To stay alive in cycling, it takes more than just good business sense. It also requires compromise, luck, and for a few fortunate teams, a well-heeled philanthropist, writes Anthony Tan.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM


When you see possibly less return and a lot of risk, the equation tilts away from cycling.

The hoards of Melbournians that missed the christening of GreenEDGE last weekend wasn't the only surprise for me.

I
also learned that the three-year commitment Gerry Ryan, the team's
primary benefactor, has agreed to honour includes the year that we're in
now – even though for the riders, racing won't commence till 1 January
2012, when GreenEDGE begin racing at the Jayco Bay Cycling Classic.

Doubtless,
the financial investment Ryan has made over the past 18 months and
particularly the last 12 has not been insignificant. However, it's
probably more accurate to say Ryan will fund the team for two years
rather than three, as until last Saturday, it led me to think
GreenEDGE's future was secure till 2015.

It also explains why
last Monday, when the team discovered its application for a WorldTour
licence had been approved, GreenEDGE was awarded a two-year permit.
"Gerry's put a lot of funding into this year, 2011," Bannan told me, "so
in actual fact it is in fact a three-year commitment; the year to set
up the structure, and then two years of the licence. So we asked for a
two-year licence and that's what we got."

* * *

Bannan also said that "sustainability is one of our big objectives with this team".

In
other words GreenEDGE is hunting not just results at WorldTour level,
but a co-title sponsor who can bring a level of investment equivalent to
or exceeding $6-8 million per annum - roughly one-third of the commonly
accepted minimum outlay required to run an outfit at this level.

There's
been plenty of talk that GreenEDGE had already secured a co-title
sponsor for 2012. Bannan told me this was not the case, unequivocally
saying the probability of his riders showing up to next year's Santos
Tour Down Under wrapped in GreenEDGE livery, and only GreenEDGE livery,
was "100 percent".

On 11 October, the day before the Herald Sun
Tour kicked off in the Victorian town of Whittlesea, Ryan told me that
"one or two companies in China" were interested in funding the project –
a tacit acknowledgement that the team's search for an Australian
partner had so far come to nought, and that his son Andrew, the team's
commercial director, was now actively looking elsewhere.

Over the past two months, the forage for funds has gathered apace.

Ryan, Bannan et al know they must
try and capitalise on Cadel Evans' history-making Tour de France
victory and the magnified attention it has brought to Australian
cycling, even if said winner has previously indicated he will likely end
his career with his incumbent team, BMC Racing. Said Bannan: "Now we
have a real opportunity to put something together quite special and
unique. We are certainly talking and are in discussion – and still are
in discussion – with several companies.

"But it was always going
to be difficult selling a project," he said, "because we didn't actually
get the licence till last week. But now, I think, we're really going to
concentrate on the brand, GreenEDGE. And we believe in the next few
months we will have successful discussions to have a partner come on
board in 2013."

So, even if the hunt is successful, we may not discover the identity of the backer till the second half of next year.

* * *

While
many of you feel it should be a no-brainer for a potential suitor with a
spare 10 mil in his trousers and a passion for cycling, consider what
Bob Stapleton, owner of the outgoing HTC-High Road team, told VeloNews last week.

"Unfortunately,
other sports have gotten to be better deals. Prices have come down,
other than elite European football [soccer] clubs.

"All American
sports' sponsorship rates have dropped," said Stapleton, "and
second-tier European football, all the motor sports, they're all
substantially down. And cycling's costs, if anything, are going up. So
the historic cost advantage is even getting reduced. So when you see
possibly less return and a lot of risk, the equation tilts away from
cycling."

Before the Californian entrepreneur regrettably called
an end to what has been the most successful men's and women's team the
past three seasons, he considered merging with another team – as Garmin
and Cervélo agreed to last year, and Omega Pharma and Quick Step, as
well as RadioShack and Leopard-Trek, have settled upon at the end of
this year. "But they were all really compromised," Stapleton said.

"We
were all one team and all working toward the same goals, and I'm only
interested in environments like that. Mergers or whatever, they are just
compromised to start with."

Perhaps Stapleton should have
reconsidered, because it'd be hard to argue that the Garmin-Cervélo
partnership has been unsuccessful from either a sporting or business
point of view. (Through no fault of their own, team owners Doug Ellis,
Jonathan Vaughters and David Millar are still looking for a replacement
partner after French building materials supplier, BigMat, chose to
renege on their deal after initially agreeing to become a co-title
sponsor.)

I also don't see the Omega Pharma-Quick Step and RadioShack-Leopard-Trek partnerships being deleterious, either.

In
fact, the two best cases of internecine rivalry I can recall have
occurred when riders have been on the same team by choice, rather than
through any sort of merger or acquisition: the battle between La Vie
Claire team-mates Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault that reached its
denouement at the 1986 Tour de France (and which LeMond won); and, more
recently, the Lance Armstrong-Alberto Contador tête-Ã-tête in 2009 that
again reached boiling point at La Grande Boucle, with Bertie coming out on top.

* * *

Though
perhaps for Stapleton, he was less concerned with a merger than the
thought of becoming the very thing he critically – and publicly –
despised: a 'super-team'.

"These mergers are driving this kind of haves and have-nots," he said, sounding a tad aggrieved.

"So
you really do have teams that have budgets north of 20 million Euro
(A$26M), and then you're gonna have a bunch of teams that aren't close
to that. And that consolidation is really destabilising the structure
[of the sport] a little further.

"I got criticised by a senior
cycling person about my statements about the super-teams before, but I
did tell them I could count on my fingers and toes and get to 20
[million Euro] pretty quick on four or five teams — and I'm standing by
that statement. We had chances to do stuff but we thought people were
better off on their own than trying to cram organisations together and
winding up with something that's adverse."

The upside to the end
of HTC-High Road was that all 24 male riders found employment elsewhere,
and on top teams (though five will no longer be on WorldTour squads
next year), as did their sport directors.

Despite my run-ins with
ol' Bob and members of his team – and I had quite a few – I'm going to
miss the effervescent personality and his charges at the races next
year, who had a certain chutzpah about them. Perhaps most importantly,
they made you believe professional road cycling would find a better
place and a happier face, at a time when the Operación Puerto investigation was in full flight and things couldn't get any worse.

So as far as I'm concerned, Bob, you're welcome back any time you want.

Twitter: @anthony_tan