From the magazine: The Saxo Bank Heist

How a skilled PR man and former Riis Cycling insider polished an entrepreneur’s idea, snagged Spartacus and the Schleck brothers, and built the world’s No. 1 team

Editor’s note: The following article first appeared in the February, 2011, issue of VeloNews. When the issue went to press the name of the team, Leopard-Trek, had yet to be made public.

How a skilled PR man and former Riis Cycling insider polished an entrepreneur’s idea, snagged Spartacus and the Schleck brothers, and built the world’s No. 1 team

The news spread through the cycling world as fast as Fabian Cancellara at top speed when the UCI released its sporting assessment of the world’s 40 best professional teams in November. Sitting at No. 1 in the standings, ahead of the wildly successful Rabobank, Garmin-Cervélo and HTC-Highroad teams, was an upstart formation with no name.


Each team’s ranking is based on results of the top 15 riders on its 2011 roster. Even though the generically named Luxembourg Pro Cycling Project wasn’t due to start a race until January 16, 2011, it had already signed enough star-quality athletes to outscore all the other teams in the world.

Perhaps even more startling is the fact that the person who put together this new team in less than six months has never raced a bike, never been a sports director and never worked in any sort of management position. His name is Brian Nygaard, a 36-year-old Dane who spent most of the past decade working as a media-relations official for the CSC and Saxo Bank teams of Bjarne Riis.

Heading into the 2011 season, Nygaard is the man behind the wheel of a mysterious new team, steering the getaway car after a slow but methodical raid on his former employer’s top riders.

For many people, Nygaard’s biggest claim to fame was his uncanny resemblance to his then boss: both have round faces and shaven heads, and both have that serious, intellectual air bred by long, dark Scandinavian winters. But Nygaard though smiles a lot more than Riis — and that’s just one of their many differences, not the least of which is their disparate backgrounds.

When Riis was battling to a Tour de France title in 1996, Nygaard was heading toward a post-graduate degree in philosophy and languages at Scotland’s prestigious University of St. Andrews. “I thought I was going to be an academic for the rest of my life,” Nygaard told VeloNews.

Team Leopard-Trek presentation

That goal began to change in 2001 when he was looking for a job to fill his July break and contacted the Danish film director Jørgen Leth, partly because Nygaard had developed a spectator’s passion for bike racing through the famous documentaries Leth made in the 1970s about the Giro d’Italia (“Stars and Water Carriers”) and Paris-Roubaix (“A Sunday in Hell”).

Besides being a filmmaker, Leth works as a Tour de France commentator for Danish television, and Nygaard’s request resulted in a temporary job offer to deal with the media for Riis’s Tour squad in its first year of CSC sponsorship.

“They were looking for someone who could speak several languages,” Nygaard said. “It wasn’t a dream come true; I just saw it as an opportunity because I didn’t have plans for the summer holidays.” But he was so good at the job that the day after the Tour finished in Paris, Riis offered him a full-time position for 2002. Nygaard accepted.

Over the years, the young Dane became one of pro cycling’s insiders, deftly handling press inquiries and seamlessly working with Riis as the public face of Team CSC and then Saxo Bank. Nygaard developed friendships with most of the team’s riders, especially over the past five years with the Luxembourg brothers Andy and Fränk Schleck, and Cancellara, the Swiss superstar.

Nygaard may not have had a cycling background, but his work with a team that earned the world No. 1 ranking year after year gave him an uncanny knowledge of the sport. One story comes to mind: Nygaard was watching the later starters in the Monaco time trial that opened the 2009 Tour de France when a journalist asked him what he thought Cancellara would do. Even though the best time at that point was a 19:54 by Andreas Klöden, Nygaard replied, “Fabian will win with 19:32.” The Dane was correct to the exact second.

This article first appeared in the February, 2011, issue of VeloNews.

Nygaard’s multiple skills landed him a new job in 2010 as head of communications with Team Sky, the new British ProTour squad with a vast budget. At the same time, unknown to Nygaard, initial moves were being made to create another major team, in Luxembourg. A commercial real estate magnate, entrepreneur and art connoisseur, Flavio Becca, who’d already helped the F91 Dudelange soccer club become his country’s top team, wanted to do something similar in cycling, another of his many passions.

In 2008, on a listing of Luxembourg’s most influential business people, Becca’s citation included: “One thing is sure: it seems that few prestigious national projects can happen without him.”

The formation of a major pro cycling team qualifies as such a project because Becca said he wanted the team leaders to be the Schleck brothers, who are huge stars in a nation that has only 500,000 people. For help with the new project, Becca first turned to fellow Luxembourger Marc Biver, the former Tour de Suisse organizer, rider agent and general manager of Team Astana (before Johan Bruyneel took the reins), who is currently president of the Swiss Triathlon Association.

The dynamics between the two men were not ideal, apparently, and so in the early spring Becca started talking to one of the Schlecks’ most experienced sport directors, Kim Andersen. Winner of the 1984 Flèche Wallonne and the first Dane to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey, Andersen ended his racing career in disgrace with a positive drug test. But at 52, he is respected for the astuteness and tactical skills developed in the 13 years he spent with Saxo Bank and its earlier iterations.

Andersen, according to Nygaard, was one of several people who advised Becca on how to proceed.

“At that time [in March],” Nygaard said, “I heard that Marc Biver was going to run the team, but I really didn’t see him back in cycling, and I didn’t think much about it other than that. Then, the day before (the Tour of) Flanders, I got a phone call from the Becca side asking if I had time to meet and give him some advice.

“He introduced himself as the man who wanted to go about setting up the project. We met for half an hour and ended up talking for two hours actually. I knew the amount of time Sky had put into starting a major team, and I so advised Mr. Becca that it was probably too late to put a team together for 2011. Then, I think from intuition, he offered me the job to direct the team. I was flabbergasted.”

Nygaard wasn’t initially keen on the idea, but two weeks later, they met again in Maastricht in conjunction with the Amstel Gold Race. Nygaard said they didn’t come to any conclusions — “except I wanted more time to think about it … to check out the people behind it.” He was already committed to working the Giro d’Italia for Team Sky through the month of May, and this gave him the chance to think about the job offer and get more advice.

“I’d always done the same job in cycling,” Nygaard continued, “so if I was to do anything else it would likely be outside of cycling. Anyway, that’s what I’d always imagined. I had a very good job with Sky, but then I thought that opportunities like this only come once in a lifetime, and it would be working with people I really like and respect.

“I still couldn’t grasp or comprehend why Mr. Becca chose me … but I knew I wanted to think about it long and hard before giving him a decision. I think he liked my personality and that I had been in professional cycling for 10 years, and we got on very well. I liked his sensitivity, and I’m sure he spoke to other people before he spoke to me.”

Nygaard finally accepted the job, resigned from Team Sky and began work as team manager of the prestigious new team on June 1.

It’s been reported in the European media that the Schleck brothers have a personal four-year contract with Becca, but Nygaard said this is untrue. “All the riders are signing contracts with the team,” he said, “and we are only announcing them when they are fully confirmed and the sponsorship agreements are in place.”

In the six months that Nygaard was putting the team together, there was constant chatter about its possible name; but he said that the intention was to create a sustainable team that wouldn’t be constantly searching for a new title sponsor. That was the case with Riis, who over the years has put much of his own money into his teams to bridge the financial gap when sponsors did not materialize or failed to return.

Ironically, it was during the opening half of 2010, when Riis had failed to get a team sponsor for next year (until Saxo Bank agreed to extend its contract), that Nygaard was able to entice half a dozen riders to come with the Schlecks from Saxo to form the core of the new formation.

“I wanted to create a young team,” Nygaard said. And he has. All but two of his two-dozen signings are aged 30 or under (see “The Athletes”); and those two veterans are Stuart O’Grady and Jens Voigt — “the men I need to guide the younger riders.”

As for the team’s title, Nygaard said that it will remain as a generic Luxembourg name, with several major sponsorships — akin to how the Tour de France is sponsored, and similar to pro teams Astana (the name of Kazakhstan’s capital city), Katusha (the Russian global cycling project), and Euskadi (a region of Spain).

Ahead of his early-December announcement, the ever-cautious Nygaard was reluctant to name any of the principal sponsors whose logos will join those of major suppliers Trek and Mercedes-Benz on the team jersey. But leaks in the Luxembourg press (see timeline) indicate that at least four major corporations will finance the Luxembourg Pro Cycling Project and its estimated $20 million annual budget: Belgacom (the Belgian telecommunications giant), Enovos (the Luxembourg energy utility that already helps its national cycling federation), Jabra (Danish manufacturer of wireless headsets) and Maca-Loca (a Swiss energy drink that supports its national cycling team).

“It’s the way of the future,” said Nygaard, who never thought it would be his, too.

Late December, 2009
Businessman Flavio Becca begins talks with fellow Luxembourger Marc Biver, the former manager of Team Astana, about setting up a new pro cycling team in the Grand Duchy. Biver later says that Fabian Cancellara is the first rider he approached in connection with the team.
January-February, 2010
Rumors start to circulate that the Schleck brothers, Andy and Fränk, are connected to the proposed team.
Early March, 2010
Saxo Bank team boss Bjarne Riis, commenting on the Schlecks being linked to the potential new team, says: “I heard the rumors [and] went to see them and they denied it. That was disappointing.”
Late March, 2010
Saxo Bank sports director Kim Andresen, the first Dane to wear the Tour de France yellow jersey (in 1983), is said to be helping Becca put together the new team.
April 3, 2010
Becca meets with former Saxo Bank press chief Brian Nygaard at a café in Kortrijk, Belgium, and at the end of a long conversation offers him the job as general manager of the new team.
April 17, 2010
Becca and Nygaard meet for a second time in Maastricht, the Netherlands, to discuss the project in further detail.
May 31, 2010
Following his work at the Giro d’Italia, Nygaard resigns as head of communications at Team Sky and accepts Becca’s job offer to lead the Luxembourg Pro Cycling Project.
June 27, 2010
Riis releases Kim Andersen from his directeur sportif position at Saxo Bank and recognizes that the Schleck brothers and Fuglsang will be moving to a new team in 2011.
July 1, 2010
Flanked by the Schleck brothers at a pre-Tour team press conference, Riis announces that the team has agreed not to discuss the situation during the Tour de France. “We won’t speculate on any of these rumors over the next three weeks. We are here as one team, to win the Tour de France together.”
September 1, 2010
Nygaard and Trek announce at Eurobike that Trek has inked a long-term partnership deal with the Luxembourg team to supply bikes, along with Bontrager components and Shimano drivetrains and brakes.
September 7, 2010
Riis sends O’Grady and Andy Schleck home from the Vuelta a España after they went out drinking after dinner on the first rest day. It would be the last time either rider races in a Saxo Bank jersey.
September 17, 2010
After just 20km into the Vuelta’s stage 19, Cancellara hops off his bike and heads home to Switzerland without an explanation; days pass before he answers phone calls from Saxo Bank team management.
September 20, 2010
According to unnamed sources, Cancellara agrees to a preliminary contract with the new Luxembourg team before leaving for the world road championships in Australia.
September 29, 2010
Mercedes-Benz Luxembourg announces its partnership with the new team to supply its fleet of cars, minibuses, trucks and buses.
October 14, 2010
Nygaard announces Andersen’s three assistant sport directors: Italian Luca Guercilena from Quick Step, Dane Lars Michaelsen and German Torsten Schmidt, both from Saxo Bank.
October 27, 2010
Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad estimates that the Luxembourg team is paying Riis Cycling 1.83 million euros (currently $2.5 million) to buy Cancellara out of his 2011 contract with Saxo Bank.
November 2, 2010
In its sporting assessment of the world’s top 40 professional teams, the UCI ranks the Luxembourg Project as No. 1, based on the performances of the best 15 riders signed by the team.
November 3, 2010
According to a “reliable source,” Luxembourg’s Le Quotidien newspaper names the Swiss energy drink Maca-Loca as a major sponsor of the new team.
November 11, 2010
Andy Schleck, speaking in an interview with L’Équipe, says: “You tell us that Fabian Cancellara naturally has a place [on the team] … but as of today he has yet to sign.”
November 13, 2010
According to its sources, Le Quotidien names Belgacom (Belgian telecommunications and mobile phone giant) and Jabra (Danish manufacturer of wireless headsets) as major team sponsors,
November 22, 2010
The day that the Luxembourg Project is confirmed as a UCI ProTeam with a four-year license, starting in 2011, Le Quotidien leaks the name of another probable main sponsor, Enovos, the expanding Luxembourg electric and gas utility.
Early December, 2010
Nygaard announces the full roster and all team sponsors for the Luxembourg Project.
January 16, 2011
The new team competes for the first time in the warm-up circuit race at the Santos Tour Down Under in Australia.

The Athletes

The Luxembourg Project gained the No. 1 position in the UCI sporting assessment based on the points of its top 15 riders scored in a system similar to the former UCI World Rankings — which is the method currently used by the Cycling Quotient Web site to rank professional racers. Here’s how the Luxembourg team’s athletes shape up according to CQ:

1) Fabian Cancellara (Swi), 29*
Four-time world TT champion and specialist in flatter spring classics.
(CQ ranking: 9th, 1,559pts)
2) Andy Schleck (Lux), 25
Team leader for grand tours and hilly classics.
(CQ ranking: 16th, 1,190pts)
3) Fränk Schleck (Lux), 30
Co-leader for grand tours and hilly classics.
(CQ ranking: 21st, 1,107pts)
4) Jakob Fuglsang (Dk), 25
Huge prospect for grand tours and hilly classics.
(CQ ranking: 40th, 802pts)
5) Maxime Monfort (B), 27
Reliable team rider for stage races and possible leader for hilly classics.
(CQ ranking: 54th, 662pts)
6) Daniele Bennati (I), 30
Italian sprinter looking to regain the top form he had in 2007.
(CQ ranking: 66th, 615pts)
7) Jens Voigt (G), 39
Veteran team rider still capable of winning shorter stage races.
(CQ ranking: 95th, 507pts)
8) Fabian Wegmann (G), 30
Strong support rider and potential classics winner.
(CQ ranking: 102nd, 475pts)
9) Wouter Weylandt (B), 26
Potent sprinter when going is tough.
(CQ ranking: 115th, 429pts)
10) Linus Gerdemann (G), 28
His great potential as stage race specialist yet to be confirmed.
(CQ ranking: 165th, 322pts)
11) Robert Wagner (G), 27*
Strong sprinter capable of beating the best.
(CQ ranking: 224th, 271pts)
12) Dominic Klemme (G), 24
Prospect for spring classics after placing 14th at 2010 Paris-Roubaix.
(CQ ranking: 276th, 224pts)
13) Anders Lund (Dk), 25
Promising team rider for the grand tours.
(CQ ranking: 323rd, 193pts)
14) Stefan Denifl (A), 23
Solid climber, stage race rider from Cervélo TestTeam.
(CQ ranking: 333rd, 189pts)
15) Oliver Zaugg (Swi), 29
Excellent team rider and climber who helped Vincenzo Nibali win 2010 Vuelta a España.
(CQ ranking: 336th, 186pts)
16) Martin Mortensen (Dk), 26
Solid team rider for shorter stage races and spring classics.
(CQ ranking: 352nd, 178pts)
17) Joost Posthuma (Nl), 29
Strong time trialist and versatile team rider.
(CQ ranking: 582nd, 99pts)
18) Stuart O’Grady (Aus), 37
Reliable road captain for classics and grand tours.
(CQ ranking: 625th, 88pts)
19) Will Clarke (Aus), 25
First big contract after 2 months as a stagiaire with AG2R.
(CQ ranking: 692nd, 77pts)
20) Brice Feillu (F), 25
Climber, yet to confirm stage win and 24th overall at 2009 Tour de France.
(CQ ranking: 734th, 70pts)
21) Davide Vigano (I), 26
Versatile team rider.
(CQ ranking: 844th, 54pts)
22) Tom Stamsnijder (Nl), 25
Solid team rider for grand tours and stage races. (CQ ranking: 963rd, 44pts)
23) Bruno Pires (P), 29
Strong climber who’s been “hidden” in Portuguese racing.
(CQ ranking: 1,229th, 28pts)
24) Giacomo Nizzolo (I), 21
Promising rookie for single-day races.
(CQ ranking: 2,732nd, 4pts)

* Rider not yet confirmed at press time