“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.
- Wait a minute, what the hell was that? The Tour de France started today, and the Service Course is talking about last week’s Saxo Bank/Schleck thing? Indeed I am. What can I say, it was a busy week, and though I started this post earlier in the week, I didn’t quite get it done for Friday. And yes, that’s partly because I got to be one of the cool kids and go to the opening of the Rapha Cycle Club in New York on Thursday night. (I’m just kidding – I will never be one of the cool kids. But I did go to the opening, and it's a nice little place. If I lived in the NYC vicinity, I’d definitely stop by to have an espresso and check out a Tour stage with like-minded people. I’d probably also put some more fingerprints on their H van, for that matter. If you're apprehensive about going due to whatever you believe Rapha to be, don’t be afraid – you don’t turn sepia-toned when you walk in, and nobody makes you write essays about suffering. I checked.)
- When deciding to further fragment the former CSC, current Saxo Bank, doesn’t anyone think of poor Phil Ligget? The guy had enough trouble keeping Cervelo and Saxo Bank straight after the split – going so far as to check in with Cervelo DS Alex Sans Vega on the condition of the injuried Jens Voigt (Saxo Bank) in a live, on air interview during last years’ Tour. If Riis pulls it together and there are three branches to the former-CSC family tree next year, Ligget’s head may finally explode.
- I’m happy that the Tour is finally underway, but longtime readers will know I have trouble mustering much to say about prologues. In all but the most egregious cases, the gains achieved are superficial and the losses trivial, and while prologue results might often correlate pretty well with final podiums, I still don’t feel that one has a whole lot to do with the other. I guess it's the thousands of miles and two mountain ranges in between the two, but whatever, that's just me. The next few days, though? I’ll be loving it, and with pieces of Paris-Brussels, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and Paris-Roubaix scattered throughout the route, I’m betting Cancellara will be loving it, too. There really couldn’t be better terrain for him to potentially win a stage in yellow.
- You know who else will be loving this Tour? SRAM. For the (relatively) new player on the block, there’s no denying those guys have put their money in all the right places.
- As for all this Wall Street Journal article brouhaha, somebody better be working on a good conspiracy video or article about how WSJ is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Sky Broadcasting, which bankrolls the Sky team of Bradley Wiggins, and therefore it’s obvious that Murdoch is paying Landis to spout this stuff and using his paper to lend credibility to it, all with the intent of bringing down Armstrong and aiding Wiggins’ Tour chances. Because if nobody’s on that yet, the Armstrong army is really falling down on the job.