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ANNECY, France (VN) — Just days before the start of the Tour de France, Jim Ochowicz got a tip that saved his WorldTour team.
A contact passed word that Polish business tycoon and backer of Poland’s CCC-Sprandi Polkowice team Dariusz Milek wanted to step into cycling’s WorldTour. And Ochowicz was looking for a new sponsor to save his team following the death of longtime BMC benefactor Andy Rihs after a lengthy illness.
“It was an introduction about two weeks ago,” Ochowicz said. “I made some trips, told them our story, and it was the perfect fit for them and the perfect moment for us to do something together.”
Ochowicz jumped on a plane, made his pitch, and quickly hammered out a deal that saved the team. Within a week, he was quietly telling riders and staff the team’s future was safe.
It was an unexpected but well-timed deal to conclude a sponsor hunt that started last year.
“I never called a timeline on this. I never felt like it wasn’t going to happen. We just kept trying,” Ochowicz said. “You never know. Sometimes it takes months and sometimes it happens fast.”
This time it happened fast. Ochowicz had been knocking on doors for more than a year since Rihs, who founded the team a decade ago, indicated he would be ending his backing at the end of 2018. His death this spring only accelerated the intensity of the search.
The week prior to the Tour de France, BMC Racing’s future was in limbo and star riders were jumping ship. Even though the official trading window opens August 1, most marquee riders like to have their respective futures settled before the Tour is over.
Ochowicz released a statement at the dawn of the Tour indicating promising news would be forthcoming. Still, star riders Richie Porte, Rohan Dennis, Tejay van Garderen, and Stefan Küng were all linked to different teams for 2019.
On Monday, Ochowicz proudly confirmed the deal that will bring Milek’s shoemaker brand CCC on as a title sponsor. Current sponsor TAG Heuer is staying on and negotiations continue with Sophos. And the feather in the cap was that Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet was staying put.
“It’s not a merger. It’s a partnership,” Ochowicz said. “We’ve got the license and we’ve the structure. We’re going to absorb some of their riders and staff.”
Both Milek and Ochowicz each had something the other needed. Milek, described by Forbes as Poland’s fourth-richest tycoon with an estimated fortune of $1.1 billion, had the money. And Ochowicz had a guaranteed place in the Tour de France with a valid WorldTour license.
Milek has been backing Poland’s biggest professional team — CCC — since the early 2000s. The team currently races at the UCI Pro Continental level. It became the first Polish team to race the Giro d’Italia in 2003 and again raced the Italian grand tour last season. It was heavy on Polish riders, but it did sign some international talent, including 46-year-old Italian Davide Rebellin. American rider Jonathan Page even raced for the squad in 2005. But the team has never raced the Tour.
And Ochowicz, with one more year left on his current WorldTour license, had the ticket to bring CCC-Sprandi Polkowice to cycling’s Super Bowl.
“They wanted to go with a WorldTour team. There are only 18 of them,” Ochowicz said of the license. “It helped close the deal.”
Some of the details of the how the team will look and feel still need to be fleshed out. Ochowicz indicated that some of the riders and staff from CCC-Sprandi Polkowice would be incorporated into the new-look team for 2019.
What’s confirmed is that BMC will not be the bicycle brand next year and a new bike deal has yet to be finalized.
The team’s trademark red and black will also be swapped out for CCC’s orange logo, but the new name of the team isn’t decided. The team will remain U.S.-registered, with Milek as team owner and Ochowicz as general manager.
In addition to the new look, the team will have new goals. At least for next year, the team will largely ditch its grand tour GC ambitions and build the team around Van Avermaet in the classics and stage-hunters with between 23 to 25 riders. The team will be closer to Quick-Step in its racing ambitions than Team Sky.
“That isn’t a lot different than what we’re doing now,” Ochowicz said. “We’ve tried, but we haven’t gotten there in grand tours in a long time. It’s not a lot different of what we’re doing now.”
There was another strange twist to the story when Marc Biver, an associate who was brought on board last year to help in the search for new sponsors, broke away several weeks away to create what he thought would be a rival upstart team.
Biver, who had led Astana in the wake of the Operación Puerto scandal more than a decade ago, reportedly had a deal with a Belgian businessman. Staffers and riders were leaving BMC to join Biver in the new project. But last week, L’Equipe reported that the would-be sponsor was a hoax, and the deal fell apart like a house of cards.
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Ochowicz’s last-minute save reveals just how precarious the business model remains for elite cycling teams, and how valuable a valid WorldTour license can prove when trying to lure would-be backers.
The UCI, however, is reportedly working on reforms of the WorldTour licensing process for 2020 that could include a few surprises. One controversial idea would be the introduction of soccer league-style relegations between the WorldTour and the Professional Continental levels for teams at the bottom of one ranking and others on the top of the other. Another idea would be a two-tier WorldTour system that means not all teams would be required to attend all races, allowing race sponsors more flexibility to include more wildcard invitations to their events.
As the Ochowicz-CCC agreement reveals, the team’s valid WorldTour racing license (with its Tour de France start guaranteed) proved decisive in closing the deal.
Team owners have long desired permanent racing licenses similar to NFL franchises that would guarantee them a spot at the Tour and other major races no matter who sponsored the team. Under the current system, a team folds and loses its license if it cannot find a new sponsor to step up.
In contrast to NFL teams which receive around $250 million per year from TV rights even before tickets, hotdogs and beers are sold, cycling teams receive little more than expense money from TV rights during the Tour de France.
Ochowicz said the team can breathe easy, at least for now, but quickly added the search for would-be sponsors is a full-time pursuit.
“We’re always searching for partners,” he said. “That never stops.”