Saturday, July 03, 2010


Bank Heist

“My daddy was a bank robber,
But he never hurt nobody.
He just loved to live that way,
And he loved to steal your money.”
- The Clash
Daddy Was a Bank Robber

For the second time in two years, Bjarne Riis’ team is at the business end of a holdup, and this time it’s an inside job. As has been widely reported and confirmed by Riis himself, longtime Riis DS Kim Anderson is taking Andy and Frank Schleck and constructing a Luxembourg-based team around them for 2011. With no sponsor lined up for next year and the defacto rider-release deadline of the Tour de France upon us, Riis seems resigned to shrugging his shoulders and emptying the drawers.

In 2009, when the startup Cervelo Test Team burst through the front door of Riis Cycling and lifted, among other things, reining Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre, DS Scott Sunderland, and bike sponsor Cervelo, Riis could comfort himself with the fact that, while they grabbed a lot of loot from behind the counter, they didn’t get into the vault. And behind that sturdy door, Riis still had the core of his squad safely intact. When Cervelo and CSC departed, Andy and Frank Schleck, Fabian Cancellara, Jacob Fuglsang, and Jens Voigt were more than enough to bring on Specialized and Saxo Bank to foot the bills.

This time, though, Anderson came in with the combination to the safe tucked in his back pocket, and now the door is swinging wide open and the shelves are quickly being picked clean. Yes, only the Schlecks have been linked so far. Fabian Cancellara has remained notably silent, and Jacob Fuglsang and Matti Breschel have stated that they’d like to stay with Riis, but also that they’d really like to get paid next year. Obviously, losing his two biggest grand tour names when he’s headed into the Tour de France with no sponsor locked down for next year puts Riis in a hell of a difficult position.

I’ve heard talk that the Schleck’s departure would give Riis the room – both funding-wise and team leadership-wise – to pursue someone like an Alberto Contador. I don’t think that’s quite the right way of looking at it, though I admire the optimism. I think that the truth is that Riis now finds himself in a Catch-22, where he doesn’t have the funding to promise a GC star, and he doesn’t have a GC star to promise the funders. It could be worked out – more difficult circumstances have certainly been resolved – but someone would have to take a pretty big leap of faith, and in a tight sponsorship climate, I don’t see riders or sponsors being terribly anxious to risk next year’s profits just to help Bjarne out of a jam. In effect, with no sponsor and no Schlecks, Riis is stuck with two variables, when he desperately needs a constant to solve the equation.

Ah, but what of Cancellara, you say? Motorized bike or not, he’s been one of the stories of the last half-decade. A multi-classic winner, the dominant TT rider of his generation, versatile, handsome and intelligent, and, as of today, current yellow jersey wearer in the Tour de France – he’s a sponsor’s dream. If Tom Boonen, with a supporting cast like Stijn Devolder and Wouter Weylandt, can justify the existence of Quick Step, why shouldn’t Cancellara, backed by Breschel, Fuglsang, and the rest be able to drum up some funding for Riis?

There’s a couple of answers to that question. The first one is easy – because for the last six months, Riis has offered sponsors those names plus the Schlecks, and the sponsors haven’t bitten. I doubt the absence of the Schlecks will increase sponsor interest. The second answer to why Cancellara probably isn’t enough to shoulder a team as Boonen does? A Swiss star winning Belgian races for a Danish team, good as he may be, just doesn’t attract the national pride funding that a Belgian superstar riding the big Belgian races for a Belgian team does.

There are, of course, fairly big teams built on less – AG2r and Lampre spring to mind. But those teams – like the aforementioned Quick Step – also campaign heavily on their national calendars. They’re active national teams at home that also happen to operate at the ProTour level, and as a result they’re appealing to national companies with sponsorship dollars. While it’s often one of Riis’s teams’ greatest assets, when it comes to the sponsor hunt, the internationalism of his squads can also hurt them. At the same time his squads belong to many countries, they also belong to none. Sure, Riis’s squads have always been committed to contesting Danish races, but compared to the Italian calendar or the French Cup series, there’s not a lot there – race wise or exposure wise – to base a sponsorship on. So to bankroll his top-flight, United Nations of a team, Riis needs a sponsor with international interests and deep pockets, and a lot of those companies aren’t feeling too flush right now. Or are feeling like they shouldn’t be looking too flush right now. Reality or perception, the result is the same.

Why do Riis’ squads seem to invite such raids? If you follow the broken window theory that floats around law enforcement, you might look for the broken window or the cracked tailpipe, that little tell-tale sign to would-be thieves that indicates a likely target. From where I sit on the outside, I don’t see that broken pane in Riis’ squads – his stars have, with a couple exceptions, almost always been PR dreams come true, and the team’s image is one of camaraderie, teamwork, and mutual admiration. There’s been precious little whining from riders about management, and little public scolding of riders by management. The most vocal rider gripe about the organization has been Matti Breschel’s exasperation at the inability to get a working bike at the Tour of Flanders.

What goes on behind closed doors, or what gets whispered in the hallways of team hotels, I have no idea, but to me, it seems that Riis’ teams are ripe for this sort of thing for a nearly opposite reason – everything works pretty well. The reason it works well is the people, and when people are successful, they tend to have options. Riis has capable and ambitious riders and staff, so it’s natural that from time to time they have big ideas of their own, and they pursue them. His riders, in turn, have been instilled with a team-player mentality, which makes them attractive targets for acquisition, as does the fact that Riis’ boys never seem to light up the doping lamp (no, not even Basso). They’re rarely trouble makers – not fight pickers or dirty sprinters or party boys. And, of course, they’re talented, and talent is ultimately the money in the bank or professional cycling. So when that bank gets robbed from time to time, it’s no surprise. Hell, it may even be flattering, though I’m not sure Riis sees it that way at the moment.


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One would think that Columbia-HTC is in a similar position to the Riis squad, but they keep adding (at least minor) sponsors each year. In fact, outside of Boy Racer, they seem to be a lower-tiered team on star power. If Cav ever heads over to Team Britain/Sky, one would have to question how much longer they could remain a viable squad with an international roster of anemic GC contenders (Rogers, Monfort) and second tier sprinters/classics specialists (Eisel/Renshaw). Maybe I am missing something?
Ryan, I think you have a few things off base here:

1) Cervelo wasn't stolen or "raided" from CSC. They were a sponsor who decided to go another direction, and start their own team; you can't steal yourself.

From what I know (from someone on the inside), Cervelo and Riis couldn't come to new terms, and Cervelo wasn't getting what they wanted out of their sponsorship.

It also happened to be that some other sponsors shared their vision and backed the new factory owned squad. Sastre had a good relationship with Cervelo, liked their vision, and accepted their offer. I don't recall him breaking a contract with Riis to join Cervelo. If so, this is hardly a raid as well.

2) In order for a new sponsor to be interested in stars, they have to a) be interested in cycling in the first place, which is not an easy sell, and there are a lot of other options out there that are easier to measure ROI against, b) have an understanding of the sport and recognize the value that certain names bring them, c) be willing to make the investment that it takes to keep such riders.

Big name riders come with big expenses. Why did Columbia let so many riders depart after last season? Their funding changed (residual T-Mobile money dried up), and they couldn't afford to keep all those names on payroll.

Also, winning races isn't everything to a sponsor (though no one complains when their teams win); there are a lot of ways for sponsors to measure success of a team w/o having loads of top step podium places. FDJ and Euskatel Euskadi are perfect examples of long term involvement/successful endeavors without a ton of huge names or victories

Riis has a strong track record of keeping his teams going. While he doesn't have a lot of time, it still is too early to count him out. Also, his stars aren't gone, until they're gone. The rumor game will change very rapidly should he announce a new sponsor.
Interesting—Cervelo's Beyond the Peloton vids definitely contained a segment aimed at convincing views that Riis had cut them out. Hadn't thought it could be the other way around.
I was told it was multi-faceted. A simple view is:

a) Riis wanted more of a commitment (bikes & cash)than Cervelo was willing to put in to Saxo.

b) Riis knew he could get what he wanted/needed from a larger company (a growing trend, that is why you see so many large brands rather than smaller specialty brands of years gone by) at the top of the sport.

c) Cervelo really wanted more access to and feedback from the team than they were getting from the traditional sponsorship model.

d) For the investment they were being asked to make in Saxo, they were only a sponsor. In turn, if they put their resources in their own new program, they had ownership and control.

Hence the CTT was born, and they were able to fold their womens team into the same organization.

There was more to it, but these are the high points.
Maury: Your question is an interesting one, though I think Columbia is deeper than you give them credit for. I will say that, while victories aren’t everything (see T-Rs comment and mine below), they are an easy selling point, and Columbia racks up a lot of them along with the associated exposure. Part of that is being a sprint-heavy team, which gives you lots of opportunities. They also have a very successful women’s program, which is a big plus for some sponsors. Also, not comparing directly to Riis’s abilities, because I don’t really know, but Bob Stapleton comes from a heavy-duty business background versus a cycling one, which might come in handy when you’re trying to articulate value to big, non-endemic corporations.

T-R: Re: Cervelo, I think you’re taking needless offense at my phrasing. The “robbery” theme of the post is a metaphor, not an accusation. (And it fit to well with “Saxo Bank” to pass up. If it was 1988 and we were talking about big riders leaving 7-11, I’d probably be writing about jacking up a convenience store.) Anyway, I’m simply pointing out that every couple years, Riis loses what seems to be a key component of his program: Hamilton to Phonak, Basso to Puerto, Cervelo+other sponsors+Sunderland+Sastre to Cervelo, and now allegedly the Schlecks and Andersen to whatever this new team will be. Nature of the business, and he’s always gotten past it. But with no sponsor lined up at Tour and losing his Grand Tour threats – and franchise players – I’m wondering if this one is too much for him to bounce back from. Maybe, maybe not. Like I said, I do think there are reasons that people find assets from Riis programs appealing.

As for the importance of winning races, I agree, and I think I said as much, though maybe in a slightly different way. As I pointed out, Lampre and AG2r are certainly founded on less, rider- and result-wise, than what remains at Saxo Bank, even after the Schlecks’ rumored departure. Like your example FDJ, they can do so, and do so for a long time, because the team management, the bulk of their riders and their main sponsors are from countries with vibrant national calendars. Simply put, FDJ is a success because of the French Cup, not because Sandy Casar bags a Tour stage every eight years or so. Point being that, while Saxo Bank has a fantastic lineup, when compared to the teams we both cite – AG2r, Lampre, FDJ – they’re an all-star team whose success depends on success in the big events, and that takes big riders, which as you point out takes big money. They’re not the loveable (and relatively cheap) local team that will consistently garner the hometown support in up years and down.

Cosmo and TR: I have no idea whose decision the Cervelo/Riis parting ultimately was, or if it was just ultimately mutual exasperation (though my impression at the time was that Cervelo just didn’t have the big bucks Riis wanted/needed, or that they did, but didn’t feel like letting Riis control those bucks). My point, again, was just that Riis lost a mainstay of his program when Cervelo either left or was replaced. I can’t make it far enough through those Cervelo videos to tell much of anything about their take – Haussler talks waaaay too slow listen to (though I like him as a rider), and Vroomen gives off a weird Uncle Fester vibe. If I were as stoned as Haussler sounds, I’d probably enjoy that, but now it just sort of creeps me out.

Thanks all for the input and info. Hope you’re enjoying the Tour.
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