In December 2015, cycling’s most polarizing team owner Oleg Tinkov revealed that he would dissolve his Tinkoff team following the 2016 season. The news set off one of the biggest storylines this past season: Tinkoff ’s marquee rider, Peter Sagan, was on the open market.
In June, news leaked that Sagan had signed a three-year deal with the small German Pro Continental squad then named Bora – Argon 18. Sagan would earn six million euros a year, reports noted, and the German team would make the jump to the WorldTour in 2017 as Bora – Hansgrohe.
After the news broke, journalists and cycling pundits were left with multiple questions. Why had the sport’s biggest star chosen this tiny German team? How did the deal come together? Could this nascent squad support Sagan’s outsized ambitions at major races?
Since the summer, the details of Sagan’s move to Bora – Hansgrohe have slowly trickled out. Sagan bypassed larger teams in favor of Bora because the smaller team could accommodate his very unique requirements. Bike manufacturer Specialized played a big role in connecting rider with team. And the team’s boss, Ralph Denk, worked behind the scenes to round up the resources in order to make the deal work.
Sagan’s story exposes the depth of influence one rider can have on a team’s fortunes. It also reveals how such a journey is rarely made alone: In this case, the futures of so many others were intricately tied to the Slovak’s fate.
IN EARLY 2016 Peter Sagan’s agent, Giovanni Lombardi, began speaking with WorldTour teams about his client. Lombardi declined to give specifics, but sources familiar with Sagan said that Astana, Etixx – Quick-Step, and the new Bahrain – Merida team were interested. Lombardi’s negotiations should have been easy — Sagan is the sport’s biggest rider, so who wouldn’t want him?
But Sagan travels with a sizable entourage. Hiring him meant bringing on no less than 14 total people: two mechanics, two masseuses, one coach, one sport director, three Slovak teammates (Michael Kolar, Erik Baska, and Sagan’s brother Juraj), as well as Tinkoff teammates Maciej Bodnar, Rafal Majka, and Pawel Poljanski.
“The goal was for Peter to be happy — that means making the Sagan group happy,” Lombardi said through a translator. “Money is important, but we’re not just going to look for money.”
Bringing on a group of that size is not easy, even for the biggest WorldTour squads. A team would need to fire existing riders and personnel to accommodate the new riders and staff, or bring on more sponsorship cash to cover the cost of 13 additional salaries. For larger teams, that influx of manpower could upset an established balance.
The personnel requirements trimmed down the number of Sagan suitors, Lombardi said. Sagan told VeloNews he realized the entourage would narrow the number of teams on his list, but it was still his biggest priority.
“The big teams, they already plan everything, and it was very difficult to make half the team leave to make room for my group,” Sagan says. “I wanted my group with me and that was the most important thing with what I wanted to do.”
SAGAN HAS A LONGSTANDING relationship with bicycle manufacturer Specialized, which sponsored him during his early days as a mountain bike racer and worked with him at Tinkoff. In April 2016, the company joined the search party and began working to find Sagan a new home for 2017.
At the Amgen Tour of California, Specialized put Lombardi in touch with Quick – Step owner Patrick Lefevere. The two groups were in discussion for an unknown amount of time but, ultimately, they decided not to join forces.
“Patrick’s squad is a well-oiled machine, and absorbing all of the staff and riders could change the dynamic,” says Slate Olson, formerly chief marketing officer at Specialized. “It just didn’t come together.”
Still, Specialized was committed to keeping Sagan on its bike, which meant it would need to bring a sizable financial boost to whichever team could clear out space for Sagan and his group. The company worked almost like an agency for Sagan, keeping its ears open for inquiries for the star rider.
During the Giro d’Italia, Specialized representatives on the ground in Italy were contacted by Bora – Argon 18 team director Ralph Denk, who said he was hoping to bring his Pro Continental squad up to the WorldTour for 2017. The jump up would mean that Bora needed additional riders and staff, and could therefore accommodate Sagan and his entourage. Only 14 of the team’s 21 riders would be making the jump to the WorldTour.
“We had not many riders or staff with WorldTour experience,” Denk says. “I was looking for employees.”
The former owner of the Giant mountain bike team, Denk had long held WorldTour ambitions. In 2010, he helped found Continental team NetApp, which gained a wild-card entry to the Tour in 2014 and became Bora – Argon 18 the following year. Like many team directors, Denk believed the UCI would start trimming the number of WorldTour teams after the 2017 season. Thus, he saw the coming season as his best shot at earning a WorldTour berth.
Denk believed his team could also capitalize on Germany’s return to pro cycling. Nearly a decade has passed since German cycling fans learned of the rampant doping on Team Telekom in the 1990s and early 2000s. The sport seemed primed for a major come- back in a nation that had for years turned its back to cycling. Indeed, the German city Düsseldorf will host the Grand Départ of the 2017 Tour de France, and the Deutschland Tour is slated to return to the UCI calendar in 2018.
So Denk set out to find the sponsorship dollars to sign Sagan and step up to the WorldTour.
During the same Giro, he was driving through the Dolomites with the owner of Bora Cooking Products, the team’s primary sponsor. Denk told him that signing Sagan represented the best shot at the WorldTour. It would not be cheap.
“He said he could not cover the entire amount, but I should try to get [Sagan],” Denk says. “He gave me the okay to take the risk to sign Peter.”
Denk then reached out to Philip Harinck, who oversees Belgian marketing for the German company Hansgrohe, which manufactures faucets. Having helped Belgian company Berry Group with its sponsorship of the U.S. Postal Service team more than a decade ago, Harinck knew the marketing potential of pro cycling. He agreed to bring Hansgrohe aboard as a presenting sponsor for the team. The last financial piece to fall into place was Specialized, which also agreed to come aboard as a major cash and gear sponsor.
By June, Denk had the finances and infrastructure to commit to Sagan. During the Critérium du Dauphiné, Denk traveled to Monaco to meet with Lombardi. The deal was done, months before the UCI’s transfer window.
“The actual negotiation was very easy and smooth,” Denk says. “I had a good feeling that we respected each other. From there it went very fast forward.”
BEFORE THE OPPORTUNITY to snag Sagan entered the picture, Denk’s 2017 ambitions were surprisingly humble. He hoped to again earn a wildcard entry to the grand tours, and to continue to develop young German stars Emanuel Buchmann and Silvio Herklotz.
In Sagan, however, Denk saw greater opportunities. The team would be certain to join the WorldTour. Needless to say, the team’s ambitions are no longer so humble.
“We want to end the [WorldTour team] classification in the top six, win the green jersey, and we want to win a monument,” Denk says. “And we’d like to finish a grand tour in the top five.”