The French newspaper believes that Leopard-Trek is to come to an end this season. Now why on earth would they think that?
The rumour mill has been in full-force recently, industriously producing speculation and conjecture over the possibility of a merger between Team Radioshack and Leopard Trek. At first most people treated this with incredulity and disbelief and more than a few resorted to Sean Connery impressions, crying; “Shum mishtake, shurely!”. But despite denial after denial this is a canard that simply refuses to die.
This morning, following a night’s speculation on Twitter, L’Equipe published an article stating “Leopard, c’est fini”, and that 11 riders currently under contract will have to look elsewhere for 2012.
That Radioshack have been a thorough disappointment in most of their European outings is clear for all to see. The team has managed some success on U.S. soil, taking the Tour of California and the recent Pro Cycling Challenge, and that may be of some comfort to its American title sponsor. But when the company signed on in July 2009, they thought they were buying in to the Armstrong / Bruyneel fairy tale. A miraculous Armstrong comeback (again) would be followed by more Grand Tour victories as Bruyneel worked the magic he was famous for, and brought the next Lance to the fore. It was genius. It simply couldn’t fail. Trouble was, it simply didn’t happen.
It’s easy to simply sweep such marketing follies aside when the company is rolling in cash. But Radioshack, like many others in a global recession, have felt the pinch and must surely be wondering what on earth they are doing propping up a Europe-centric sport where they have no retail presence?
Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Frank and Andy Schleck having felt it necessary to escape the tyranny of Bjarne Riis at Saxo Bank, teamed up with Brian Nygaard and Kim Andersen to form Leopard-Trek, with squad being financed by the Luxembourg real-estate mogul, Flavio Becca.
In terms of the Grand Tours, it’s fair to say that Leopard-Trek has faired a little better than Radioshack, with two places on the Tour De France podium. The mood within the camp was said to be good, albeit tinged with disappointment at missing out on the sport’s biggest prize. Results, for a team in its first season were more than passable.
So why would Leopard-Trek want anything to do with an aging Radioshack squad whose title sponsor has financial problems, whose marketing objectives are almost exclusively based in the United States and whose Directeur Sportive is under increasing scrutiny from the U.S. Government regarding allegations made by Floyd Landis?
Some would assert that Flavio Becca has been upset that a title sponsor has not yet been found for the team to alleviate his €12 million investment (€2m is said to have been paid by Trek) in the team’s first year. It is my understanding that this is simply not true. The rumour mill leapt to the conclusion that Leopard-Trek was in a similar situation to that of HTC-Highroad and feared imminent a repeat scenario and resulting collapse. The fact of the matter is that a better comparison to Leopard-Trek can be made by looking at BMC, rather than HTC-Highroad. Becca, like Andy Riis, is rich beyond most people’s comprehension and is funding the team based on the desire to fund a team - and more specifically, the Schlecks - than for the marketing dollars that such an endeavor would bring.
Others would claim that John Burke, president of Trek, wishes to see his company sponsoring only one team - and who better, you would think, than old Tailwind Sports co-director, Johan Bruyneel, to lead that team? If that is true, Burke has a very funny way of showing this supposed loyalty.
The recent Trek World expos, where the company show off their new product lines, was notable for two things. Firstly, Johan Bruyneel was not invited. Nor indeed was there any mention of Team Radioshack in any of the signage or marketing material produced for the events. In stark contrast to this, and to highlight the point, was the fact that members of the Leopard-Trek squad were in attendance as were numerous posters and billboards bedecked in Leopard livery. Does that really sound like the actions of a company whose President has had a hand in the downfall of the Leopard-Trek squad?
The central point that L’Equipe fails to tackle is that Becca has made a 4-year guarantee to the UCI to fund the Leopard-Trek team. An individual rider, such as Roman Kireyev for example, can be made to conveniently “disappear”. But a four year commitment to the UCI simply cannot. That, frankly, is drawing too much attention to places where the UCI does not want attention to be drawn. Creative accounting and administrative slight of hand wouldn’t allow those involved to wriggle free from that kind of mess.
It also fails to understand the raison d’etre of the team that brought Becca, Andersen and Nygaard together; the Schlecks. Commentators the world over, myself included, have been nothing short of incredulous at the persistence of Frank and Andy to stick together when to everyone else it seems blatantly obvious that they should be on separate teams. The team was set up as a vehicle for these two brothers. And if we then can conclude that the family has had a central role to play the in both the formation of the squad and the overall careers of the two then why would Frank and Andy’s father, Johny - a former pro cyclist himself - acquiesce so readily to the collapse of the Leopard-Trek squad when he has vehemently resisted any advances by Bruyneel towards his two sons in the past? The last thing Johny Schleck wants to see is his sons fall into the clutches of Johan Bruyneel.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes is often quoted as saying “Whenever you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, whoever improbable, must be the truth”.
So what is the truth? I’m afraid to say that there can be only one conclusion to all of this, and it’s not a pretty one.
The improbable truth, you may conclude, is that this particularly dark, satanic rumour mill is being fed from the desk of Johan Bruyneel himself. Bruyneel is cutting an increasingly lonely figure these days. Sources close to the Belgian have seen him make bizarre, isolated decisions and there appears to be a desperation to bring back the glory days at any cost. It’s almost as if Johan Bruyneel believes that if he spreads the rumour for long enough then it simply must come true.
But cycling’s great Machiavellian schemer may be running out road here.
It is no co-incidence that Armstrong’s right hand man has set up residence in London and that he hasn’t set foot in the United States for quite some time. This is a last ditch attempt by Bruyneel to get back in the game. Back in the center where he feels he belongs. But there are larger forces moving against the Belgian these days, than move with him. It could well be that all Bruyneel will find is that all roads will lead to Washington.
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