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There was plenty of reason to smile inside the Trek Factory Racing team bus at the end of Tirreno-Adriatico. Fabian Cancellara had just taken an emphatic victory in the closing-day time trial to confirm his form ahead of the spring classics, while Bauke Mollema rode to second overall against an elite field to assure everyone that his GC credentials are legitimate.
Tirreno-Adriatico also served as an important milestone for the U.S.-registered team. After a few tumultuous seasons that saw remnants of the team morph from the birth of the Leopard-Trek team in 2011, and merge with RadioShack in 2012, the squad was reborn in 2014, racing under the banner of Trek Factory Racing. The weeklong Italian race reminded everyone the team has reached new stability and maturity.
“We are a team founded last year on the classics group. This year, we’ve added Mollema to add some stability to the GC target,” Trek general manager Luca Guercilena told VeloNews. “We want to continue to grow the team. We have built a solid base. Now we are ready for the next step.”
In its first season in 2014, the team leaned heavily on Cancellara’s classics acumen. “Spartacus” delivered one of his most spectacular campaigns, with victory at Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and podiums at Milano-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix.
This year, it’s branching out with new GC ambitions with the arrival of Mollema, who will tackle the Tour de France this summer with an outside shot at reaching the final podium in Paris.
Captain of the ship
The significance of the results in the “Race Between Two Seas” wasn’t lost on Guercilena, a key member of the team’s staff as it transitioned from Leopard to RadioShack to today’s Trek Factory Racing.
Despite some of the backroom tumult that accompanied the Leopard and RadioShack years, the squad enters what Guercilena calls its “second year” with newfound ambitions.
“I consider this the second year of the team. We have many of the same staff, but many of the key people are new to the team last year, so this should be considered a completely new team,” Guercilena continued. “We are a team founded last year on the classics group. This year, we’ve added Mollema to add some stability to the GC targets. The team has bigger ambitions.”
VeloNews sat down with Guercilena one evening during Tirreno-Adriatico to talk about the past, present, and future of the team, one of three U.S.-registered teams in the UCI WorldTour.
The 41-year-old Italian is a former amateur racer who worked as a trainer and manager in the 1990s under legendary coach Dr. Aldo Sassi, who founded the Mapei Sport Center. He later joined Quick Step in 2003, working closely with Paolo Bettini. In 2011, he joined the Leopard-Trek team, and slotted into the role as general manager at the end of 2013, when RadioShack and Nissan ended their respective sponsorship deals. Trek stepped up to take over the WorldTour license.
Following its solid “debut” season in 2014, Trek Factory Racing brings Mollema into the fold, an ambitious all-rounder that Guercilena believes can be a Tour podium contender within the next few years.
“He’s been a great surprise to us. We knew he was good, but he is very easy to work with, and he wants to improve,” Guercilena said. “Mollema is the next step up for us. We want to develop him into a big GC rider.”
Mollema didn’t come cheap, with an estimated salary of $1 million per season. That’s the minimum teams must pay to have a legitimate GC contender on their roster. Many of the top-end stars are earning $2 million to $3 million per season, and few are taking in even more.
‘We need more sponsors’
To reach the team’s stated goal of becoming one of the top teams in the peloton, Guercilena and team brass openly admit they need more money. There is an undeclared salary war ongoing between the major teams for top talent, with salaries topping $5 million per season for major stars such as Chris Froome (Sky) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo). Guercilena knows if Trek wants to repeat the successes from Tirreno-Adriatico across the grand tours and in the classics, the team will need additional financial backing.
“We want to improve, but this is also dependent on the budget. There are teams that almost have double the budget that we do,” Guercilena continued. “It is important that we can find a co-sponsor or backer that can help us evolve. Trek has helped us start with the team and build a very solid base, but it’s evident that for this project to grow, we need more sponsors.”
The team’s budget is solid for 2015, but with squads such as Sky, Astana, Etixx-Quick-Step, Tinkoff, and BMC Racing boasting budgets topping more than $20 million per season, Guercilena needs another major sponsor in order to stay competitive.
He can only look on with envy at Sky, for example, which signed such riders as Nicolas Roche, Leopold Konig, and Wout Poels, riders who all are legitimate top-10 GC threats, to line up alongside Froome at the Tour de France.
“For us, to arrive at a level of Sky or Etixx-Quick-Step, we need to build up something with new sponsors,” he continued. “The base we have built up with Trek is very important, and especially when you look at the image and results, but we are ready to make a big step.”
Betting on youth
This year, Trek features 27 riders, representing 14 different nations and five continents. Curiously enough, for a U.S.-registered team, backed by an American bike company, there is only one American rider on the squad, Matthew Busche. Why? In part, because the team is committed to signing talented pros, regardless of their passports, but Guercilena also said many top-level U.S. riders are already linked up with other teams.
“The idea was to be an international team, just as Trek is an international company. We are not just focused on the American market. It is important that we are an international team, because cycling is such a global sport,” he said. “And many of the top Americans are already under contract. It’s not easy to find them.”
The team is betting heavily on young talent. Cancellara, 32, has hinted that his current contract, which ends at the end of 2016, will likely be his last. Jens Voigt and Andy Schleck both retired last season, while other veterans, such as Haimar Zubeldia, 36, Stijn Devolder, 34, and Frank Schleck, 33, are seeing their careers winding down.
Last year, nearly half the team was 26 or younger. The team is betting on seeing bigger things from such riders as Bob Jungels, 21, Jasper Stuyven, 21, and Danny van Poppel, 20. Guercilena and his staff are more than willing to work to develop and nurture this talent, but the problem comes when other, deep-pocketed teams offer sweeter deals. Riders such as Jungels and Stuyven, a promising Belgian classics rider, are sure to attract attention from rival teams.
“The budgets are always increasing, you need more and more money,” he said. “We have started to build them up last year, and the intention is to support them as long as possible. These guys are our future.”
Guercilena knows keeping that promising talent in-house will require deeper financial backing from a broad array of sponsors. The race is on in more ways than one.