Esra Tromp: Pushing Dreams
Former pro Esra Tromp now heads Parkhotel Valkenburg, a ladies’ World Tour team that punches far above its weight and has brought its own philosophy to the women’s peloton. We sat down with Esra to ask her about the changes she’s seen during her time in the sport, the challenges and business opportunities that women’s cycling now faces, and why her team is so successful.
__BACKGROUND__I was a racer first, but always looked at things from an organisational perspective. I’d studied business administration in Nijmegen at Radboud University. There, you are really taught to think about how organisations are set up, what strikes you about them, and what you would want to differently. My family is full of entrepreneurs too, so that’s really in me—to want to establish something. I love bike racing, but at a certain point, I didn’t have the physical condition to perform anymore, so I had a conversation with the director of the team, Raymond Rol, and he asked me if I wanted to run the team with him. The team has already been around for ten years, so seven and a half years at that point, but it was more of a team of friends, a glorified club team really. So, I said, I do want to do that, but then I want to reinvent it and turn it into something different. We then had a conversation with our head sponsor and informed him of our plans—said that we really wanted to give the team a new twist. It was all a bit last minute, getting everything sorted. In 2018, we continued with what we had been doing with a bit of a new impetus. This year, we’ve turned it all upside down.
__RACING EXPERIENCE__I rode for two teams—the old Parkhotel Valkenburg and what is now Sunweb. I rode for them for three years. So, I pretty well experienced the two extremes. One was a team where the protocols, the rules, science were all-important—and I think that was good—and the other was a team that was really fun and had a relaxed atmosphere. So, they were two extremes, and I thought, if you really wanted a good team, you would have to have a bit of both. That was, at least, my idea. You can completely turn to protocols and science, but I think that that is a bit too much. For a team, fun and intrinsic motivation are extremely important. Results follow naturally. You need knowledge and science, but success can only come from the riders themselves.
__TODAY’S PELOTON__The quality of racing has improved enormously, and I think that’s because ever more attention is being given to women’s cycling. More and more men’s teams are starting women’s squads. There is more money, so there is more money for research and development, and I think that has brought about a lot of progress in terms of training and so on. I think there has been a lot of improvement in men’s cycling too. The men are faster now as well, but there was way more room for improvement in women’s racing. That’s why bigger steps have been made.
__INDEPENDENCE__We can now do what we want. We’re not dependent on a sponsor that is making decisions for a men’s team that the women’s team then has to follow. I think that that is a really big advantage. We stand on our own two feet and have our own identity as a team. If you’re with a men’s team, you’re always an appendage. The men’s team is always the priority, and that is logical, because that is where the money comes from and that is where the marketing comes from, but you’re always an add-on, I think. That’s what I see now anyways.
The one good example of a men’s-women’s team is Mitchelton-Scott. There, the women are accepted by the men, and there is real collaboration. The rest just seem like extras. I think that’s a shame, and I would rather be able to create our own identity and really be able to mean something for our riders.
__SPONSORSHIP__It is still very hard to find financial sponsors. There is a big difference between putting down a few thousand euros and a few hundred thousand euros. With less money, you get a better return, or scope for your marketing, with a women’s team. You can really do a lot, and, I think, for a lot of sponsors that makes it interesting. With €20,000 or €30,000, you can actually make a real impact for a team. In men’s cycling, that would hardly show up on the balance sheet.
There are absolutely sponsors who specifically want to sponsor a women’s team, because it is a new niche market for them. If you look at Sunweb or Lotto-Jumbo, there are only big-name sponsors involved, but who knows which bikes they are riding, or which wheels, or what sports nutrition they use? It’s a lot more difficult to become well-known as a small sponsor with a men’s team than a women’s team.
__PUSHING DREAMS__Everyone starts with a dream, be it as a racer or a soigneur. I dream of running a major team; a director wants to be the best director. It all begins with a dream. That is something that we really encourage, even if it’s a small dream. You don’t need to win races to be a part of our Pushing Dreams story—if you get the best out of yourself. That is what we want. We want everyone to do everything that they can do to get the best possible result. That is what Pushing Dreams is all about. In the future, it is something that I would like to expand, not necessarily only in cycling. It is a concept that you can use in a wider societal context for other talents and people. If someone can write very well, we could give them a platform to write a blog for us during the Giro; a great photographer might get the chance to make pictures for the team to further develop her talents. There could be so many possibilities.
We recently held a contest on Instagram, and there were girls who said, my dream is to one day ride with your team, or to race one day. That is so cool.
__SECRETS TO SUCCESS__For one, I think we have put a really nice team together. The most important thing when you are creating a team is to have girls who fit well together, so you really get a good click between them and can create a vibe in which everyone wants to ride for each other. We have a couple of very strong riders. We have riders who still need to develop and are therefore glad to ride for someone else. I think that that is also important—that you don’t just have leaders, but also riders who want to play a supporting role and grow into it, so that they can later win races. What is also important, I think, is that we all really enjoy it. Our results stem from the fact that we are having fun and really want to race and help each other achieve our dreams.
At some teams, where there is more money involved, everything is much more businesslike and stricter. It’s work. With us, it is also work, but we take a different approach. We’re allowed to lose. With me, it’s okay if you lose, because you will learn a lot from it. So long as you are developing, that is okay.
__INFRASTRUCTURE__I think that we are much more focused on supporting the riders. Behind the scenes, everything is in order at the team. We have a super medical team, a super trainer, super mental coach—a really solid team that comes to all the races. Organisationally, I think we are very well structured. We certainly don’t do worse, and, I dare say, even do better than teams that have bigger budgets. I don’t think we are a small team. We’re done with being small.
In Heerlen, we have a team house. The riders can meet our mental coach, and we have a complete medical team, a physio. We organise all of the training camps for the girls. We have excellent equipment. There are all sorts of things that we facilitate for the riders. I think coaching is really important for the mental aspect. Every week, the riders have a conversation with a coach from the team, so they can further develop themselves and get tips that will help them make further steps. I think that is an enormous benefit for the riders.
__MORE THAN CYCLING__Cycling is nice, but, if it’s not going well, it’s good to be able to do something else. I always studied besides my racing and worked a bit too. On the one hand, that’s busy and difficult, and you have to live in a very disciplined way, but eventually you really benefit from it. You learn about yourself and how to live in a structured way, and you continue to develop your mind, which is super good when you have to decide what you want to do after cycling. So, we really encourage that. Some of the girls decide not to do that, and that’s fine, but Sofie De Vuyst, for instance, works 40-hour weeks. Lots of the girls are studying besides their racing, and we only support them. They only have to ensure that they can keep their lives organised, because otherwise it wouldn’t work.
We try to invest in the development of our racers as people too. If you become more mature and develop as a person, you’ll also see that on the bike. You’ll stand more firmly in your shoes and sit more firmly on your bike. That’s how you make progress. It’s super important.
__AMBITIONS__We want to remain amongst the world’s best. What I would really like to see in a couple of years is a strong development team to complement our World Tour team. We’re going to begin one next year—a club that will be a part of our organisation, where the riders will be able to get coaching and support and ride a nice programme, so they can continue on to the World Tour team.
I also hope that in ten years women’s cycling has taken another step, an enormous step, and is coming closer and closer to men’s racing in terms of budgets and so on. It would be nice if we were equal, but for me, that’s not necessary. It’s about continuing to develop.
__CHALLENGES__The biggest challenges lie with the race organisers and the UCI, getting everything well organised. As soon as there are more broadcasts and bigger races—there already are good ones—but as soon as there is a better calendar, and more media attention is given to ladies’ cycling, sponsors will get a better return on their investments and that, in the end, is what professional cycling is all about.