Starting next season, Drapac Capital Partners will partner with Slipstream Sports to create a development squad that equally emphasizes racing and higher education.
The team will be a UCI Continental registered squad based in Australia that competes in Europe for part of the season. Management will require riders to enroll in university courses or apprenticeship programs during the off-season — a mandatory requirement — but will schedule racing that’s conducive to studies.
The approach, while uncommon and testing of young riders in several ways, has been adopted to develop racers into well-rounded individuals.
“I’ve seen too many great people dedicate their lives to cycling and they’ve totally ignored everything else. And then something happens, a crash or they aren’t able to move up in the ranks, something. And they have enormous difficulty recovering as human beings. We seek to prevent that. We seek to prevent athletes being used as disposable assets,” said Michael Drapac, who founded the Drapac team.
The partnership is a natural extension of both organizations’ ideals. The first team Slipstream CEO Jonathan Vaughters managed and financially backed was 5280-Subaru, a junior development team. The genesis of the Drapac program came from the idea that developing complete athletes as opposed to one-dimensional bike racers was a better way to run a cycling operation.
“Michael and I have been friends for over five years. We share a lot of the same philosophies and visions, and we’ve worked together on other projects. I’ve been helping him scout potential investments for his real estate company in the Western U.S., for example,” said Slipstream’s CEO Jonathan Vaughters. “I look forward to working with him and creating a unique development team for riders who want to divide their time between studies and moving their way up to the WorldTour.”
Since its inception in 2004, the Drapac program has sought to encourage holistic approaches to athlete development, including an emphasis on transition plans for riders done not as afterthoughts but throughout a rider’s career.
“Cycling has been and continues to be a sport that uses up and quickly discards riders without looking out for their futures beyond results and immediate salaries,” Drapac said. “We’re going to keep working to make it a more sustainable business and sport from both athletic and intellectual perspectives.”
While the approach is exacting mentally and physically, Vaughters doesn’t see it as a hindrance to performance in the end.
“Do I think that you can successfully identify talent that can succeed in the WorldTour when riders are dividing their time between studies and racing and training? Yes, I do,” he said. “In fact I’ve seen many examples where highly intelligent riders perform better when they have one physical and one intellectual focus. It balances them out. It can lead to better performance. A great example of an up-and-comer in the United States who I think is doing this pretty well is Sepp Kuss — he won the mountain-top finish at Redlands and he’s a university student.”
Kuss is enrolled at the University of Colorado at Boulder currently, studying advertising. He says he may or may not turn professional.
“This team will race in Europe basically tailored around when these kids are on break. When they’re not on break then they’ll be doing local races around where they’re going to university and training,” Vaughters said.
Another successful example is the Cannondale Pro Cycling Team’s Mike Woods, a neo pro at 29 years old after finishing a degree at the University of Michigan and switching to cycling after a foot injury derailed his elite-level running career. Larry Warbasse also graduated from the University of Michigan and now rides for IAM Cycling.
Does it slow down the potential development of a young rider by maybe a year? Possibly. But in the long term, does the time to study have a detrimental effect on a racer’s career prospects?
“No, I don’t think so,” Vaughters said. “The upside is too great to ignore, anyways. It benefits some guys tremendously to be able to explore intellectual and physical avenues at the same time. We just want to make it easier for the right athlete to strike that balance.”