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Sky rivals expect Brailsford to save team

Fellow pro team managers know how hard it is to bring on new sponsors, but they bet that Brailsford can keep his program afloat.

The prospect of Team Sky, cycling’s best-funded team, folding at the end of 2019 is quite real, and the British outfit’s longtime rivals are watching in interest. Many team leaders expect manager David Brailsford to find new backers to keep the team afloat beyond 2019, but they all admit it won’t be easy.

“It could go three ways,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “Brailsford finds a sponsor of the same value, or he finds a sponsor of lesser value, or he doesn’t find one. Would Brailsford want to race on a lower level than he’s accustomed to? We don’t know.”

Brailsford has been in the enviable position since the team’s inception in 2010 of having the WorldTour’s richest and deepest budget. It has gradually grown to be an estimated $43 million annually, which is double that of most other WorldTour teams’ budgets.

Sky’s confirmation in December that it would be turning off the financial pipeline at the end of the 2019 season sent shockwaves around the peloton. Brailsford only found out a week before making the surprise announcement to his riders at a team camp on Mallorca. With Brailsford busy signing top-name riders to lengthy contract extensions, no one saw it coming.

Brent Copeland, general manager at Bahrain-Merida, said the sudden exit of Sky was a surprise to many peloton insiders.

“It was a shock for everyone,” Copeland said. “It’s a pity for cycling because Sky has been setting the benchmark for other teams and they did have a huge impact on the changing professional cycling.”

Copeland, who helped stitch together the deal to bring on Bahrain in 2017 and the McLaren Group for 2019, knows how choppy the sponsorship waters can be. Most would-be deals take years to nurture before everyone commits to the bottom line.

“It’s not going to be easy,” he continued. “To find a sponsor to make the budget they’ve had won’t be easy, given the short time period to search out a sponsor. We have heard some rumors, so maybe they already have something.”

Rival managers know what it’s like to be in Brailsford’s shoes. Every major team lives and dies by the whims of sponsors. Managers and team owners are on a constant mission to shore up their respective financial structures.

Jim Ochowicz, a veteran of the peloton dating back to the 7-Eleven and Motorola teams, said sponsor exits are simply part of the game. Last summer, Ochowicz successfully saved BMC Racing in a down-to-the-wire deal. Polish shoemaker CCC stepped in to keep the team afloat. He also said he expects Brailsford to be able to rein in another top sponsor.

“I hope they do because they deserve it. I cannot speculate on what might happen,” Ochowicz said. “All I know is that we gotta race against them this year.”

Ochowicz admitted all teams will be watching Brailsford’s sponsor hunt with interest, especially with the bounty of talent on his roster that suddenly could flood the rider market.

“Every team has its starting point and ending point,” he said. “We had a great run at BMC. Now we’re CCC Team, and that’s the nature of the business.”

Richard Plugge, manager of Jumbo-Visma, echoed that sentiment. Despite the unexpected decision by Sky backers to end sponsorship of the team, Plugge said Team Sky’s success in the Tour will help lure in new sponsors.

“First of all, I don’t think they will not find a sponsor,” Plugge said. “The team has such a good structure with such good riders, there will probably be someone who can step in and take over.”

Plugge said the larger challenge would be mounting pressure to secure a deal by mid-summer. Riders start getting nervous and search for new contracts if something is not firmly in place before the start of the Tour de France in July.

“His biggest problem will be to keep everyone at ease until the Tour de France,” Plugge said. “He has six or seven months to find someone else. I am confident we will see Brailsford next year in the peloton.”

No one is counting out Brailsford just yet. There are already rumors that LVMH, the French-based luxury conglomerate that has links to bike sponsor Pinarello, could be poised to take over.

“A peloton without Team Sky would be very different,” White said. “If I were a betting man, I would expect to see Dave Brailsford in the peloton next year.”