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Musical chairs: Tour de France teams, riders scrambling to secure futures

  • By Andrew Hood
  • Published Jul. 10, 2014
  • Updated Jul. 10, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
U.S. electronics brand Belkin stepped into cycling to back the former Rabobank team midway through the 2013 season. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

ARRAS, France (VN) — Cycling’s version of musical chairs is in full swing, with riders and teams scrambling to make sure they have a seat at the table for 2015.

The rumor mill is churning at this Tour de France as a handful of teams face an uncertain future on the sponsorship front, which could have huge implications for riders and staff across the elite peloton.

Tour time is always nerve-wracking for any rider or team without confirmed deals for the coming season. Teams without confirmed sponsorships risk losing star riders who will search out secure contracts. Riders without contracts by the end of the Tour risk being left with nothing.

Team officials are loath to publicly confirm anything until official press statements are released, but VeloNews has learned from sources that several major deals are poised for next season.

Sources are chirping that Cannondale is set to join Garmin-Sharp as a sponsor for 2015, but Garmin boss Jonathan Vaughters was having none of it.

“You can ask all you want, but I cannot comment at this time,” Vaughters said before Wednesday’s stage. ‘[Sponsor] names change every year.”

The news would be a boon for the popular American team, managed by Vaughters’ Slipstream Sports, and confirm that all is well for the squad next season.

In Leeds, Vaughters announced that the team had signed Tour podium hope Andrew Talansky to a two-year contract extension and said during that pre-Tour press conference that changes were in store for next season’s sponsorship lineup.

“I can’t talk specifics about that,” Vaughters said of the team’s sponsorship future. “I can say I wouldn’t sign a contract with Andrew if I didn’t think the situation was in a good place. More to come, but you’re gonna have to wait.”

La Gazzetta dello Sport, which previously speculated that Cannondale would combine with Tinkoff-Saxo, also reported a Cannondale-Slipstream merger.

If Cannondale did join forces with Garmin, it would throw the existing World Tour team under the Cannondale banner into question. Cannondale owns the team’s World Tour license, buying out Roberto Amadio last year, and perhaps could become bike sponsor for both teams, but sources are suggesting that Cannondale will join forces with Slipstream.

Cannondale team officials also refused to comment, but one official spoke off the record, saying, “There are a lot of rumors going on. We are exploring many options right now. We hope to continue as a separate team next season, but nothing is decided.”

Earlier this season, Amadio told VeloNews that the team would carry on “as an independent team” in 2015, but an exit of title sponsor Cannondale could spell the end of the team, which has a legacy dating back to the Liquigas franchise.

For other teams, such as Belkin — also facing an uncertain sponsorship future — there is growing speculation that Formula One driver Fernando Alonso could re-enter the picture.

Alonso already tried in vain to take over the Euskaltel-Euskadi team at the end of 2013, an experience that only fueled his determination to create his own team.

Alonso’s project has gone cold this spring, with little behind-the-scenes movement to sign riders, leading to speculation that the project has lost gas.

The Spanish superstar reportedly has penned a five-year deal with a sponsor from the United Arab Emirates and visited the Arab nation during the Dubai Tour in February. Alonso promised an announcement during this Tour de France, but so far, there has been no word from the two-time Formula One world champion.

Many wonder if Alonso has left it too late to start a new team for the 2015 season, fomenting speculation that he could take over Belkin. Tinkoff-Saxo boss Oleg Tinkov suggested as much, telling VeloNews it’s much easier to “buy a team” than to start a new one from scratch.

Sources at Tinkoff told VeloNews there are no merger plans for 2015. A likely move of superstar Peter Sagan to Tinkoff-Saxo, however, is said to be a done deal, with an estimated salary of 4 million euros per year. That deal is still under wraps until the August 1 opening day of the official “trading” season.

Belkin, meanwhile, could be left high and dry. Dutch journalists said they’ve heard no buzz on the team’s sponsorship front, yet team officials say the search to save the team continues. If the team disappears, it would be the end of an era —  its roots date back to the Rabobank franchise from the 1990s — and further the loss of top Dutch teams. Vacansoleil closed shop last year after it could not secure a new sponsor, and Belkin announced in June it would leave as title sponsor at the end of 2014.

Another team generating questions on the sponsorship front is Giant-Shimano. Marcel Kittel has been linked to moves to other teams, but the German star sprinter said “my future is secure,” and hinted the team’s future is also secure, adding, “We will all be together next season.” Sources have confirmed that Giant-Shimano has money in place for the 2015 season.

Team manager Iwan Spekenbrink told VeloNews on Wednesday morning that “Giant has a four-year commitment with the team, starting last year, and we are actively searching out partners. We will have a team next season.”

The tenuous sponsorship situation reconfirms the year-to-year struggle that many teams face to secure financing. Without angel investors, such as the billionaire backers behind teams like Katusha and Omega Pharma-Quick Step, team management is often left to the whims of penny-pinching sponsors. Belkin’s sudden announcement in June of its departure caught team management by surprise, leaving them scrambling to try to keep the team alive.

Most of the other major teams look to have relatively vibrant sponsorship deals for the next few years. Movistar, for example, re-upped for three more seasons.

In what’s a positive development for German cycling is the arrival of a German sponsor for NetApp-Endura with a five-year commitment. This is a sign that things are improving in Europe’s largest market, in the wake of the Jan Ullrich and Telekom doping scandals, which caused German media and corporate sponsors to flee cycling.

“It’s very big news for German cycling. After all the scandals, people realize cycling is on a good way,” team manager Ralph Denk told VeloNews. “We will stay next year as pro continental, with the idea of being World Tour in time for the calendar changes in 2017.”

With the UCI pressing for a radical makeover of the elite men’s racing calendar within the next few years, the game of musical chairs is even more intense than ever. No one wants to miss a seat at the table.

FILED UNDER: News / Road / Tour de France TAGS: / / / /

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood

Andrew Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood has covered every Tour de France since 1996 and has been VeloNews' European correspondent since 2002.

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