right - the trajectory that is - and Rick [Delaney] is as passionate as me in reaching that target" - that target being the first ever Tour de France for an Irish squad.
AquaBlue is the name of Cork native Rick Delaney’s business. He is a self-made man now based in Monaco.
Delaney’s passion and charm is palpable as he tells me via La Turbie, just outside Monaco.
"This project is more than cycling. It’s a self sustaining team supported though our e-commerce website, so what people spend on line goes directly to maintaining the life of the squad," says Delaney.
It’s seen as a new and fresh approach to financing a cycling team through the transactions of those on‐line, the customers.
Aquablue at An Post Ras 2016 ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne
"Running a multi-million euro squad is all about the cooperative help of our customers and clients, if anything they are contributing to the running of the team, we are just merely the facilitators. The website goes live on the 1st January," he adds.
Delaney also feels the presence of being Ireland’s first ever professional outfit has been somewhat overlooked in the mainstream media.
"It should be a huge thing but for some reason it’s gone under the radar. We are effectively an Irish team playing up against Champions League teams in the cycling sense," says Delaney.
However, what started a little over five years ago, as a purely amateur team based in Cork has gathered momentum year by year. Delaney has gathered around him a young squad of like-minded people.
"I was approached by Tim Barry (the team manager) to fund the amateur team. As I saw the team progress, he then approached me again to see if we could make this a continental team. I said why don’t we make it a pro‐continental team (this is one down from the UCI World tour teams). It didn’t seem crazy, I thought how cool would that be?" says Delaney.
Matt Brammeier ©INPHO/Ciaran Fallon
AquaBlue got the right backers and applied for a UCI license, which came through in September. Quickly the cool dream was attracting the likes of Matt Brammeier, bringing track World champion Martyn Irvine out of retirement and adding other big world tour names like current British road champion Adam Blythe, Andy Fenn and Norwegian Lars Petter Nordhaug from the Sky team, Austrain Stefan Denifil, and American Larry Warbasse.
For Brammeier the incentive is not lost as he spearheads the Irish contingent. He hopes this step up will give the other Irish riders a boost: "Martyn (Irvine) and Conor (Dunne) have super motivation. Martin had a lot of bad luck with crashes and Conor will be keen as mustard coming from the neo ranks".
Delaney sees this merely as a start also to allow Aquablue to be a feeder team in identifying new Irish talent. He
has already put in place the Junior Aquablue squad and like Sky, those who show the talent and desire will slowly come through the ranks and get their opportunity at Aquablue.
"This is the hope, that we can put something back and keep this team on the road and the only way you do that is through helping those talented enough to make them break through," says Delaney.
It is a part of the jigsaw Brammeier feels was missing when he was recently at the World Championships in Doha
"I got talking to the juniors and they seemed lost to where they could go to get help, or funding. I even mentioned the Emerald fund and they had no idea what it was," he says. The Emerald fund, like Qhebeka is a support network set up to help those who don’t have the funds, or the means to self-sustain a life in pro‐cycling and beyond.
But for now, for both men, the goal and the target is the Tour de France. Like Sky before them they have put a time limit on that goal. For Sky, it was to win the Tour de France within five years. For Matt and Rick it is merely to be at starting line and for Rick the pride of name to bring that team to that start line.
"Like I said, I don’t see this as a dream, I go into everything whether it’s my business or now with the team as setting ourselves targets, Why would you be here if that wasn’t realisable."
And for Brammeier it would be a dream he’s nurtured since he was a kid cycling for Liverpool Mercury and something still missing from his palmarès: Riding a Grand Tour.
"I used to rush home as a kid and watch the Tour," he says. "The history, the fact it’s the biggest cycling event in the world."
I tell him, ""hat about others tours, if the Tour didn’t come to pass, the Vuelta in Spain and the Giro in Italy?"
Again he smiles: "The tour is the tour and if any young cyclist tells you it isn’t well then they’re lying."
In four years we will see if the red white and blue of the Tour will be lit up with a bit of green with the name Aquablue.
Interview and words by Marcus Maher