By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - Bob Varney could be excused at times for thinking he is pedalling a up Mont Ventoux with a flat tyre as he tries to keep Britain's only professional women's cycling team on the road.
Things are so tight for his Drops team, launched by the 59-year-old businessman in 2016, that his 10 riders are unpaid and the team bus, a "converted horsebox" might have to be sold.
Thankfully they still have an abundance of young talented riders, a Cannondale bike deal, an eye-catching kit, heaps of goodwill and will continue fighting in the UCI pelotons until the end of the road season.
Beyond that, the future is cloudy.
What he would give for a fraction of the 35-million-pound ($43.33 million) budget enjoyed by British powerhouse Team Ineos, formerly Team Sky, owned by petrochemical billionaire Jim Ratcliffe.
Team Ineos chief Dave Brailsford does not have to scrimp his way around the Tour de France, where this weekend Colombian Egan Bernal is set to become the seventh man from the team to win.
Ineos have around 34 full-time crew supporting eight riders.
Globally, women's cycle teams survive on minimal budgets compared to men's and Drops, the name inspired by a brand of Varney's wallpaper business and handlebars, rely on sole mechanic Reg Brench and volunteer Nick Dorey, a retired headmaster who drives the bus around Europe and a few day-rate staff. And of course the tireless Varney.
"I asked Dave for Jim's mobile number but I've not heard back yet," Varney joked when talking to Reuters at his home office in Woburn next to box loads of team kit.
"I've been the biggest investor in the team for over four years, it's been a retirement-changing investment. We have enough funding to get to through August, then we have September to fund, which is why we might have to sell truck.
"That's basically how dire it is."
Varney dabbled with road racing but realised he was "a better coach then he would be a rider" and ran a youth programme in Milton Keynes that included Ian Stannard and who's riders raced regularly against the likes of Mark Cavendish, Nicolas Roche and Geraint Thomas.
After being invited to sponsor a local cycle shop team (Corley-Drops) in 2015 he got the bug and later that year, after taking a group of up-and-coming female riders to a race in France, decided, along with son Tom, to form a women's team.
"The aspiration was to create the most 'professional' women's amateur team in the world," he said. "We were not paying our riders a salary but the girls were well looked after.
"If you are a woman and want to ride the road, it's not easy. There are lots of horror stories of girls going abroad and not getting the support or the best conditions.
"The fact we didn't have any money didn't stop us being as professional as we can and we have done that ever since."
Their race debut was on a freezing cold day in Belgium (Le Samyn des Dames) where Lucy Shaw was 57th.
Drops "nudged top 10 and top 20" in UCI races in 2016 and when bike giant Trek signed as co-title sponsor for 2017-18, Varney, then based in Belgium, could finally fulfil his ambition of paying salaries of up to 24,000 euros.
In 2017 Alice Barnes achieved top 10 finishes at the OVO Energy Women's Tour, Gentâ€“Wevelgem and Ronde van Drenthe.
Barnes subsequently moved to leading team Canyon-SRAM, without any transfer fee, despite Varney's investment -- a consequence of a "flawed system" he said.
Just when the team was on a roll, Trek withdrew at the end of 2018 to set up their own team.
A "global brand" lined up to fill the void then pulled out.
"We were ripping up races all over Europe, we were set fair. Then Trek decided not to renew," Varney said.
"We had contracts drawn up (with a new co-title sponsor) but they pulled out three days before the UCI deadline," Varney said. "We had told the girls we would be in the top 15 in the world, doing all the big races. That was a hammer blow."
High-profile signings like Dutchwoman Demi Vollering moved on but the team continued thanks to a crowdfunding campaign and backing from three or four businesses that raised around 100,000 pounds. But Varney admits they are "cobbling it together".
"If it wasn't for me being so stupidly in love with it the team would have folded," he said.
Drops have enjoyed 11 UCI pro tour wins, 13 podiums and 59 top 10s and still boast the likes of world track champion Elinor Barker, sister Meg and Ellie Dickinson on the roster -- all of whom are funded by British Cycling's track programme.
The others combine training with part-time jobs.
Varney says increased TV coverage of events like the Giro Rosa and the OVO Women's Tour show, and next month's RideLondon Classique show the potential.
He points to a spreadsheet showing Drops have 'media value' of 9.4 million pounds last year.
"We don't need 35 million," he said. "But it should not be this much of a struggle."
($1 = 0.8078 pounds)
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge)