Despite a lack of WorldTour status, Valcar Travel and Service is one of the most successful women’s teams of the season with seven UCI victories to date. Chiara Consonni’s win at Dwars door Vlaanderen was the biggest success to date. They are ranked eighth on the UCI ranking. The Italian team is a talent factory with Elisa Balsamo, Vittoria Guazzini and Marta Cavalli, as the most prominent names, now having success at World Tour level. But Valcar Travel and Service struggle to stay afloat in the current cycling structure of Women’s World Tour teams and continental teams, of which they are one of 50.
The team was created in 2008 with girls aged 12 to 14. They added a team for 15- to 16-year-olds and when they had a successful generation of junior girls, they created a third team within the structure. Valentino Villa is the driving force. Davide Arzeni has been the sports director since the start of the team.
“We had already won everything in Italy so we thought about starting a UCI team with the many talents we had in the junior team. This was in 2016 when Elisa Balsamo became world champion. She was on our junior team together with Chiara Consonni. Chiara launched the sprint for Elisa in Qatar,” Arzeni smiles at the memory. “It is one of my best memories.”
The team is very much the brainchild of Villa, the owner of the company Valcar, which produces industrial equipment. He considers the riders to be family, says Arzeni. Many Italian team managers have the same philosophy and go above and beyond for their riders.
“Due to COVID in 2020, one of our international riders had not seen her family in a year. Valentino paid for her trip back home even though she moved on to a World Tour team in 2021,” Arzeni says. “The team is all about honesty, generosity and respect towards the athletes but also towards organizers. We were invited to a race in Belgium a few years ago but only had five riders. Valentino signed another rider to make it six so we could respect the organizer’s wish to ride with full teams. Up until today, this shows in the invitations we get from race organizers.”
In cycling, there is no system in place where a team who develops a rider gets a fee for those development years like football has after the Bosman case. If a football player makes a transfer all the clubs before can share in a percentage. Smaller teams like Valcar Travel and Service develop riders and then see them move on to the World Tour.
The team’s eighth place on the UC ranking means it does better than half of the Women’s World Tour teams. The team is a however not a World Tour and finances are tight. Valcar can’t offer riders the same (minimum salaries) World Tour teams can.
“It’s difficult,” Arzeni says. “The problems become bigger every month because everything costs more money. Don’t get me wrong, I am really happy for the girls who go on and earn more money but for a team like ours it is becoming harder. We try to convince them to stay when we feel they are not ready for the World Tour yet. At the highest level, there is a bigger risk of burning out and then you disappear from the radar. In that case, your career is over anyways. The wage gap between what we can offer and the minimum in the World Tour is getting bigger every year.”
“Maybe the solution is to collaborate with a Women’s World Tour team and have an agreement,” Arzeni continues. “They could invest in a team like ours and let us develop the riders who are not ready yet. We talk about this but so far, I only got nice words and nothing else. The same happens with starting a cooperation with a men’s cycling team.”
With big names like Elisa Balsamo, Marta Cavalli and Vittoria Guazzini, the team has proven it has the right eye for talent. With the likes of Chiara Consonni, Ilari Sanguinetti, Silvia Persico and Canadian Olivia Baril the next generation is ready, both in the pro and the junior women’s team.
“We started as a junior team in Italy so we were the point of reference for young girls,” Arzeni says. “It became natural in Italy that talented young riders joined us. Our talent is that we develop them from juniors, see them go to other teams and then have a new generation ready. We also spend a lot of time scouting talent. Scouting is not only about seeing online who rides a top ten. I spend 200 days a year on the road because we ride so many races. I watch all the races and see who attacked, who was strong or maybe had bad luck, who has potential as a climber or sprinter. Results lists are not always the most important because maybe that rider in the top ten never worked with the team and is a bit selfish? I don’t want that rider even though she rides top ten.”
Italy has an incredibly strong young generation of riders. Aged 30, Elisa Longo Borghini is the oldest of them all meaning Italy has a great future ahead. For Arzeni it’s a danger that development stops now because there are so many strong Italian riders already
“This generation born between 1997 and 2000 is super strong. We saw that early with the physical maturity they had quite early on. This is lucky and we have to stay working on it. In Italy, all the men’s World Tour teams have already disappeared and we don’t have Women’s World Tour teams either. It’s incredibly hard to find sponsors in Italy. If there are interested companies they invest in foreign teams. I don’t understand this,” Arzeni says.
It’s clear the team does something very right with the strong riders they developed. Elisa Balsamo took the junior world title and the elite world title while being on the team.
“I have been her coach since 2015 and I assure you that we have not seen everything yet. She can still improve. She waited until the right moment to join a World Tour Team,” Arzeni says. “We gave her all the opportunities to ride the best races in the world and develop as a leader without too much pressure. I am proud to say we not only helped her to be a leader on the bike but also how to work with her teammates. Elisa is always respectful and humble. I am proud to have played a part in her development and in the wonderful rider and person she is.”
Another rider who is thriving on Valcar Travel and Service is Silvia Persico. There were glimpses of what the 24-year-old Italian could do in the past few years, but 2022 has been her breakthrough year. Over the winter, she won the bronze medal at the cyclocross world championships behind Marianne Vos and Lucinda Brand. On the road, she often finishes in the top of World Tour races like Trofeo Binda, Strade Bianche, Gent-Wevelgem, Vuelta a Burgos and Ride London.
“Last May or June something clicked for Silvia. She started to believe she could be with the best riders in the world,” Arzeni says. “It was physical as well as mental growth. She was ready many years ago but something held her back. That’s out of the way now and her future is wide open and very bright,” Arzeni smiles.
Another rider who was developed by Valcar Travel and Service and is gradually becoming one of the best in the world is Chiara Consonni. She has been with the team since her junior years.
“Chiara is just pure talent. We have been working together since 2015,” Arzeni says. “I try to give more continuity in her training and therefore in her results. Our approach is successful. I believe that soon she will be among the top three sprinters in the world. Seeing her win her first race in the Ladies Tour in the Netherlands in 2019 is one of my best moments. Together with Elisa Balsamo becoming world champion of course,” he adds. “That was the best of them all!”
Despite all the success, the many top riders the team produced and the current pool of talents the future is not looking bright. The team struggle to secure funds to stay afloat and the dream of becoming a Women’s World Tour and having a sustainable model in women’s cycling is far away.
“Economically it’s very difficult because you need more than two million euros. We were close to becoming World Tour last year. On the other hand, if we became Women’s World Tour it would also not be the Valcar team we know. We are in a good place in women’s cycling with all the new races parallel to the men’s and all the TV time we have. The biggest problem is not having a U23 category where a team like ours could thrive because we lose too many riders because the jump from juniors to U23 is too big. There should be a place in cycling for a development team like ours. That’s a dream for me but I am not sure if we or Valentino Villa can continue like this because even a development team is getting too expensive.”
With the Tour de France Femmes avex Zwift on the horizon he has one dream.
“The yellow jersey for one of our riders on the Champs Elysées,” Arzeni says. “That would be my dream and that of Valentino. It would be a perfect moment after all we created together.”