Alberto Contador has two races on his hands this week. The first will be his season debut at the Volta ao Algarve, starting Wednesday in Portugal. The second? A countdown to find money to bankroll a new top-level professional team.
The Tinkoff star confirmed Monday he is leaving two doors open to race in 2017. He’s already hinted he could carry on next season, if he hits unexpected road-bumps in his swan song year. But even more enticing would be a chance to race on a new team where he would play a key role in ownership and management.
“I have two options in my head: One is to carry on if I suffer a mishap in the Tour, like I did in 2014,” Contador said at a press conference Monday. “And the other is to launch a professional team.”
To have a team ready for 2017, Contador needs to get moving fast. With most top riders having their contracts in place typically by early summer, those close to the Spanish superstar predict he has only a few months to pull something together.
Contador admitted that the second option is “complicated” in today’s economic climate in Spain. A buckling stock market — Spain’s Ibex index has lost 18 percent of its value so far in 2016 — and ongoing economic challenges south of the Pyrénées make it difficult to find a major Spanish backer. Spain’s once flourishing peloton is now a husk of its former glory, which boasted four top-level teams at one point. Only Movistar is now at the WorldTour level, and Caja Rural at Professional Continental.
If anyone could do it, however, it’s Contador, who is Spain’s lone cyclist with the media traction to reach into the mainstream.
Speaking to the Spanish daily El Mundo, Contador’s older brother and manager, Fran Contador, estimated they have 45 days — until about the end of March — to find a sponsor in time to lock up contracts with key riders.
“After that, it’s complicated to sign riders. We could wait a little longer, but not much,” Fran Contador told El Mundo. “Sky and Tinkoff are both more than 30 million euros. Would 20 million be enough? That could work.”
If Contador agreed to race at least one season with the new squad, it would certainly sweeten the pot and give immediate value to any new sponsor. Plus, he’d help secure a place in the top events, which could entice other top riders to join the project.
Cyclists are loath to sign on with new, unproven teams. Many have been burned before as well-intentioned sponsorship deals often dissolve into smoke and mirrors at the last minute, despite the UCI’s enhanced financial demands and requirements. There have been a few recent example of teams imploding before take off, including the Australian-based Pegasus project in 2011, and the Fernando Alonso project in 2014, backed by the Formula One driver. Even coming into 2016, Cult Energy Drink pulled out late, but the Stolting squad has been able to cobble together funding to keep the team afloat this season. Team Colombia also folded at the end of 2015 for a lack of funding, leaving riders’ salaries unpaid for months.
Contador himself would be a legitimate threat if he decides to keep racing. At 33, he’s still at the top of his game, and could easily race 2017 at a very high level. Think a player/manager coming off the bench and hitting a home-run to win the World Series.
Bradley Wiggins, winner of the 2012 Tour de France, has already started a similar project, Team Wiggins, but that’s a development squad at the Continental level, and Wiggins is only racing a select few road events, with his goals centered on winning another gold medal on the track at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. In contrast, Contador has eyes on the big leagues.
How much money would Contador need? The average WorldTour budget is 15 million euros. Sky’s budget tops 30 million euros (backed by the strong British pound) while other teams hover around 10 million euros per season. Most of any team’s budget goes to paying salaries. Contador has said if he wants to build a professional team, he wants it at the WorldTour level. A Professional Continental team, cycling’s second tier, can be bought for about three million per year, so Contador is clearly shooting for the big time.
One plus for the Contador organization is that it has already been running a junior and under-23 team under the Fundación Contador for the past for years.
“If we form a team, it’s to go to the Tour de France with guarantees of success. I wouldn’t want it to be an experiment,” Contador said. “There are about 50 percent possibilities that we can create a team. If it doesn’t work out, we will continue with the ‘Fundación,’ because I want to give back everything that cycling has given to me.”
Contador’s move comes at a good time. His Tinkoff team is shuttering doors at the end of 2016 after team owner Oleg Tinkov decided to pull the plug on funding. Even though team manager Stefano Feltrin is also looking for new backers, it’s unclear whether or not the team will continue.
Contador, meanwhile, looked trimmer than ever, barely filling out his business suit as he met reporters Monday ahead of his season debut at the Volta ao Algarve on Wednesday.
“I starved myself over the winter to get thin,” Contador said. “The big goal of the season is the Tour de France. I am very motivated for this season.”