The world of professional cycling is extremely competitive and dominated by a few well-funded teams that are sponsored by some market-leading brands. Team Sky is probably the most well-known, having won the last two Tour de France titles with riders Sir Bradley Wiggins (2012) and Chris Froome (2013) in their colours. Among the other current pro-cycling teams Team Europcar, Garmin Sharp and Belkin all are global brands and invest many millions in their teams.
Back in 2009 a brand new team was being assembled by ex-pro rider Ralph Denk to be based out of Germany. His goal was to build it around young, very hungry riders, most of whom were just setting out in the world of professional cycling. Denk’s guiding principles were hard work, collaboration and a burning desire to achieve something. You might call it “aspiration with perspiration”. One other aspect that was keenly important to him was a zero tolerance for any performance enhancing drugs which had become a blight on the sport during the 2000s.
At this time NetApp in EMEA was also focused on a similar set of guiding principles – hard work, collaboration and a burning desire to achieve even more. Denk was looking for a sponsor, NetApp was looking for ways to raise brand awareness and visibility. It seemed a potential marriage might be on the cards.
During the courting phase, NetApp shared its values with Denk: integrity, adaptability, teamwork, leadership, going beyond and getting things done. These are the core values that every NetApp employee lives by each every day. For NetApp to entertain any form of relationship it really wanted to see if there was a match in those values. Happily, these dovetailed almost precisely with the values Denk wanted his team to embody. And so it seemed that based on the synergy of values and attributes, the team could become a metaphor for NetApp EMEA and show that whilst scale and size is always preferable, youth, energy and nimbleness can be major factors in future success.
So the marriage was consummated and Team NetApp was born. NetApp believed the youth of the team was analogous to the relative youth of NetApp in the storage market. When NetApp burst on the scene as Network Appliance in 1992 there were several extremely large vendors in the storage space, principally IBM, HP and EMC. NetApp forged itself a place in the market and grew to be a $6bn over a 20 year period, overtaking all but one vendor in market share. What got NetApp to the #2 spot was its focus on those values and aspirations, together with some very clever engineers back in Sunnyvale. NetApp had a goal of becoming a dominant storage supplier and to strive for the top spot. So it was quite natural that NetApp and the team would set its sights on the pinnacle of serious road racing – taking part in riding the most prestigious tour of them all, the Tour de France (TdF).
When Team NetApp surfaced as a pro-continental team in 2010 (two divisions below the big teams like Sky) there was real belief both in the team and in the main sponsor NetApp, that with application anything was possible. In their first year in the UCI Europe Tour, Team Netapp finished with six wins, 30 top-ten finishes and numerous classification jerseys. That success was crowned with an immediate promotion into cycling’s second league.
As a small and brand new team, Team NetApp was not invited by course to participate in the main races in the world such as the Giro D’Italia or the Vuelta a Espana. To get a place in those races, Team NetApp needed to be awarded a wild card for each race. Getting a wild card is a result of consistent performance in previous events, a convincing presentation by the team principals to the organizers and a belief from the organizers that the team adds something to the lineup.
The 2011 Pro Continental circuit offered Team NetApp a first-class racing schedule however and indeed, they began to get invited to some of the most prestigious races such as Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse. They displayed an aggressive, attention-grabbing and successful style of racing, and podium spots in the general classification at the Österreich-Rundfahrt, Tour of Britain and Tour de l’Ain showed that the team was on the right track.
By 2012 the team was made up of 17 riders from nine countries, including seven new signings and that season was crowned with the successful participation of the team in their first Grand Tour ever – the Giro d’Italia. Going even further they achieved 32 podiums and four invitations to top-league races. The Giro is generally reckoned to be the second best race in the world and the team’s performance exceeded all expectations. It cemented the view that a place in the Tour de France was indeed possible.
In 2013 Team NetApp added some muscle to the team by introducing an additional new sponsor, Endura, a British cycling clothing company. This allowed the team to add six riders to the squad and beef up its scale. In order to have a shot at the Tour de France it certainly needed to increase its squad.. The team was renamed Team NetApp-Endura, with Netapp remaining the principal sponsor.
Czech rider Leo König, who joined the team in its second year, won a Vuelta a Espana stage in a spectacular manner and placed ninth in the general classification in his first grand tour. It was a success that no-one had counted on and Team NetApp-Endura finished the three week tour as the most popular team in the Vuelta a Espana. 24 podiums and nine wildcard invitations rounded out the most successful year of Team NetApp-Endura.
Meanwhile, at the end of the 2012 season the team had bid for a wild card for the Tour de France 2013. After such an outstanding 2012 race reason they were confident they had an appealing case. Unfortunately the organizers reduced the number of wild cards to a minimum and Team NetApp just missed out, although they were given a lot of positive feedback from the organizers on their application.
However being so close and that encouragement just fortified the team even more, and so during the latter stages of the 2013 season they once again prepared the bid for the next TdF event. They truely beleived that the team’s success in the Vuelta and the number of podium finishes in 2013 would carry even more weight this time round.
And sure enough – earlier this week the TdF organising committee announced the 22 teams taking part in one of the world’s most famous sporting events. They are the Pro-Cycling teams and the 4 wild card teams, one of which is Team NetApp-Endura.
This is the goal that we set out with 4 years ago. To have achieved it from a standing start within that time frame with very limited budgets and an inexperienced, youthful team, is quite remarkable.
What has got the team to this pinnacle of achievement?
Team spirit, commitment, honesty and openness are the values that have propelled this team from zero to the TdF. These are also the values that are demonstrated day-in day-out by the team’s main sponsor NetApp. The fact these are congruent is not by chance.
I am sure the goal now is to have a rider win a stage and wear the maillot jaune at least once, but to have got to this position with such a young and relatively inexperienced team should be an inspiration to us all.
The Tour start on July 5th with the first three stages being in the cycling-mad UK before moving to Le Touquet for the rest of the race to be run in its home. See the route here. And don’t forget to root for the men in blue and white – Go Team NetApp-Endura!!