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From the magazine: The Saxo Bank Heist

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Jul. 14, 2011
  • Updated Sep. 7, 2011 at 9:33 AM EDT

Editor’s note: The following article first appeared in the February, 2011, issue of VeloNews. When the issue went to press the name of the team, Leopard-Trek, had yet to be made public.

How a skilled PR man and former Riis Cycling insider polished an entrepreneur’s idea, snagged Spartacus and the Schleck brothers, and built the world’s No. 1 team

The news spread through the cycling world as fast as Fabian Cancellara at top speed when the UCI released its sporting assessment of the world’s 40 best professional teams in November. Sitting at No. 1 in the standings, ahead of the wildly successful Rabobank, Garmin-Cervélo and HTC-Highroad teams, was an upstart formation with no name.

How?

Each team’s ranking is based on results of the top 15 riders on its 2011 roster. Even though the generically named Luxembourg Pro Cycling Project wasn’t due to start a race until January 16, 2011, it had already signed enough star-quality athletes to outscore all the other teams in the world.

Perhaps even more startling is the fact that the person who put together this new team in less than six months has never raced a bike, never been a sports director and never worked in any sort of management position. His name is Brian Nygaard, a 36-year-old Dane who spent most of the past decade working as a media-relations official for the CSC and Saxo Bank teams of Bjarne Riis.

Heading into the 2011 season, Nygaard is the man behind the wheel of a mysterious new team, steering the getaway car after a slow but methodical raid on his former employer’s top riders.

For many people, Nygaard’s biggest claim to fame was his uncanny resemblance to his then boss: both have round faces and shaven heads, and both have that serious, intellectual air bred by long, dark Scandinavian winters. But Nygaard though smiles a lot more than Riis — and that’s just one of their many differences, not the least of which is their disparate backgrounds.

When Riis was battling to a Tour de France title in 1996, Nygaard was heading toward a post-graduate degree in philosophy and languages at Scotland’s prestigious University of St. Andrews. “I thought I was going to be an academic for the rest of my life,” Nygaard told VeloNews.

Team Leopard-Trek presentation

That goal began to change in 2001 when he was looking for a job to fill his July break and contacted the Danish film director Jørgen Leth, partly because Nygaard had developed a spectator’s passion for bike racing through the famous documentaries Leth made in the 1970s about the Giro d’Italia (“Stars and Water Carriers”) and Paris-Roubaix (“A Sunday in Hell”).

Besides being a filmmaker, Leth works as a Tour de France commentator for Danish television, and Nygaard’s request resulted in a temporary job offer to deal with the media for Riis’s Tour squad in its first year of CSC sponsorship.

“They were looking for someone who could speak several languages,” Nygaard said. “It wasn’t a dream come true; I just saw it as an opportunity because I didn’t have plans for the summer holidays.” But he was so good at the job that the day after the Tour finished in Paris, Riis offered him a full-time position for 2002. Nygaard accepted.

Over the years, the young Dane became one of pro cycling’s insiders, deftly handling press inquiries and seamlessly working with Riis as the public face of Team CSC and then Saxo Bank. Nygaard developed friendships with most of the team’s riders, especially over the past five years with the Luxembourg brothers Andy and Fränk Schleck, and Cancellara, the Swiss superstar.

Nygaard may not have had a cycling background, but his work with a team that earned the world No. 1 ranking year after year gave him an uncanny knowledge of the sport. One story comes to mind: Nygaard was watching the later starters in the Monaco time trial that opened the 2009 Tour de France when a journalist asked him what he thought Cancellara would do. Even though the best time at that point was a 19:54 by Andreas Klöden, Nygaard replied, “Fabian will win with 19:32.” The Dane was correct to the exact second.

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