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UCI women’s team Bigla-Katusha faces an uncertain future

The Swiss women's pro cycling team has announced that both of its title sponsors have withdrawn payments to the team.

The grave economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic have begun to trickle into the women’s pro peloton.

Today, the Swiss UCI team Bigla-Katusha announced that its title partner will withdraw 100 percent of payments to the team. The team’s other title partner, Katusha, has been unable to pay the team any funds for the past month.

“It’s not a question of not wanting to spend the money. The truth is we’ve had close to zero income over the past several weeks due to coronavirus,” a Katusha official told VeloNews. “We cannot pay what is in the agreement.”

Katusha is a Swiss-based boutique clothing company that also provides apparel to the Israel Start-Up Nation men’s pro cycling team. The company designs and manufactures its product line in Europe. Its production lines and distribution center has been closed since March, putting the pinch on company sales.

Katusha contributes about one-third of the team’s budget, estimated to be under $1 million annually. Bigla, the Swiss manufacturer of office equipment, contributes a larger share, while other subsidiary sponsors round out the team’s annual budget. Bigla has been a partner of the professional women’s team since its inception in 2005.

This marks one of the first teams to hit a budget crunch on the women’s side. Already a half-dozen teams in the men’s WorldTour have reduced salaries, laid off staffers, or deferred wages in the wake of the unprecedented race stoppage.

Is this a harbinger of things to come for the women’s peloton?

Ronny Lauke, who earlier this year co-founded the women’s teams’ association UNIO with Bigla-Katusha director Thomas Campana, and Boels-Dolman’s Danny Stam, says that the ripple effect from sponsors to teams is inevitable.

“At the end of the day, we rely on the economics of sponsors,” Lauke told VeloNews. “I don’t see many companies who aren’t affected. Sooner or later the teams will be affected. Of course, the investment is less than on the men’s side, but still, it’s money.”

Despite its impressive top-ten standing in the UCI rankings, the dire straits in which Bigla-Katusha finds itself proves that no team will be immune to the effects of the damaged economy.

“It’s a chain, and at the end of the line, people are buying less, spending less,” Lauke said. “I think we have solid partners, but as solid as they are, they also rely on the customers, and if the customers have decided to spend 100 euro to fill [food] shopping carts versus buying some sunglasses for a bike ride, I think the priority it pretty clear.”

However, the economic trickle-down can feel more like a torrent to the riders who’ve built their lives around racing.

Leah Thomas, who joined Bigla-Katusha in 2019 and turned in an impressive list of results during her first season in Europe, says that the news about the team’s finances is disconcerting and disappointing. Although she understands the gravity of the economic impact of the pandemic, her disappointment stems from what she feels might be shortsightedness on behalf of sponsors.

“Of course it’s one thing if you physically don’t have the capital,” Thomas said, “but I hope people can realize this is an investment that’s worth making for a couple of months and seeing a commitment through ‘til the end.”

Like others in the women’s peloton, Thomas had hoped for more direction from the UCI when they announced a tentative schedule for the men’s season. As much as riders want to know when they’re going to race again, the impact that a blank calendar has on the companies who finance those riders is even more poignant.

“I worry that the lack of that [a calendar and media spotlight] might make it easier for sponsors to not see the benefit of continuing to support women’s cycling,” she said.

Nevertheless, the uncertainty of her team’s future overlaid upon the uncertainty of the 2020 racing season are not stopping Thomas from continuing to do her job — to be a bike racer. Like all professional athletes, she is well-versed in controlling the “controllable” — her fitness, her training schedule, and her focus — and letting the other cards fall where they may. Whenever racing comes back, Thomas says, she and the team will be ready to uphold their end of the deal.

“Right now is a time for each and every one of us, both companies and individuals, to show their commitment to one another,” she said. “It’s in hardship that we see true colors, and I hope Bigla will make choices that will enable them to look back and say they did everything they could to honor their commitments.”