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The Danish-backed project to create a new pro team around Michael Rasmussen took a stronger form Tuesday when it announced ex-pro Michael Blaudzun will be the team’s top sport director for next season.
Christina Hembo, a Danish designer and watch-maker, has ambitious plans to grow a team centered around Rasmussen. The team, to be called Christina Watches, expects to have a continental license for the 2011 season and hopes to eventually grow the squad into a ProTour team within five years.
The arrival of Blaudzun, a two-time Danish national road champion who retired in 2008, brings addition heft to the team which started last year as a personal project by Christina Hembo to help earn Rasmussen a spot back with a major European team.
Claus Hembo, the husband of Christina, said the team expects to be in some major races next season despite its continental status for 2011.
“We have been invited to many races, much bigger and much more interesting than what’s normal for a continental team,” Hembo told VeloNews on Tuesday. “We have 12 riders confirmed and there will be more. We have had interest from more than 100 riders, some of them are people you would know very well.”
Rasmussen, now, 36, remains a controversial figure within cycling following his contentious exit while leading the 2007 Tour de France with just four days to go to Paris. The former mountain bike world champion later served a two-year ban for missing out-of-competition doping controls and discovered an uphill road when he returned to racing in 2009.
Major teams were hesitant to sign Rasmussen and he could only manage to land rides at the modest Tecos Guadalajara in Mexico for 2009 and the Miche team of Italy in 2010.
Christina Hembo ─ who was named entrepreneur of the year in Denmark and won other business accolades for her successful watch-design company ─ met Rasmussen while the pair competed on the Danish version of “Dancing with the Stars.”
Convinced that Rasmussen deserved a second opportunity to race at the elite level of the sport, Hembo stepped in as a personal sponsor and promised to underwrite Rasmussen’s salary in 2011 if he could join a ProTour team. But even with the financial guarantee, no teams were interested in signing the climbing specialist.
“The whole idea (of a team) started when Christina would support Michael with the clear idea of getting him back to a ProTour team. We negotiated with several teams that we would pay Michael’s salary and we negotiated with (Bjarne) Riis for four months,” Claus Hembo said. “We thought we were home safe, then Riis said he changed his mind.”
Rather than give up, they decided to buy an entire team and worked to close a deal with a Denmark-registered team to take control of the entire infrastructure and staff.
Hembo said they believe Rasmussen deserves a second chance to race again.
“If we couldn’t get Michael back on a ProTour team, then we will get him back in the saddle in another way, so we bought this team,” Hembo continued. “Christina really enjoyed watching Michael climb those mountains and was upset when he couldn’t come back. She believes he deserves another chance. Plan A was to get Michael on a ProTour team, so now we have Plan B. At first, everyone laughed at us and said it wasn’t possible. Now we have invitations from races and riders are calling us to join the team.”
Continental licenses are set to be issued in mid-January. Hembo assured that all the necessary paperwork and financial guarantees are in place to fully fund the team in what he described as a project that will ideally culminate with a ProTour license by 2016.
“Michael would like race three more years and then become the team’s sport director,” Hembo said.