Morgan Fox wants his EvoPro Racing team to ride every race like it’s their World Championships, but Wednesday’s Belgian Classic doesn’t need any extra motivation.
is Irish third-tier Continental team gets to rub shoulders with elite company at Scheldeprijs (1.Pro), where Sam Bennett of Belgium giants Deceuninck-Quickstep will be the hot favourite. The final cobbled Classic of the spring is rarified territory for EvoPro, who are one of only two Continental teams to get an invite by race organisers Flanders Classics.
Fox, who is co-owner with former Cycling Ireland president PJ Nolan, has lofty ambitions of leading this team to the Tour de France in the future but Wednesday is about making an impact in the only way the underdogs can.
“Schelderprijs is just going to be for (Sam) Bennett or (Caleb) Ewan. For us it’s an exercise in getting a man in the break and having him on TV all day and try and knock a top 10 out of it in the end,” says the former Irish national road race champion.
The second part of their objectives will be the responsibility of experienced sprinter Michael Van Staeyen, but Navan man Seán Nolan and Westport’s Ben Walsh are among the seven-man squad riding in support of the Belgian.
“In this race Van Staeyen’s been in the top 10 twice, it’s in his home town, it’s huge motivation. He’s mad for action,” says Fox.
Action has been in short supply this season with Covid restrictions hitting the racing scene in the Netherlands and France. Fox had hoped to base their race programme in this part of Europe for logistical simplicity – they have a team house in Aalter, Belgium – but with races being cancelled at short notice he’s had to be flexible.
And after turning down invites to events in Spain and Italy at the start of the year, he’s returned to them, “cap in hand”, seeing if there’s any room left on the startlist. Recent invites to Volta a Valenciana and Belgrade-Banjaluka, however, will make April a busy month.
They also have to deal with the added complications of Covid protocols, which requires every rider and staff member to pass multiple PCR tests.
“It’s tough, because we’re not flush with money. It’s still the same protocol for us as it is for (Team) Ineos. This week could cost us two grand in PCR tests alone,” says Fox. “It’s probably something the UCI should be looking at, subsidising the smaller teams, but it’s unlikely (to happen).”
One of the easier parts of the job for the 47-year-old team manager and directeur sportif has been finding talented riders to add to his outfit for their third season on the road. Recruitment at this level has long been a buyer’s market and Fox says there’s no shortage of young riders, many chopped up by the U-23 level, looking for another road to go down.
“It’s almost like walking into the bargain basement and finding a Versace jacket. And that’s what these guys are and we really believe in them. We get them to believe in themselves and tell them it’s not over. They’ve almost been brainwashed in France and Italy (to think) that it’s game over at 22,” says Fox, who only turned professional himself at 24.
Giving riders a second chance was one of the motivating factors when Fox established the team. He had been left holding the reins as DS of the Holdsworth team when he received a call from England halfway through the 2018 Tour of Qinghai Lake in China to tell him they were folding with immediate effect. The riders were left high and dry.
“I almost felt a sense of purpose that I had to help them out, and I was enjoying it. Then it morphed into something I didn’t expect. It just became a vocation more than anything. ‘I’m going to make this work, come hell or high water’.”
The Chinese race had been a turning point in Fox’s life before. Thirteen years ago, his own racing career came to a shuddering halt when a high-speed crash left him with nine broken ribs, a punctured lung, multiple internal injuries and head trauma. He spent a month in a Chinese hospital and many months more at home recovering. While the Athlone man slowly put his body back together, in the years afterwards he noticed his hearing slowly fading.
Fox has detailed before the traumatic morning in 2012 when he woke up to a world of silence. He would spend the next few years communicating by iPad and learning to lip read before an experimental cochlear implant in 2016 restored Fox’s hearing almost as quickly as he had lost it. He’s been making up for that lost time since.
“The original reason I got into (team management) was to push the limits of what a cochlear implant can do,” he explains. “It was only in the early days of the implant when I started with Holdsworth and I was surprised that I could hear a race radio, communicate with riders and have team meetings, it was great for me.”
The long-term ambition is to bring EvoPro to the next level and develop the team into a leading ProContinental team (second-tier), which would open the door to the Grand Tours. That could be a €10million project, which obviously requires clever signings, management and, of course, money.
They’ve brought Paragon Group on board as a sponsor this year, a company with an Irish base and global reach – a bit like the team.
“It’s new to them, but they’re a typical Irish company, in that it’s not soccer, it’s not GAA, it’s not rugby, ‘why haven’t we heard about it?’. And then the more they’re getting into it they’re seeing, ‘Jesus this is way bigger than rugby’,” says Fox.
“They’ve come in at a mid level, enough to keep us ticking over, but at the same time they have indicated that they’d like this to be a five-year project, where they can help us build it up into a Tour de France team. They’re realising bit by bit that the only show is the big show.”
The ‘big show’ comes with greater pressure, higher stakes and more scrutiny. Having ridden through the 2000s in Europe, Fox knows the sort of questions that hang over the sport, he’s been on the “receiving end”, and they come up again whenever he deals with potential sponsors. He believes his own experience can help him, and his fellow DS Tim Meeusen, assess the current state of the sport.
“We’re pretty astute today. The first question you’re asked in any (marketing) meeting is ‘what if we get another Lance Armstrong incident?’.”
“It’s understandable, but it’s frustrating. You look at what this sport does, it does the best of any sport in the world to keep its nose clean, as far as doping is concerned,” he insists.
“And we know, we’ve been on the receiving end of a ‘650cc motorbike’ in our time. I hope I don’t eat my words but you kinda know from guys, I’d almost be able to tell intuitively.”