ALHAMA DE MURCIA, Spain (VN) — They’re bitter rivals during the heat of the battle, but once the race is over, pro cycling teams share a common bond, a kinship.
News of Cannondale-Drapac’s financial woes quickly echoed across the peloton over the weekend, and no one’s happy.
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Sport directors and managers across the Vuelta a España lamented the financial troubles that could sink Cannondale-Drapac at the end of the season.
“It’s not good for cycling to see any team close,” Nicolas Portal, sport director at Team Sky. “Every team is working hard on their projects. We are all dependent on sponsorship dollars to keep the teams together. We hope they can make it work.”
That sense of camaraderie and solidarity ricocheted across the peloton. Pro teams are like brothers; they might sometimes fight bitterly, but at the end of the day, they’re family.
“We can see they are sad,” said one team manager, who asked not to be identified. “It’s sad for them, and sad for cycling. This is the world we live in. Any team can fold at any time.”
Riders and team management know that any team is only as secure as its latest sponsorship deal.
In cycling, there is no shared TV rights and no ticket sales from stadiums. The big professional teams still largely rely on sponsorship dollars to fund the team budgets that hit $20 million or more per season.
Efforts like the Velon project are trying to alter that business model, but all that comes too late to save Cannondale-Drapac.
“It’s not just for the riders. Don’t forget the staff, too. The news like that hits them like a bomb,” said Addy Engels, a sport director and former pro at LottoNL-Jumbo. “If they do not continue, there will be a lot of people who will be without a job.”
Cannondale-Drapac looked to be on solid footing, but an eleventh-hour change with a future title sponsor late last week has thrown the team’s fate into turmoil.
If general manager Jonathan Vaughters cannot fill the $7 million hole in the budget, the team could collapse.
“There’s a sense of sadness, and there’s a bit of a fear for the future of cycling,” said Dimension Data sport director Alex Sans Vega. “Look at Slipstream. They’ve been around a long time, and suddenly it might close. That’s no good for anyone.”
Sans Vega, a former amateur racer who worked as a soigneur before rising to become a sport director, said the news coming toward the end of August will only complicate things for riders or staff who might be out on the street. He said most teams already have “about 90 percent” of their team lineups finalized by the end of the Tour de France, so by late summer, there won’t be many spots left within the elite peloton.
Plus, teams will race with eight instead of nine riders during the grand tours next season. That extra factor could put a pinch on teams that have been slowly reducing their rosters from the low to mid-30s, to an average of 27-28 riders per squad.
This year’s trading season has already been a frenetic one, and the imminent closure of Cannondale-Drapac could mean there are 28 additional riders suddenly flooding the market.
“The big riders won’t have a problem finding a new team,” Sans Vega said. “The problem is for the others. Maybe the domestiques and, above all, the staff. That makes you feel bad for them.”
Seeing teams fold is nothing new to cycling. Last year, it was Tinkoff and IAM Cycling. A few years ago, Euskaltel-Euskadi closed shop. Sponsors come and go, and it’s an annual juggling match for team managers and owners to try to stitch together enough money to keep their teams afloat.
No team is immune to the struggle, no matter how solid they might appear from the outside.
This season, long-time Belgian team Quick-Step was also on the verge of collapse. After existing team sponsors agreed to step up, the team was pulled back from the brink.
Riders constantly live on the edge, and rarely sign more than a two-year contract. One crash, one bad season, or one team closure can mean the end of a career. Engels knows how hard it can be without a contract.
“I almost ended my career when I was 27, and I didn’t find a contract until the end of January,” Engels said. “I was lucky, and there was one spot left. And I could continue racing for seven more years. That’s how our sport is.”
Cannondale-Drapac riders and staff are doing what they can to keep their chin up. On Sunday, the team smashed it on the stage to Cumbre del Sol, earning a morale-boosting third on the stage with Michael Woods.
“Our director said we can do this one of two ways,” said Cannondale-Drapac rider Joe Dombrowski. “It can be every man for himself, or we can work as a team, and try and give everyone an opportunity. Obviously, we are all a bit on edge. Some of us might not have a job next year.”
Listen to the VeloNews podcast for more on Cannondale-Drapac’s situation: