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© John Levison / Tri247.com
Uplace-BMC: Managing Success
Posted by: John Levison
Posted on: Sunday 11th January 2015


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One-to-one with Uplace-BMC Pro Triathlon Team Manager Bob De Wolf

Launched in early 2014, the Uplace-BMC Pro Triathlon Team are currently on their early season training camp based at Sand Beach Resort, Lanzarote. Developed from their Belgian roots, the squad expanded to an international structure for the 2014 season and delivered an impressive set of results including Ironman wins in Melbourne, Lanzarote, Nice and Frankfurt, the Ironman 70.3 European Championships and ended the year with Helle Frederiksen winning the high profile and big money Challenge Bahrain. British athletes Corinne Abraham and Will Clarke remain part of the team for 2015.

East Grinstead based Belgian Bob De Wolf is the Manager of the team, and I sat down with him at Sands Beach to review 2014 and look forward to what lies ahead for both the team, and the sport, in 2015.


Many of our readers will be aware of BMC bikes, but for those not familiar, can you tell us a bit more about Uplace, and their involvement in triathlon?

Sure, Uplace as a company is a real estate developer. Their flagship project is developing Europe’s number one retail destination – similar to the Westfield Shopping Centre developments in London. Uplace, and especially the owner Bart Verhaeghe, started investing in triathlon in 2008. It was with one athlete then, a local athlete, to support them in developing as a professional triathlete – an investment based simply on a passion for the sport. In 2010 a second athlete joined, Sofie Goos - who is still part of the team today – and from then the idea developed to create something bigger. In 2011 the biggest professional team in Belgium was created, and that was the start of the Uplace Professional Triathlon Team.

A unique concept for triathlon was a holistic approach – working with a team doctor, a physio, a marketing department, a communications director – things, alongside the equipment and training, that an athlete needs to be a professional but also to give back to the sponsors. These are elements, which are difficult for an individual triathlete to create for themselves. That approach, setting things up as a proper company/business, is definitely what has helped us become a sustainable model.

How did that model, based on Belgian athletes develop to then create an international athlete team that we see now?

From 2011 to 2013 we won 12 Ironman events with the Belgian team. We knew we were doing something right, so were looking at the next step. During that time we started talking to BMC, who also had very clear ideas about how they wanted to progress in triathlon. At the time they were supporting individual athletes in the sport, but for them they realised that the way forward was within a team set up, like we were doing on a Belgian level.

The initial conversations trace back to 2011 and in 2012 we signed an intention agreement with BMC, while 2013 was really a year of working it all out and setting up a structure for how the international set up would work in practice. That’s really how it came together – a Belgium team with a track record in triathlon combining with BMC to form a triathlon team on an international basis.

Having those elements come together, and a proposed structure for how the team would work, what was the process by which you identified and selected the athletes that would form part of the team?

It all started first operationally – how the team would work. Logistically, working on a primarily European basis made sense. Then, we worked with our partners to identify their target markets and requirements. So, with Uplace, there was still a commitment to Belgian athletes. For BMC (Swiss), other goals and markets etc. that were key targets to those companies and our other partners.

For athlete selection it was based on three elements. Firstly the athletes CV – what they had achieved so far. Secondly, the ‘interview’ – was the athlete a good fit for the team structure, based on their personality etc., and finally an objective ‘screening’ – a lot of our athletes were tested in the lab. Together, that gave us a basis on which to make selection. We also really wanted to work with some younger ‘potential’ athletes – e.g. like Will Clarke – who had a great background in short distance racing, but was at the early stages of moving to longer distances. At the other end, athletes like Ronnie Schildknecht who were proven, having already won nine Ironman races and gone under eight hours. All of those elements combined to result in the team we have now. We felt we managed to find a good balance of young, developing athletes and those with a proven track record of success at the top level already.

Will Clarke on the BMC TMO1 ©Bert Stephani

A year along with the international team now, when you sat down and reviewed the operations of the team, were there any areas which you identified that you weren’t doing that you’ll be adding for 2015, or things you’ll be looking to enhance for this year?

In all honesty we felt that a lot of the things we did last year have really worked, so in a way we won’t be making any big changes in our operational running. We also feel that the staff we are working with in all departments are doing a fantastic job – and in a sense we can back that up in terms of results; we won 21 times and made 46 podiums, so we feel we are definitely working in the right way. It doesn’t mean we aren’t looking to develop or to grow or develop – during the 2014 season we added a sports masseur in the second quarter for example – but we haven’t identified anything major currently. That is the role of our Sports Director, to identify if there are opportunities we can investigate which will improve the running and performance of the Uplace-BMC team.

One thing we will focus on this year is that we feel that now the project is ready to be opened up to new partners, and especially focusing on brands outside of the sport. Triathlon is a very positive sport in terms of values, and now offers a great time for brands outside of the sport to invest in triathlon. Our marketing set up, what we can provide back to sponsors in terms of return, combined with the global reach we achieve is certainly an avenue we will be investing in this year. We will be looking to create opportunities for brands from outside to come on board, to work on the legacy for the long term to ensure that the team can prosper for many years.

It’s nothing new in principle, it is what happens in cycling. For example Partick Lefevre from the Etixx-Omega-Pharma team, before that Omega-Pharma, Domo, Mapei etc – you create a great structure that works, with fantastic athletes, and provide opportunities for brands to be part of that as a vehicle for their marketing communication – alongside and consistent with our goal to be the best triathlon team in the world. That will be something we will continually focus on this year.

Helle Frederiksen ©Bart Stephani

One of the elements of the team structure is that you don’t have a central ‘team coach(es)’ set up – most of the athletes still work individually with other coaches. Was that a deliberate decision, and how do you integrate that such that the goals of the athletes and their coaches are still consistent with those of the team?

Very good question - when we started as a Belgian team we worked with team coaches, and that worked well. When we moved to an international team, with athletes who had worked for many years with different coaches, we moved away from that model, more to the culture you see in cycling where the team offers advice in the form of a Sports Director, and it’s him who has a close relationship with the athlete and their individual coaches. It’s the coach and athlete who set out together the training plan for the year, and the Sports Director has the opportunity to suggest new ideas, to benchmark, to sometimes question – it’s also the point of contact for the coach an athlete for testing, for equipment etc, and it is working really well.

How will the objectives of the team change in 2015 given the changes we are potentially seeing in the sport this year, specifically the addition of the Middle East Triple Crown announced at Challenge Bahrain?

Absolutely, for us the Triple Crown will be a team goal. We want to be the best team in the world in terms of results – we want to be successful at the biggest races in the world and be seen at those events, so our focus will is to be competitive at the World Championships at Ironman, at Half Ironman and the Triple Crown events. Thus, our primary goals will include both Ironman and Challenge events.

With the team structure you have, there are a lot of similarities with the established team set ups in professional cycling. One of the negatives of the cycling world over several years has been the impact of doping. How to you approach the doping issue, and are there things that you can do in terms of anti-doping, in contracts for example, to reduce the potential impacts to the team in this aspect?

Absolutely, I’m really happy you asked the question. It’s always a sensitive topic but it gives me an opportunity to explain how radical we are in terms of our anti-doping policy. For us, we make a really clear stance as a team that we absolutely have a zero tolerance policy in relation to doping. We integrate this through the team as contractual obligations of course which are very clear, and also through our team doctor in terms of blood screening. All of our athletes have blood testing done after every big training block or race in terms of recovery, to review their vitamin and mineral levels etc. The screening is not done purely in terms of anti-doping, but it also gives us an opportunity to monitor the athlete consistently through the year. All medical related issues are run via our team doctor exclusively and together form part of the zero tolerance approach to doping.

Are there any new partners that will join the team for 2015, having seen the success and exposure you had in 2014?

When we started with the international team, many of our partners believed in the longer term project and so 90% of our partnerships were set up for two years or longer, which gave us a great platform to work on a two year window, so we will continue with a lot of our partners from last year. We really felt we created great partnerships with all of them.

New for 2015 is Ogio (www.ogio.com) who comes on board as a travel and sports bag partner for the team, also Technogel (www.technogelsleeping.com) who is a partner for mattresses and sleeping pillows for the athletes to travel with and offer them sleeping comfort wherever they are in the world. Almost all specific product categories of suppliers needed have been identified over the years and we have a great network of sponsors in place now.

Anything else we should know about the team and what we can expect in 2015>

I honestly hope we can continue with what we did in 2014. It was a very ambitious project, but it was fantastic to see how we performed throughout the year. If possible we’d like to perform even better in the World Championship events. We had strength in depth with six top ten finishes over the three World Championships (Ironman, 70.3 and XTERRA), but we will aim for the podium this year and hope that happens.

Good luck with the team this year, and thanks for your time Bob

Thank you, John


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