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Premier Tech is one of the most sought-after entities in professional cycling right now — a sponsor with a big checkbook and even bigger ambitions.
After exiting its deal with Astana, the Canadian-based packaging and manufacturing company is being courted by several top-level WorldTour teams in a possible merger for 2022 and beyond.
Sources tell VeloNews that negotiations are advanced with a deal to link up with Team BikeExchange, but there was no immediate comment from team officials.
Speaking to Canadian newspaper La Presse, company CEO Jean Bélanger said he’s been contacted by “about 15 WorldTour” teams, and said a new deal that has been whittled down to four teams should be announced by the end of September.
“Which one? It remains to be finalized,” Bélanger told La Presse.
Reports also have linked a possible merger with Israel Start-Up Nation, another WorldTour team with strong Canadian backing via its owner Sylvan Adams. Other possible deals mentioned have included Qhubeka-NextHash or U.S.-registered team Rally Cycling.
Sources tell VeloNews that negotiations are advanced to join up with BikeExchange in a deal that would include a few Astana-Premier Tech riders, such Jakob Fuglsang and Hugo Houle, and select staffers to join the decade-long Aussie team.
Also read: BikeExchange backing guaranteed through 2022
Belanger said, however, that no deal has yet be finalized as of Tuesday.
Last year, a high-profile takeover deal for GreenEdge with Spanish backer Manuela Fundación was scuttled by team owner Gerry Ryan, who agreed to back the team for at least two more seasons through the end of 2022.
Behind the split with Astana and Alexander Vinokourov
In the interview, Bélanger also delved into the reasons behind the company’s decision to leave its partnership with the Astana-backed team and split with team manager Alexander Vinokourov.
“It’s unfortunate, because Alexander is a friend, but we have very different visions for the team,” Bélanger told the daily. “So the dispute was the presence of Vinokourov, the philosophy he wanted in terms of strategy and tactics in the team. Kazakhstan had to choose: do we go with the Vinokourov approach or do we go with the international, professional, transparent approach?”
Also read: Premier Tech joins Astana as co-sponsor
Bélanger said his company, which owned 50 percent of the WorldTour team since 2020, had an option to assume full control of the team, but said resistance from the Kazakh-backed interests would have resulted in a lengthy legal battle.
Vinokourov was removed from team management just before the start of the 2021 Tour de France, but will return as general manager, a move in part that prompted Premier Tech’s decision to leave the team.
“[Vinokourov] was without a contract for two months,” Bélanger said. “We weren’t taking him back, it was part of the cleaning operation. Finally, the Prime Minister forced him to come back. We said: ‘that’s okay, we’re going to give him a very tight job description.’ And just before the start of the Tour, he wasn’t doing anything. We suspended him.”
Bélanger said the team wanted more “transparency” and “professional management,” and to expand the team’s budget, and said initially, the Kazakhs were backing him, but changes within several key posts within Kazakhstan created tension over the team’s future.
“When we got into cycling, [Vinokourov] welcomed me, he welcomed Premier Tech. He really introduced me to the sport,” Bélanger said. “He’s the Olympic champion, he’s the former racer. Me? I’m the businessman who can write checks, but don’t get involved in sports. We agree to disagree.”
Bélanger said he wanted to push for more backers to come on board in order to increase the team’s overall budget to make a run for the top rungs of the WorldTour.
“We were in the bottom half of the WorldTour,” he said. “We wanted to go into the top-5, and to do that, it takes money. Vinokourov didn’t want to do that, and he wanted to keep his cards close to his chest. That’s OK, it’s two ways of managing things, but we wanted to move toward change.”
Despite the departure of Premier Tech, Astana vows to keep racing into 2022.
It recently signed longtime rider Alexey Lutsenko to a three-year contract extension, and reports link a possible return to the team of Miguel Ángel López following his controversial exit from the Vuelta a España.