Team Raleigh 2011
The white-clad Raleigh team shoots towards the Majorcan town of Santa Maria del Cami, tight in formation. Two groups from Leopard-Trek fly by in the opposite direction, followed by a couple of Sky riders. Raleigh is back - and that's the road they want to be heading down again.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Raleigh was king. It felt like everybody had a Raleigh: they made the bikes all the kids wanted, whether it was the Chopper or the Burner. At the same time, the Dutch TI-Raleigh team was the one all the others wanted to beat, boasting the likes of Tour de France winner Joop Zoetemelk, Hennie Kuiper and Jan Raas. Their red, black and yellow jersey still exudes a retro cool today.
The Raleigh name and reputation also endures; the heron motif remains iconic. But 30 years on from Raleigh's heyday, the professional cycling scene is a very different place. Raleigh hasn't thrown its backing behind a British racing team since Raleigh-Banana two decades ago.
The factories in Nottingham ceased production in 2002, moving, like most bike brands, to the likes of Indonesia, Bangladesh and Taiwan. With Team Raleigh spearheading the charge, their ambition remains the same: to build an outfit that can ultimately race the Tour de France within five years or get a ProTeam riding its bicycles.
"We recognise the fact that we've been away for a good few years," marketing manager Geoff Giddings tells CW.
"Everything has to be governed by funding. A longer aim is to have Raleigh visible on the ProTeam scene. It's not pie in the sky - it can be achieved."
We're in the sleepy Majorcan town of Santa Ponsa for the squad's pre-season training camp. While the Burger King and McDonald's sit boarded up in this expat-friendly corner of the island, Team Raleigh is very much open for business.
This is their version 2.0: after a return to the scene in which results failed to match the fanfare, Raleigh return with a new-look squad and management, a tweaked kit design, an exciting international flavour and a palpable buzz about the season. "We're painting on a new canvas," new manager Eddie White says, from the front of the team car.
It's a pretty picture too, of five-hour rides in the Majorcan sunshine, riders rotating closely and putting in the groundwork for a strong season.
New managers White and Cherie Pridham, former bosses
of the Plowman Craven team, are under no illusions as to the challenge facing them. If they are to grow in the future, home is where the start is.
"We've got to be good on the domestic scene; we want to win races," Pridham says. So, when asked about plans for ultimately riding the Tour de France, she is realistic. "It's how the team performs as to what the outcome is," she responds.
The first 12 months of their ambitious five-year plan didn't exactly go to script. A silence falls when I ask Dan Fleeman and Liam Holohan - two of the three riders, alongside Richard Handley, retained from last year's set-up - what went wrong.
White interjects, keen to chase away questions about the past incarnation: "We're not interested in what happened last year; we're moving forward. The name is the same, but that's about all that is." In truth, little went right.
Team Raleigh finished fifth in the Tour Series of criteriums but failed to crack the top five of any Premier Calendar. Former Cervélo Test Team rider and anticipated team leader Dan Fleeman had "personal problems" during the year and didn't make a big impact on a British scene not suited to his lean climber's frame.
In their cosmopolitan European programme, Raleigh rode spiritedly in races in Norway, France, Portugal and Spain but ultimately had little success.
Even luck wasn't with them at times: the freak Icelandic ash cloud grounded hopes of racing the Tour of Mexico.
Behind the scenes, it was messy. Raleigh and team manager Chris Truett parted company in August, and there have been claims from former riders of disorganisation, high pressure and riders being left to their own devices, uncontacted for several weeks after Truett left.
Liam Holohan is more pragmatic about the experience. "It happens for a new pro team, I think we all learnt a lot from last year," he says. "It's a lot more professional now, which makes the job a lot easier. Tour Series, Premier Calendar, elite crit series, UCI races: we maybe didn't have a squad capable of riding everything."
Fleeman points at the pressure that comes with riding the heron-logoed bikes. "I think the problem is with Raleigh being such a big name, expectation was very high. Had it been a normal team, without Raleigh's history, it might have been different."
However, a new year sees a renewed focus and an improved roster. Fleeman adds: "Now we've got climbers, sprinters, rouleurs, time triallists. We didn't have anyone who could sprint purely last year; we've got at least two this year."
This year, the international focus continues, alongside the aim of performing better in the Premier Calendar and Tour Series. Entries have been made to the Tour de Beauce in Canada and plans are afoot to race some summer criteriums in America.
Raleigh even returns to its spiritual racing home of the Netherlands to kick their season off at the Ster van Zwolle next Saturday. It's the traditional Dutch curtain-raiser, all dykes, driving winds and divisions.
At the evening team meeting, four days into the camp, White asks the riders if they have any issues to raise about the day's ride. Matt Cronshaw pipes up: "I've got one." White pauses, expecting something serious. "Tell Richard to stop making those climbs look so easy!" Cronshaw says, without missing a beat.
The man he is referring to is quietly-spoken 20-year-old Richard Handley. There's a lot of excitement from both riders and staff about the Warrington-born talent. "You should have seen him go up Soller [Majorca's best-known climb]. He's a little gem who hasn't reached his full potential," White tells us admiringly.
Not just an able climber, Handley is a former junior national 25 champion and already has an 18-minute ‘10' to his name. Having finished his first Tour of Britain last year as a teenager, he's the brightest of several youngsters to watch out for.
Only 22 himself, laid-back Cronshaw is a former Rapha rider and Premier Calendar race winner, claiming the Blackpool Grand Prix in 2009.
Alongside Fleeman, he is likely to be at the forefront of Raleigh's plans. "It would be nice to get back to winning ways," former fell runner Cronshaw says.
"Everyone is incredibly strong, but it would be good to ride for myself sometimes. With Raleigh, there's more opportunities for everyone." There's also flame-haired Frenchman Gaël Le Bellec and Milton Keynes man Matt Jones, hardened from a year's racing in Brittany.
The initial signs are promising from a team full of fresh faces and potential. "This is the best team atmosphere I've ever seen," Giddings enthuses.
Still, training camp potential is one thing, gaining results is another, and the proof will come in competition.
Although it's a long way from Nottingham or the Netherlands, a quiet Majorcan town could be the point from which the Raleigh heron begins its flight back to the top of cycling's pecking order.
NORTH AMERICAN FLYERS
Heading the international line-up are three amicable North Americans. Canadian Jamie Sparling and Americans Phil Mooney and Ryan Parnes bring great enthusiasm to the team, as well as boosting the squad's all-round Tour Series potential. They're also part of Raleigh's synergising marketing effort; Sparling is backed by Raleigh Canada, Mooney and Parnes by Raleigh America.
The three became firm friends last year after deciding to have an impromptu barbecue halfway through an American stage race.
They live with Jeroen Janssen in a house on the edge of Derby, but it's been quite a journey to get there.
The trio talked to British riders Ben Greenwood and Dan Craven about the home scene at the Tour of Tobago in October.
From there, it was a case of sending off their CVs and being proactive. After a seven-year degree in business management, part-time DJ Sparling didn't hesitate: "It was something I wanted to be a part of; there's no room to sit and twiddle your thumbs. I haven't looked back, it's been awesome."
It's a big year for all three. "It's intimidating in a way, but also motivating. You hear the good and the bad: some speak of the romance; other people come back home and just quit cycling," Sparling said.
Self-confessed fan of technical crits in the rain and Canadian national team member Sparling won't have any problem with the British weather: he was raised on rides at -15ºC in Calgary.
Parnes's nickname is ‘the Mammoth', more a comment on his sheer size rather than his body hair, CW hopes. A rock of a man, he's apparently got a rocket of a sprint on him too.
Meanwhile, Mooney is a beacon of optimism. In his one full season on the Californian scene, he's already impressed.
The man dubbed ‘Philly Elliott' for his toes-down riding style has also been motivating his new team-mates in unorthodox ways. "They ride harder and harder to get away when I start pointing out and naming the rocks," geology graduate Mooney laughs.
RIDING WITH RALEIGH
Wednesday afternoon sees one of the longest rides of the camp. At the morning briefing, the teams are diplomatically halved into ‘Team 1' and ‘Team A' for a TTT drill later. "At least a Raleigh rider wins," quips Jeroen Janssen.
The first hour is a gentle spin out towards the north of the island to remove the lactic nasties from the legs. Then, it's team time trial practice. Although a little ragged in their changeovers at first, White's team quickly gets into its stride. They almost catch Pridham's sextet before the road narrows into a town, traffic and the end of the effort. The playful debate about whose team won lasts long into the evening.
From Santa Maria del Cami's skinny backroads, there's no rest. It's soon up the testing five-kilometre climb of Randa, which concludes with a monastery, a dead end and a spectacular view over the Balearic island.
From the top of Randa it's a beautiful swoop down towards the island's capital, Palma. Well into the fourth hour of the ride, the team still isn't hanging around either, pushing 45kph most of the way.
Rides like this are not just good for building the base, but also where a team spirit is fostered. Back from a hard day's training, the Raleigh lot aren't too knackered to have a good laugh.
Whether making fun of Matt ‘Kippo' Kipling's ‘ability' as film and television critic - finding dodgy films and the first five Friends series brilliant, his usual opinion of "that film was unbelievable" only occasionally changes to a knowing "I disagree" - or drily-funny Liam Holohan explaining the intricacies of Fred Dibnah programming to the clueless foreign riders, it's rarely quiet at the Raleigh dinner table.
This article originally appeared in Cycling Weekly magazine February 17 2011