Rod Ellingworth has given his first official interview since rejoining Team Ineos Grenadiers, telling Cyclingnews that his time at Bahrain McLaren was all but over once it was confirmed the car manufacturer was departing the team after just one season in the WorldTour.
McLaren was the main reason Ellingworth chose to leave Team Ineos in 2019 and take up the role of team principal at Bahrain McLaren but the automotive company only lasted one season due to financial pressures stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the team are carrying on this year as Bahrain Victorious, Ellingworth no longer felt tied to the project, and when Ineos came in with an offer to rejoin their ranks he decided to take up the position as Director of Racing.
"It was really tough leaving and I don’t regret working with the team. I enjoyed every step of the way, even though it was a really challenging year," Ellingworth told Cyclingnews from his home in England.
"I felt like we were moving in the right way and it wasn’t as though I had problems with certain people in the team. I just felt that a big part of the reason as to why I went there was missing, and that made the difference for me."
The 2020 season was tough on cycling but some teams suffered more than others. In April, Cyclingnews confirmed that senior management and riders at Bahrain McLaren were having up to 75 per cent of their wages deferred for the entire spring, while recruitment and roster additions were put on hold. Meanwhile, McLaren made huge redundancies in the UK after it was forced to shut its factory.
Although the team had a successful season on the road, with Mikel Landa taking fourth in the Tour de France, the departure of McLaren and a key ally in John Allert, who came from McLaren and served as the team’s director, massively altered the team’s outlook and structure. While Ellingworth admits that he had no professional problems with anyone on the team, the loss of McLaren was fundamental in his decision to move on.
"I had a job and there weren’t any issues over me carrying on at Bahrain. I think that it was more about where we were traveling as a team," he said.
"For me, the reason for going there in the first place was because of McLaren. That whole side was the reason for me to go there. Without that, it just made it harder for me to see that journey. John Allert was the guy that drew me into the team and I really enjoyed working with John and the McLaren side. I was really excited about bringing that side into our sport. Without that, other things come up, and that was the key fundamental reason for me to change.
"It was quite a late decision that I made. It was only a short while after Cyclingnews had reported about it really. It certainly hadn’t been something that had been going on for months and months."
Ellingworth had to also say goodbye to several key people that he personally had recruited to the team, including Roger Hammond, Jack Haig, Neil Stephens, and several young riders. He admits that this was one of the harder parts of leaving but that he needed to make a decision that was best for both him and his family.
"That was tough. There were people that I brought into the Bahrain team, and I talked to them about the vision that we were trying to create, and it was hard to walk away from people," he said.
"You get to know people and there are some really good people there that love the sport, like I do, and work hard. But ultimately I had to think about what was best for me and my family.
"Obviously I spoke to them all about my reasoning. You never know how people are but I explained to them why I was leaving. People change, and that’s what I decided to do."
'I think I've been upfront with people'
To some, Ellingworth’s decision to leave the top post at Bahrain and return to his old team and reporting role to Dave Brailsford might seem like either a sideways or even backward step. After all, he left Ineos in 2019 in order to try his hand at running a team and, after just one season, he is back where he started – albeit with more responsibility and on a far more successful team.
For Ellingworth, who doesn’t strike you as the sort of person to get wrapped up in job titles or work-based politics, the return to Ineos is more about finding the right fit for his career, rather than seeking power or authority for the sake of it.
"It depends on who you are," he said when asked if his move to Ineos could be seen as a backward step.
"I know what people will think - that maybe he’s failed - but you just have to weigh up in life where you are at the moment. I feel like I’ve got huge responsibility in this team. It’s not the same responsibility – the buck doesn’t stop with me – but I’m fine with that, otherwise I wouldn’t have come here.
"It’s about circumstances and I think that I’ve been upfront with people, in that if McLaren had stayed then I wouldn’t have had a reason to move on. They were the one thing that helped me move on from Ineos in the first place and, in the end, it was whipped away from under our feet. Then you think 'this isn’t what I came here for, but here’s another opportunity, I’m going to go for it'.
"And McLaren were more than just a bit of cash. It was about the look and the feel of the journey that we could go on. When I took on the job at Bahrain it didn’t feel very united. It wasn’t united from the top down and I felt that we had started to unite and get a real structure and belief in there.
"There was a process and we had made real progress – better than what I expected. Some people left, and I was fine with that. I was very upfront about my thoughts and what I wanted to try and do and that was the hard thing about leaving."
Ellingworth is currently in the midst of planning Ineos’ 2021 campaign and, although he hasn’t been able to travel to Gran Canaria due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, he and Dan Hunt – the director of performance – have begun their challenge of keeping the British team at the competitive edge in Grand Tours.
"There’s quite a bit that’s the same but there’s more of a higher structure, with myself and Dan Hunt coming on," Ellingworth said when comparing his first and second stints on the team.
"My role is the director of racing, so overseeing all of the aspects of racing and making sure that everything is on track, with the vision of where the team needs to go in terms of vision. It’s a big organization and it needs some layers to deliver that performance plan.
"I’ll be working with the coaches and I want to be on the ground at the races. I like rolling up my sleeves and getting stuck in, as I did at Bahrain. Obviously, the big difference is that Dave Brailsford is the team principal and I need to answer to him. That’s fine. I’ve done it before."