Juggling a full-time job with training and racing, squishing into a hired minibus to travel 30 hours to European races, burying yourself during a hard stage race to then cook your own meals and wash your bike/kit. It’s all par for the course for small cycling teams on limited budgets. Here, rider Alice Sharpe of sponsor-seeking elite team NCC Group-Kuota-Torelli, reveals the highs and lows of Tour life on a small budget – and how it didn’t stop her kicking ass on the Tour Ta Malta podium.

Photo Credit: Gary Lake photography

As a small team with big ambitions, our limited budget must be used wisely so it was decided that this April’s four-day Tour Ta Malta would double up as the team’s training camp and early season opener. Myself and four NCC Group-Kuota-Torelli teammates, along with our Team Manager, Tony, headed over to sunny Malta.

Like many other smaller teams, riders are responsible for booking their own flights and accommodation. For the Tour Ta Malta, the organisers had arranged an accommodation deal which provided riders with meals and airport transfers, making things a lot simpler. Normally whilst we’re away, we’re responsible for cooking our own meals before and after racing, so this was a bit of a luxury!

It’s unusual for us to fly; normally we’re cramped into a minibus heading for Dover. But on the odd occasion like this, when we do fly, we need to pack our bikes and all our race kit into our bike bags and boxes. I’m a bit of a lazy packer, always trying keep my bike intact and avoid removing as little as possible as I’m rubbish at putting it all back together at the other end.

Riders are also responsible for providing and preparing their own bottles and sports nutrition e.g. Gels, recovery shakes, pre-race pasta or rice. Another thing to squish into your bike box!

We might be a small team with a small budget, but I don’t know any different, although it’s pretty obvious when we turn up to race in Europe in the borrowed Dave Rayner van, having driven for 30hrs, and other teams have multiple vans, buses and cars. Having said that, we’re only a small team and we haven’t earned the status to be a major team with all the gear.

Plus, it’s a massive buzz when you’re beating riders whose fulltime job is to ride a bike!

Stage 1: Time Trial and Prologue

This was the first ‘real’ race of the season and after a long winter I was raring to go. The course was a simple 15km out-and-back Time Trial along a closed costal road accompanied by a brutal cross wind.

To save on costs (and the trauma of dragging two bike boxes through the airport), the team had only taken our road bikes over to Malta. The locals, however, were out on their full TT rigs. Using a TT bike over 15km provides a noticeable advantage over those riders on road bikes. Despite this, my teammate, Steph [Mottram], smashed it and finished 2nd whilst I finished 5th.

After racing we rolled back to the hotel which was just a 15-minute ride away before grabbing some lunch at a nearby café. The rest of the day was free, so we took advantage of the hotel’s hot tub before chilling out in our rooms and resisting the temptation to go out exploring.

There’s always a few jobs to do in order to be prepared for the next day, like cleaning our bikes and generally checking them over to make sure they’re 100% ready. The hotel had a large underground car park, but as we didn’t have a hosepipe it was a ‘baby wipe and pouring bottles of water over the bikes’ kind of job. Luckily, Malta is dry so the bikes weren’t so dirty! Next, we needed to wash bottles and kit – the main downside of staying in a hotel rather than an Air B+B is glamorously washing your kit in a sink with travel soap powder.

Stage 2: St Paul’s Bay Bypass

This was my kind of course! Eight laps of a circuit which included two fast sections over a closed bypass road – plenty of room for attacks. This was followed by a technical descent which had an almost dead turn at the bottom onto a climb to the start/finish line.

I felt strong and kept the pressure on every lap as we hit the hill. This tactic worked; on lap 3 the leader’s jersey looked to be losing her composure whilst other riders where being blown out the back.

As we descended for the final time and turned the sharp right back onto the foot of the climb, I was boxed in, which of course hadn’t been my plan. I went wide and attacked to catch the bunch off-guard, perhaps a little early as I still had 500m to go, half of which was the climb, but I held onto the lead to take the win.

Lots of teams have the luxury of a swanny or a masseuse – something I’m always very jealous of! After the race, washing our bikes and kit is down to us, as is stretching, yoga and making our own food.

Like the rest of my teammates, I have a job, but my work is freelance (I work on the planning and delivery of major sports events, mostly in Manchester). I’m very grateful that this gives me so much flexibility in terms of time, earning and scheduling.  I work flat-out during the off season to basically fund the summer of racing. This winter in particular I feel I’ve forfeited a bit of my winter training to do so, but it was my plan so we’ll see how it all works out come race season!

I know that lot of my teammates find in difficult to get time off work or college to come racing – particularly around events like the Tour series which are mainly mid-week, all within a 4 week block … it’s intense!

Stage 3: Gozo Road Race

Today was an early start as the day’s stage was over on the neighbouring island of Gozo, a short ferry trip away. When we’re up racing early I always like to bring overnight oats along with me, as I can’t stomach food immediately after waking up, and this works perfectly.

Stage 3 was another hilly one, basically just up the hill and back down again 5 times – perfect for me!

Attacks went from the gun, time gaps were tiny between riders so it was really all still to play for. After three ascents of the climb, the bunch had shrunk to just 5 riders. One of those we’d managed to shake was the leader’s jersey, and we pushed on to open this gap even wider. I needed to keep the pressure on if I was going to out-sprint these riders on the line. With 2 laps to go, I attacked on the descent. With me came my teammate, Steph, and two other riders.

The three of us worked hard together to hold the gap and as we approached 500m to go, I started to wind my sprint up. I don’t think the other riders were expecting me to go from so far out, but I managed to hold on to take my second stage win!

Back at the hotel, all four of us girls share a room – it’s a bit cosy. It’s also a bit of a nightmare after a race when you’re all fighting over who get a shower first.

In the UK, we sometimes have a lovely parent along to cook our dinners, which is amazing, particularly during stage racing as it’s so important to eat as soon as possible. However, if we’re away in Europe, it’ll be the riders’ responsibilities. We’re normally in self-catered accommodation so we’re able to cook whatever we like. Normally we’ll share and all chip in with the cooking and food shopping. If Tony’s feeling generous he’ll clean our bikes, but other than riding he’s in charge of everything else to do with the running of the team, so often it’s left to us.

Stage 4: St Martin’s Circuit

The fourth and final stage. To get our teammate, Steph, up to first on GC we needed to gain her a minute on the leader. The plan was sit in until lap 3, where we’d put in a strong attack to attempt to gain some distance on the bunch. I’d take the stage win whilst helping Steph gain a minute on the leader’s jersey to take the GC win.

It was windy and exposed. There was also a dead cat in the middle of the road which distracted me momentarily each lap!

The plan didn’t quite come off; over the short stage a minute was too much of an ask against the rest of the bunch. I took the stage win, whilst Steph finished second on the stage leaving her 2nd on GC. Despite winning 3 out of the 4 stages, the time lost on the TT together with the absence of time bonuses for the win left me in 3rd place on GC. But I’ll take a stage win over GC any day!

After a hard race, it does sometimes feel like a chore to clean my bike and make my own food, but to be honest it’s the same for many women’s teams and also lots of men’s team. At the end of the day, I feel extremely privileged to be riding some of the top women’s races and holding my own. Ultimately, it’s a hobby, one I take very seriously, but I feel you have to earn the big buses, the cooks, swannies, 7 seats of kit, free nutritional supplies etc.

I’m excited to continue working with the NCC Group-Kuota-Torelli team and to see where this talented bunch of riders can get to with another season of racing under our belts.

If you can help Team NCC Group-Kuota-Torelli regarding sponsorship for 2018 please get in touch via torellisport@aol.com

You can follow Alice on social media via www.instagram.com/alicessharpe and www.twitter.com/alice557 and via her website, www.alicesharpe557.com

For news and updates on NCC Group-Kuota-Torelli follow the team on www.instagram.com/teamtorelliwww.twitter.com/NCCKuotaTorelli and www.torelliracing.co.uk