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Riis returns? Cult Energy backs out; team’s future uncertain

Could the sudden departure of the Cult Energy sponsor open the door for Bjarne Riis to return to pro cycling?

That’s the speculation in Denmark following Wednesday’s sudden announcement that Cult Energy pulled its 2016 backing of the Professional Continental outfit bearing its name.

Cult Energy, a team sponsored by a Danish soft drink company, merged with German Continental team Stölting for 2016, but there have been troubles over the past few months as the team struggled to pay wages. The team, however, received the green light last month from the UCI for a 2016 Professional Continental license.

In a surprise announcement Wednesday, Cult Energy officials accused the German-based Stölting Cycling GmbH, the team’s management company, of not living up to its end of an agreement for the coming racing season. Stölting shot back at Cult Energy, saying in a press release that “Cult is simply searching for an exit to the sponsorship because it cannot afford to fulfill its commitment.”

Stölting officials, meanwhile, insist they are working to keep the team solvent for the coming racing season.

The news comes as a blow for the team’s 17 riders and staff. Several new additions are set to join the squad for 2016, including former Milano-Sanremo winner Gerard Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) and Lasse Norman Hansen (Cannondale-Garmin).

The team’s quandary is already fueling speculation that Riis could make a return to the peloton. Oleg Tinkov unceremoniously fired the veteran Dane this spring from his post as general manager of Tinkoff-Saxo, the team he sold to the Russian businessman at the end of 2013. Later in the season, a Danish report accused Riis of systematic doping during his days as the CSC manager, compounding the former pro’s woes in 2015.

Riis has been linked to longtime associate and Danish banker Lars Seier Christensen, whose Saxo Bank was a Riis backer since 2008. Saxo Bank ends its association with the Tinkoff team this month, and Christensen told Danish journalists he is interested in backing a new Riis project. Riis was not immediately available for comment Wednesday, but he said in previous interviews he would consider starting a new project for the 2017 season.

The sudden departure of Cult Energy could provide Riis and Christensen with an unexpected opening. It bears similarity to how Riis helped take over the struggling Jack & Jones team in 2000.