Thomas Wickles: an intern and his dream job.
The best women’s team in the 2019 World Cup was one based in Germany: The Ghost Factory Racing Team based in Waldsassen, Bavaria. Thomas Wickles is the man who has steered the fate of the team since its foundation in 2010 – and with great success. How he got this “dream job” virtually as an intern in the first place, what he has learned in the all-women team since then, why for now he is unemployed at the World Championships, why Albstadt, the World Cup and the World Championships are so important and how a serious accident changed his attitude towards life, he tells in the series 20 heads for 2020.
Team managers are important figures in cross-country sports. Simply put, they provide the environment and setup in which their athletes can perform. Some in this role are ex-professionals, others started out as coaches and still others are originally marketing people.
Thomas Wickles, how did you actually become a mountain biker?
This is a very bad story (laughs). I just had no talent for ball sports. But as it says in the book that was recently suggested to me: Talent is overrated.
So, talent is overrated. Why did you become a mountain biker then? And what about your talent?
Well, Franconian Switzerland, where I come from, is predestined for mountain biking. I was 13 or 14 when I got my first mountain bike. Full suspension bikes just started to be on the market. I thought that was cool and I had to have one. As a consequence, it quickly became competitive sports for me. But there was no structure at home and nobody who had any idea of it.
So you were on your own?
I’ve tried everything myself. I’ve been doing it for a few years to see where my limits were.
And where were the limits?
Not at world cup level. It was rather amateur level or Bavarian level. I was among the best in regional series and I could also win. If I had known then what I know now,.. well, however, there was nobody who could have helped me. Thus, we founded a club in the village ourselves and did learning by doing. But it was okay, my talents were more with regard to technical riding. Today people would laugh about what we did back then.
Nevertheless it was obviously your entry into the mountain bike world.
Yes, it was. For me, everything revolved around bikes. I was making money in a bike shop after school. After I passed my A levels I did an apprenticeship in a bike shop and worked there during my business administration studies, too. I did my internship for my studies at Ghost-Bikes. At that time I didn’t know anybody there, but I found it exciting.
So that’s how you ended up at Ghost. But how did you end up manager of the cross-country team?
Well, at Ghost everything went very quickly. One of the two (then) bosses asked me if I wanted to write my diploma thesis about sports sponsoring, or rather about sponsoring a team and managing the team myself. And that’s what I did. I had my final exam in 2011 between the World Cups in Dalby and Offenburg (laughs).
That was a quick start into professional sports.
I didn’t have much experience. If you were to tell me today that we would hire an intern and entrust him, for example, with the management of a downhill world cup team, everybody would shake their heads. But back then, everyone in the company was convinced.
For the Ghost brand itself, it was also new territory to organize a team.
Before that, the team of Sabine Spitz had been supported as a sponsor. But they were not satisfied and preferred to do it themselves. That´s what initiated everything. And it was not a bad team that was there.
In 2011, the first team Ghost Factory Racing included three young Germans in addition to the overall World Cup winner of 2009, Lisi Osl from Austria and the reigning European Champion Katrin Leumann from Switzerland. The German Vice Champion Anja Gradl, the Junior European Champion of 2008, Mona Eiberweiser, and Johanna Techt, third place of the European Junior Championship 2010. All three came from Bavaria. Eiberweiser and Techt had to end their careers early due to injuries. In the World Cup, Lisi Osl and Katrin Leumann achieved several top ten results; however, it was never enough to get on the five-person World Cup stage in the first year. That came little by little. In 2013, the two Ghost ladies Katrin Leumann (3rd) and Alexandra Engen (5th), stood on the stage in Albstadt.
It wasn’t a team of strangers you were leading as an “intern”.
That was already a notable setup. The learning curve was very steep in the beginning. Pietermaritzburg (South Africa) was my very first World Cup and the first race where everybody was together. It was really hard to conjure that up out of nothing. It was extremely hard work, but I didn’t know what to expect. That’s why I was not afraid. Today I would be afraid simply because I know what is involved. Back then I thought: cool, that sounds like a lifetime dream.
Did you really want a job like that?
I used to work in a bike shop with Cannondale bikes and that’s why I knew Daniel Hespeler (Team Manager at Cannondale Factory Racing). Also Benno Willeit from Specialized. So I could also look behind the scenes. I thought, phew, yes, that would be a dream. But there are not so many people who have such a job. So I didn’t think much about it, but it seems fate would have it this way.
You studied business administration and then wrote your diploma thesis on sports sponsoring by means of a mountain bike team. Is that why you also took a scientific approach for the implementation?
The studies have little to do with what I do. But such studies change the way of thinking, the approach. I believe that I can work through tasks in a relatively structured way. The studies have helped me with that.
(Laughs). There are two or three sayings. Problems can only be solved when they occur. That means for me then, not to think about what might happen, but only deal with things when they actually happen. But if I had known what to expect, I would have studied pedagogy for a couple of semesters. Of course I have to calculate, but the task is more varied, more far-reaching.
You speak of pedagogy. Is it a special challenge as a man to lead an all-women team?
The most important thing is the composition of the team. Then you will face far fewer challenges in everyday life. In the past this has not always been the case.
Sport is about performance, about results. Is that the main focus when putting together a team?
When deciding for or against an athlete, very different points come into play. Where does she come from? What is her sporting level? What is her social media appearance? But the most important thing is that the athlete fits into the team, into this social structure, because the athletes are also competitors among themselves. I believe that this is a key to success. I sometimes had to make unpopular decisions. You also have to be able to go separate ways if it doesn’t fit.
What role do results play?
I think we have become good at telling the related stories and getting the maximum out of it without winning. Of course it´s nice to win an Eliminator World Cup, but for Cross-Country we are compared with the elite. But also a U23 World Championship title makes a lot easier. I imagine someone who has won the lottery. Suddenly you have a lot of friends. But it´s those relationships that have developed before that are really valuable.
But a World Cup win is certainly of great importance.
You cannot plan for such a victory. You have to think about what you can tell, which stories are interesting. It’s all about community, we work together, we bring each other forward. But it’s not just a story, it’s what we live. Good results make it easier and you should be a little bit ahead of the game to make the stories credible. But whether it’s first, tenth or 15th, the athlete behind the start number is the same. This is currently the great thing about women’s cycling. We have four different winners in the 2019 World Cup and many more potential winners.
As far as the importance of the atmosphere in the team is concerned, were you not so aware of this in the early years?
I couldn’t have put it that way then. But I have learned that each individual changes a social group in a very strong way. If one didn’t fit – and we had years like that, too – then I didn’t have any fun. But I have learned from this and now I know how important it is.
By implication, does this mean that the atmosphere in the team also has an impact on the results?
On race day it has little impact, I would say. In Cross-Country the riders can help each other very little. There are individual characters that will never work in a team, at least not with us. That’s completely okay then, too. Some of them might really be egocentric, but there are also riders who are on their own for a long time and don’t need the team. But some of them work better in a group. They look at their teammates: how do you drive the rock, do you also have stomach ache and so on. Experience shows that a good drive opens the door to a dynamic, everyone has fun and can help each other.
If you lock yourself up in a room all day, don’t participate and just want to take advantage of it, it’s not going to work. Of course something in return is expected. And that refers to the entire team. The entire support staff, for example: Our mechanic Uwe Kampe has been with us for eight years as well as our physio Sebastian Knauff, and our handyman Andy Gilgen has also played a big part in making everything work so well. This is not a one-man show and that is also the key to success.
Would you say that an all-women team works differently?
I can’t say that because I have never worked with male athletes before. But I do know that women are wired differently than men. Women have a different approach. I wouldn’t presume to say I understand women’s world. But maybe this much: it is not more difficult, but other things are important. Physiologically, women have different prerequisites than men. The female cycle, that’s a topic that can be talked about normally. For 20-year-olds it is not so simple. You have to dispel the concerns and build trust.
Is there a hierarchy in the team?
In the beginning there was always talk of a team leader. But what do you need it for? Why should we appoint one? No, there is no need. Everyone has the same prerequisites, the same opportunities to make the best of it.
Regardless of the bare results?
Of course, I’d be lying if I said I thought a 37th place was as great as a podium finish. But that’s how it is: one you have to comfort, the other one celebrates. That’s why it’s so great when you stand on the stage with the team. Everyone is on the stage, even when one is not doing as well as the other. But that motivates everyone and everyone gets the same respect from us.
Thomas Wickles, known as “Tom”, also experienced the other side of the sport two and a half years ago. First-hand. During an MTB tour, the now 37-year-old fell and broke five thoracic vertebrae. He only just escaped paraplegia.
Has your serious injury you suffered while mountain biking changed your emotional approach to mountain biking?
No, it has changed my general attitude towards life, but not towards MTB. Today, I am in the happy position of being able to cycle almost normally and lead an almost normal life. I appreciate little things more. For example, that I can be in South Africa right now and do my job, but also that I am able to walk. I am aware that I was very lucky the injury didn´t result in paraplegia and I am grateful for that. But I am also reminded every day of this. I certainly live more consciously.
The Ghost Factory Racing Team has slowly but steadily worked its way up over the nine years of its existence. The female athletes the team from Waldsassen in Bavaria included to the team were never absolute world class riders. Still, a few of them have become one. The trend reached its all-time high in 2019. Anne Terpstra won World Cup races for herself and Ghost in Andorra for the first time. Later she climbed to number one in the world ranking list. The 22-year-old Swiss Sina Frei became U23 World Champion and stood on the Elite World Cup podium three times. In addition, the team also won all team rankings. Hungary’s Barbara Benko is the third in the team, in addition to U23 rider Lisa Pasteiner from Austria and the newcomer in 2020, Caroline Bohé from Denmark.
So they’re all the same to you?
(Laughs). One is just a little bit more equal because she’s my fiancee. This is a situation I didn’t want to have. But with Anne (Terpstra) it happened nonetheless. I didn’t choose it that way. It is now one of my biggest challenges to treat everyone in the team the same, Anne at worst even a bit worse, so that nobody gets the idea that I give her preferential treatment. But it’s just that she lives with me in Waldsassen and is more involved in the development of the bikes than the others. I hope that all four of them see it the same way. We have an open discussion culture and everyone has their trusted advisors on the team.
Lets get back to the fact that Ghost is an all-women team, at least as far as the female athletes are concerned. Is this a conscious decision?
No, it wasn’t consciously intended that way. It was created that way, we added to it and so on and it turned out to be a great unique selling point, even more so today than it was then. We have stuck with it and it has proven itself. In the beginning, the financial aspect also played a role. Unfortunately, it is still the case today that women are paid less, even though probably four out of five women’s races are more exciting than men’s. In any case, I am proud to be a part of it.
2020 is the Olympic year and often a clean break is made at the end. Do you already know if and how the team will continue?
I can use this interview as a platform to announce with pleasure that we already have a commitment until 2024.
The team is regarded as a success story?
We are part of a group, (the Dutch Accell-Group) and in the end it is a business decision. Of course, the last season has given us a boost and put us in a better situation. Everyone is a bit euphoric.
Unlike World Cup events, where most bikers compete for their team, a World Championship is a matter for national teams. The national coaches are responsible and the organization is up to the federations. However, it is not uncommon for national teams to work together with their athletes’ professional teams at the World Championship to ensure the best possible support. After all, they usually have the same interest.
What significance does a World Championship have for the team, with a female athlete wearing the national jersey?
If you leave the Olympics out of the equation, then a World Championship is the most important race for the riders all year round. For a team it is relatively less important because the riders don’t wear your jersey. We are there with the same support staff and equipment, we offer the same setup with the team tent, from the coffee machine to the physiotherapist and mechanic. But for now there are no athletes. Some more or less make use of this, also because some national teams are better organized than others.
Does it matter in Albstadt that you ride for a German brand?
In Albstadt we are going in a different direction. It is a home World Championship for us. Germany is the most important market and we try to use the World Championship as an advertising platform. At a World Championship our athletes are less available to us, but for Germany it’s cool to have a World Championship. But especially if you can compete for medals, a World Championship is also extremely valuable. The average visitor might not even notice the difference, but that doesn´t matter. World Championship, that’s always a catchword everyone is familiar with. It is one of the biggest sporting events and it will certainly be a great event.
Is it generally important for you as a German team that there is a German World Cup and World Championship in Germany?
Absolutely. It was pretty bad when there was no German World Cup after the end of the 2012 Offenburg World Cup. The fact that there has been a World Cup in Germany since 2013 is very, very important and advantageous for the sport. I feel the same in my circle of acquaintances. Albstadt and World Cup, everybody knows that and many have been there.
What must happen in 2020 to make you happy?
First of all, that all athletes from the team look back and are happy with their season. I appreciate what we have achieved in 2019. But it has taken so long that it would be presumptuous to say we will achieve the same again. Of course, that would be a dream scenario, but when you see that Marika Tovo (Italian who left the team after one year) suffered fractures twice, it is clear how thin the ice is. You can hardly get through the season as a team without injuries. If we do a good job, then it will definitely be a good year.
I would wish for good weather for the World Championship.
What are you most looking forward to at the World Championships in Albstadt?
Most of all the spectators. At a World Championship they arrive days before, they are people who bring enthusiasm for the sport. In the end they will make the event special. When it´s getting crowded, it will be really great and the athletes will have goose bumps.
Role: Team Manager Ghost Factory Racing
Successes in his role:
World Cup victory by Terpstra 2019, Team World Cup overall winner 2019, six Eliminator World Cup victories by Alexandra Engen (5) and Anne Terpstra (1), U23 World Champion title for Sina Frei 2019
Further information on: www.wm2020albstadt.de