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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

This article first appeared in the February, 2011, issue of VeloNews.

Nygaard’s multiple skills landed him a new job in 2010 as head of communications with Team Sky, the new British ProTour squad with a vast budget. At the same time, unknown to Nygaard, initial moves were being made to create another major team, in Luxembourg. A commercial real estate magnate, entrepreneur and art connoisseur, Flavio Becca, who’d already helped the F91 Dudelange soccer club become his country’s top team, wanted to do something similar in cycling, another of his many passions.

In 2008, on a listing of Luxembourg’s most influential business people, Becca’s citation included: “One thing is sure: it seems that few prestigious national projects can happen without him.”

The formation of a major pro cycling team qualifies as such a project because Becca said he wanted the team leaders to be the Schleck brothers, who are huge stars in a nation that has only 500,000 people. For help with the new project, Becca first turned to fellow Luxembourger Marc Biver, the former Tour de Suisse organizer, rider agent and general manager of Team Astana (before Johan Bruyneel took the reins), who is currently president of the Swiss Triathlon Association.

The dynamics between the two men were not ideal, apparently, and so in the early spring Becca started talking to one of the Schlecks’ most experienced sport directors, Kim Andersen. Winner of the 1984 Flèche Wallonne and the first Dane to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey, Andersen ended his racing career in disgrace with a positive drug test. But at 52, he is respected for the astuteness and tactical skills developed in the 13 years he spent with Saxo Bank and its earlier iterations.

Andersen, according to Nygaard, was one of several people who advised Becca on how to proceed.

“At that time [in March],” Nygaard said, “I heard that Marc Biver was going to run the team, but I really didn’t see him back in cycling, and I didn’t think much about it other than that. Then, the day before (the Tour of) Flanders, I got a phone call from the Becca side asking if I had time to meet and give him some advice.

“He introduced himself as the man who wanted to go about setting up the project. We met for half an hour and ended up talking for two hours actually. I knew the amount of time Sky had put into starting a major team, and I so advised Mr. Becca that it was probably too late to put a team together for 2011. Then, I think from intuition, he offered me the job to direct the team. I was flabbergasted.”

Nygaard wasn’t initially keen on the idea, but two weeks later, they met again in Maastricht in conjunction with the Amstel Gold Race. Nygaard said they didn’t come to any conclusions — “except I wanted more time to think about it … to check out the people behind it.” He was already committed to working the Giro d’Italia for Team Sky through the month of May, and this gave him the chance to think about the job offer and get more advice.

“I’d always done the same job in cycling,” Nygaard continued, “so if I was to do anything else it would likely be outside of cycling. Anyway, that’s what I’d always imagined. I had a very good job with Sky, but then I thought that opportunities like this only come once in a lifetime, and it would be working with people I really like and respect.

“I still couldn’t grasp or comprehend why Mr. Becca chose me … but I knew I wanted to think about it long and hard before giving him a decision. I think he liked my personality and that I had been in professional cycling for 10 years, and we got on very well. I liked his sensitivity, and I’m sure he spoke to other people before he spoke to me.”

Nygaard finally accepted the job, resigned from Team Sky and began work as team manager of the prestigious new team on June 1.

It’s been reported in the European media that the Schleck brothers have a personal four-year contract with Becca, but Nygaard said this is untrue. “All the riders are signing contracts with the team,” he said, “and we are only announcing them when they are fully confirmed and the sponsorship agreements are in place.”

In the six months that Nygaard was putting the team together, there was constant chatter about its possible name; but he said that the intention was to create a sustainable team that wouldn’t be constantly searching for a new title sponsor. That was the case with Riis, who over the years has put much of his own money into his teams to bridge the financial gap when sponsors did not materialize or failed to return.

Ironically, it was during the opening half of 2010, when Riis had failed to get a team sponsor for next year (until Saxo Bank agreed to extend its contract), that Nygaard was able to entice half a dozen riders to come with the Schlecks from Saxo to form the core of the new formation.

“I wanted to create a young team,” Nygaard said. And he has. All but two of his two-dozen signings are aged 30 or under (see “The Athletes”); and those two veterans are Stuart O’Grady and Jens Voigt — “the men I need to guide the younger riders.”

As for the team’s title, Nygaard said that it will remain as a generic Luxembourg name, with several major sponsorships — akin to how the Tour de France is sponsored, and similar to pro teams Astana (the name of Kazakhstan’s capital city), Katusha (the Russian global cycling project), and Euskadi (a region of Spain).

Ahead of his early-December announcement, the ever-cautious Nygaard was reluctant to name any of the principal sponsors whose logos will join those of major suppliers Trek and Mercedes-Benz on the team jersey. But leaks in the Luxembourg press (see timeline) indicate that at least four major corporations will finance the Luxembourg Pro Cycling Project and its estimated $20 million annual budget: Belgacom (the Belgian telecommunications giant), Enovos (the Luxembourg energy utility that already helps its national cycling federation), Jabra (Danish manufacturer of wireless headsets) and Maca-Loca (a Swiss energy drink that supports its national cycling team).

“It’s the way of the future,” said Nygaard, who never thought it would be his, too.

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