Back in July the New York Times asked Gerry Ryan why he owns a professional cycling team. “That’s what my therapist always asks,” was the splendid reply of the Orica-GreenEDGE boss. Around the same time Bicycling Australia asked the same question of Leigh Parsons from the CharterMason-Giant NRS squad. Parsons confessed team ownership has probably sliced several years off his life. It’s a safe bet he’s not alone.
In an environment where one of the few certainties is uncertainty the fragile existence of cycling teams is well documented. Yet still they come. Otherwise astute businesspeople – not to mention the occasional Formula One driver – continue to be wooed each year. The obvious question is, why?
Just 12 months ago two jewels in the WorldTour crown folded due to the loss of key sponsors: Euskaltel Euskadi and Valconsoleil-DCM. Barely a year earlier Rabobank also teetered on life support, racing ominously as ‘Team Blanco’ until rescued by Belkin Electronics who will, in turn, end their sponsorship after 2014. By the time the Dutch team arrives at the 2015 Tour Down Under it will have raced under four different guises in just 24 months. It’s a similar tale of instability at Cannondale Pro Cycling (nee Liquigas) which recently confirmed it would be linking with Slipstream Sports from 2015 – leaving Lampre-Merida as the sole Italian representative on the sport’s greatest stage.
Far from a modern phenomenon, ghosts of seasons past show the average lifespan of a pro team has never been especially long. Perhaps with the exception of the enduring Peugeot squad, the record books are littered with once-iconic names such as Molteni, Brooklyn, KAS, La Vie Claire, Renault-Elf, Carrera, Mercatone Uno, Festina and T-Mobile. Countless others never get off the ground at all.
Yet still they come.
Despite the noblest of intentions history suggests sooner or later most teams without a deep-pocketed benefactor, a hugely malleable sponsor or in the case of Astana virtually an entire government behind them, simply run out of cash and, as a result, steam. Even on-road success is no guarantee of survival. One shambolic Grand Tour, several key injuries, a global financial crisis or an embarrassing doping scandal can wreak no end of havoc.
It’s a situation perhaps no better illustrated than by the revered Italian squad, Mapei. Resplendent in their cube-patterned jerseys Mapei was a beacon of success for much of the 1990s and home to many of the era’s greatest names such as Museeuw, Rominger and Bartoli. It was also where a young Cadel Evans spent the formative years of his road career, as did Fabian Cancellara and Michael Rogers.
Between 1994 and 2002 Mapei was the number one UCI-ranked team for all but one season, claiming an extraordinary 653 races including no less than five Paris-Roubaix cobblestones (and three trifectas in four years). But at the end of 2002 Mapei boss Giorgio Squinzi ended the sponsorship – prompted through growing dissatisfaction with the doping culture in cycling – and, just like that, they were gone; disbanded with remnants of staff and riders picked up by Patrick Lefever’s fledgling Quick Step-Davitamon squad in Belgium.
“Circumstances forced me to make such a dramatic decision,” Squinzi explained to newspaper, Het Laaste Niews. “The uncertainty over the future of cycling is way too big. The doping problem is getting bigger, and there’s no real solution in sight”. Sadly he wouldn’t be the last sponsor to feel this way; just ask Barloworld and Rabobank.
Jonathan on the spot
Former pro and founder of Slipstream Sports, Jonathan Vaughters, has poured his life into cycling. Whilst at the helm of his argyle-wearing squad alongside chairman and principal shareholder Doug Ellis, the 41-year-old has often lamented the uncertainty that shadows the sport.
When it became clear the Pro-Continental team Geox-TMC would fold barely a month after winning the 2011 Vuelta a España, Vaughters penned a lengthy piece for Cyclingnews: “Geox are considering ending their sponsorship as a result of not being guaranteed entry into the top events on the World Calendar. Could you blame them?” he wrote. “Maybe instead of fighting on a year-to-year basis, 15 teams are given a 10-year contract with all the top events? Giving contractual participation provides guarantees to the teams and allows for them to cease the ‘hand to mouth’ year-to-year fight for sponsor dollars.”
It’s debatable if much has really changed. The annual game of WorldTour musical chairs has been in full swing for many months, with increasingly desperate teams, riders and support staff still scrambling for seats in 2015. As always, many will miss out.
Yet still they come.
Even for the sport’s wealthiest benefactors plotting a secure course can be as treacherous as riding the Arenberg Forest in slashing wind and rain. Regardless of how many dollars, euros or rubles you have stashed under the mattress, you wouldn’t bother without an almost insatiable enthusiasm for the sport; something certainly reinforced by the proliferation of phrases such as “a long-term fan of cycling” and “an avid cyclist himself” on pro team websites and Wiki pages.
Caravan of courage
In the case of Orica-GreenEDGE owner and Jayco boss Gerry Ryan, his love for cycling can be traced back to childhood in Bendigo. “I grew up pushing a bike around,” Ryan explained in a 2012 interview with the ABC’s Richard Aedy. “I had lots of ambition but very little ability.”
“My original involvement was in 1992 sponsoring Kathy Watt. The next year we formed the Jayco team (Australia’s first professional cycling squad), recruiting Dean Woods out of Europe as captain. We also had a stint with the Victorian Institute of Sport and the AIS. Then a few years later I was again involved at the AIS with Shayne Bannan,” Ryan explains. “All the while I’d been going to the Tour de France, watching Aussies turn professional, and I thought it was about time we had an Australian team.”
“Shayne had also been thinking about it, so we sat down and started doing budgets and business plans,” he reflects. “Initially I was looking at a Continental team to get it going quickly. But in the end we decided to go the long road.”
Around the same time Ryan had also been in discussions with the ill-fated Pegasus Sports project. But stepping into someone else’s shoes held limited appeal for the respected Victorian businessman. “I did help them financially to try and stay together,” Ryan explains. “Chris White even offered for me to buy into the team. But I didn’t like the structure. I wanted a clean sheet of paper.”
The sheet may have been clean. But the process was anything but easy. “It was very hard,” Ryan recalls of the 18-month process that culminated in GreenEDGE being awarded Australia’s first UCI WorldTour licence. “You need the riders, the ability to pay your way and the management to actually run a team. Going across to front the Board, the lawyers, the accountants – it was like being in front of the school headmaster again!”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s cycling, football, whatever,” he adds, drawing upon decades of success across industries as varied as manufacturing, sport and entertainment. “You need the right group of people who share the same vision and passion. You also need the financial means to do it. That’s a hard one where people get into trouble – they over-commit.”
Of course being one of your nation’s wealthiest individuals certainly helps. But Ryan knows the ultimate success of GreenEDGE will be measured by the team’s ability to stand on its own, irrespective of who is involved.
“That’s the aim,” he confirms. “We’re all working towards that.”
With a self-made fortune exceeding US$700 million – not to mention a Twitter following nearly triple that of his own team – Oleg Tinkov, 46, is one of world cycling’s most colourful owners. In typical candour, the son of a Siberian miner is said to have explained during this year’s Tour de France: “I would rather spend my money this way than lose it in a casino or with prostitutes or on a stupid yacht.”
Whilst acknowledging the licence holders of UCI teams own little more than risk and liability, 2014 nevertheless saw the Russian transition from sponsor to outright team owner following his off-season purchase of Saxo-Tinkoff for a reported six million euros. But as with Gerry Ryan, Tinkov’s passion for cycling far predates his wealth.
“I took my first pedal stroke when I was 12 years old in Siberia,” he told the media on announcement of his acquisition from Bjarne Riis in December 2013. “I’m so happy. Cycling is my passion. Finally I have my WorldTour team.”
While Tinkov was undeniably delighted, the vendor, Riis, was a relieved man. “This is a day I have been dreaming of for a very long time,” revealed the Dane. “In the last four or five years I spent a lot of time searching for sponsors. For me it has been very stressful…with Oleg this gives us that stability…it gives me time to do what I am best at.”
The optimism of Riis was echoed by star rider, Alberto Contador. “When there is a dearth of new sponsors…it can only be a good thing when a man of the stature and wealth of Oleg comes in,” said the Spaniard. “It brings stability to the existing structure…and something especially important to me is that Riis will be much more involved.”
Contador was no doubt further thrilled when Tinkov suggested he has little intention of getting in Riis’ way. “It would be stupid to have the best directeur sportif in the world and not listen to him. I won’t run this team, I don’t have time. I am a businessman and will be in my office.”
One thing the Russian may be doing in his office involves the increasingly overt dealings of Project Avignon. With more than a hint of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket, Tinkov is amongst a group of prominent figures from WorldTour teams which continues to explore ways to reform the current revenue and management structures in pro cycling.
“It’s very real,” assures Gerry Ryan of the project he hopes will create greater stability at the sport’s highest levels. “Cycling is on the wave of a new era and, no different to football and basketball franchises, it’s the teams who have the IP. Look at how we utilise on-bike cameras, different media platforms, bringing new money into the sport through technology. Certainly teams should be sharing in more of that pie.”
As for the UCI’s views on the project?
“Well, you’d have to ask them that,” Ryan offers candidly. “But the feedback I get is, yes, they are open to it. Certainly they understand it’s not good that every year we seem to drop a couple of teams; everyone wants more consistency.”
The Parsons Project
Whilst not on the global scale of Ryan or Tinkov, Leigh Parsons, 44, can still relate to many of their struggles in his own role as team boss of Melbourne-based CharterMason-Giant, which began as a development squad four seasons ago and has graduated to be one of the revelations of the Subaru National Road Series in 2014.
“Building a cycling team is no simple thing,” explains Parsons, a passionate and accomplished rider in his own right, having claimed a sprint jersey at the 2013 Tour of Bright. “The main challenge stems from continuously having to balance your aspirations and what can be achieved with the available funding. We work very hard at making every dollar go a long way.”
“We also know our sponsors need to see a return on their investment,” he continues, suggesting the pressures described by Bjarne Riis are just as prevalent in domestic cycling. “It’s why we take a very commercial approach to how we manage these relationships to ensure we achieve their objectives.”
Coming from a strong business background, Parsons understands the perils of sponsorship better than most. “Businesses go well one minute and not so well the next, often through no fault of their own,” he acknowledges. “Sometimes it simply doesn’t make sense to continue with sponsorships. That’s just the reality of the business world. You need to deal with it and make adjustments accordingly.”
He then offers a word of caution. “Starting from zero is tough no matter how much money or time you have. Plugging into a well-sorted operation is a far better bet in my mind. We have plenty of teams in the NRS, I’d love to see some consolidation now to make it a more even playing field.”
Despite the constant obstacles and pressures, Parsons has few regrets, instead revealing his team is considering upping the ante in 2015 by seeking UCI Continental status. “It’s been an excellent experience, I’ve learned a great deal. By far the best thing is seeing the positive impact you have on the riders,” he beams. “But, yeah, it probably does slice a few years off your life!”
And still they come.