Saved by a man on four wheels

Saved by Alonso
Saved by Alonso

Rumours started circulating on Friday evening not long after publication of my little homage to Euskaltel-Euskadi on the VeloVoices website. The hope was that an as yet unnamed bank, but thought to be Santander, would step into the breach and #SaveourCarrots. Finally, the news broke mid-day yesterday that F1’s Fernando Alonso had reached agreement to acquire the squad. Twitter timelines everywhere were filled with joy and happiness. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch.

I had speculated on this possibility a few years ago and am now wondering whether or not it might set a trend. That is cycling fans who compete at the highest levels, in better remunerated and sponsored sports, leveraging their financial muscle for the good of another sport. Are some of the F1 pilots who live in Monaco and regularly ride with the resident pro cyclists also going to set up squads?

It’s an interesting business model and at a stroke Alonso has won himself a whole new set of fans around the globe, not just in the Basque country. The news certainly bucked up the boys in orange with three of them finishing in the top ten on yesterday’s monster stage in the Vuelta a Espana and being top squad on the day. I’m sure a few glasses were clinked over the dinner table after yesterday evening’s monster transfer and they’re probably still talking about it over breakfast on today’s rest day. While a number of the riders had been actively courted by other squads – whose aspirations have now been dented by the news – many plus the team staff were facing uncertainty and probable unemployment.

It’s also been a shot in the arm for other teams looking for sponsors. Even now team managers are probably scanning the Forbes list of the 50 highest paid sportsmen, of which Alonso is one, and checking whether any list cycling as an interest or hobby. It’s got to be worth a try!

The Euskaltel team, which moved away from it’s purely Basque or Basque developed origins this season, will probably stay relatively close to its Northern Spanish roots as it moves just along the coast to Asturias – home of both team leader Samu Sanchez and Alonso – as there’s a veritable hot bed of talent thanks to the support the sport enjoys at the grass roots level. Wisely, team management and indeed Samu himself have played this very close to their chests and even now are reluctant to go into too much detail. Frankly, they need to focus on the task in hand, amassing enough UCI points between now and the end of the season to justify remaining a  WorldTour team.

Cycling’s saviours

As I was scanning the news this week, an item caught my eye. Ben Spies, Moto GP Rookie of 2010, racing with his own Elbowz Racing Elite Cycling Team, had finished a very respectable 12th, and first in his category (Cat 2), in the 90 mile Copperas Cove Classic road race. Heath Blackgrove, a former New Zealand Road Race Champion, and leader of the team, finished atop the podium. 

Spies, nicknamed “Elbowz” because he rides his motor bike with his elbows sticking out,  set the team up this year which, while aiding development of local talent, will also support Spies’s pet charities. The team, a mixture of emerging talent and seasoned riders, will compete largely on the US Criterium circuit, as well as the odd UCI race, select US NRC and regional races. It’s a 2-tiered squad with a roster of  eight full-time elite riders and six locally based ones.

Of course, Spies is not the only speedster who enjoys taking to two non-motorised wheels. Alan Prost competes (and places well) in a number of cyclosportives, including L’Etape du Tour. Last year I had the not inconsiderable pleasure of riding from London to Paris in the company of Nigel Mansel who, you’ll be reassured to learn, is nothing like he’s portrayed in the advertisement for a comparison website. Seven times Rally World Champ Seb Loeb, I understand, is frequently found astride a cross country bike. Moreover, a year or so ago, I recall former F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso expressed a desire to set up his own ProTour Cycling Team.

Maybe, this is what cycling needs. A real shot in the arm. The boys on two and four motorised wheels earn enough to set up and run their own cycling teams. Plus, they could presumably tap into their existing network of sponsors. This would allow them to compete against one another all season, on and off the track, whatever the discipline. Loeb’s team pitted against Alonso’s, Spies’s and Rossi’s. Now that would be worth seeing. Move over Pat and make room for Bernie!

How much?

Today’s Armistice Day in France and hence a bank holiday. It’s also the designated day for my longer ride, anywhere between 100 and 150km. The weather today was sunny but decidedly chilly. Indeed, the mountains behind the coast already have a liberal dusting of snow. I decided to head off to Grasse via Sophia Antipolis, the coast’s Silicon Valley which affords some undulating terrain, returning by way of Pre du Lac.

While I was riding I was mulling over a recent news story. Allegedly, Astana Bertare offering Alberto Contador a contract worth Euros 8 million per annum if he signs up for another 4 years. This is double what he’s allegedly requested for next year’s contract. No word from Contador, who’s on holiday in Curacao, as the negotiations are being handled by his brother and manager, Fran who denies the claims. So I was thinking does Euros 8 million (US$12 million) seem like an excessive amount of money for a multiple Tour Winner or not?

By comparison with other sports, it’s not, but there’s one big difference. The fans don’t pay to watch live cycling. I accept they may pay to watch cycling on the internet or on cable or satellite tv but this money goes to the tv stations, event owners and organisers, not the owners of the cycling teams.  

So let’s put this in perspective. Tiger Woods, the best paid (and probably the best known) sportsman in the world picks up around US$100-128 million pa; approximately 80% endorsements and 20% Tour earnings. But Tiger isn’t paid a salary, nor is golf a dangerous sport. So maybe an F1 driver or Moto GP rider would be a more appropriate comparison. During the same period, it appears Alonso earned US$35 million and Rossi US$30 million. On that basis US$ 12 million doesn’t seem excessive. After all, Contador is only worth what someone is willing to pay him.

Back home I discovered that my beloved had left for a 10-day trip without his gout medication. That man would forget his head if were not attached to his body. I then sat down to start ploughing through the rather large amount of work I seem to have picked up over the last couple of weeks. Jobs are just like buses, they tend to come along in twos and threes.

Seeking a good home

Since the announcement that Lance and his acolytes would be Team Radio Shack in 2010, there has been copious speculation as to the fate of Alberto Contador, the winner of this year’s Tour de France. While rumours have abounded about a new Spanish Fernando Alonso-led squad, choc full of Spanish stars, and sponsored by Santander, this won’t come to fruition before 2011. So what’s going to happen in 2010?

According to today’s L’Equipe (as good a source as any), he wants to buy himself out of next year’s contract with Astana. Despite the Kazakhs, promising he’ll be their leader and throwing Euros 4 million (net) at him for each of the next four years, Alberto’s brother Fran, who’s his agent, says “it’s not about the money.”

Put yourself in Alberto’s shoes and you can understand why, despite his friendship with Vino. He was prevented from riding the Tour in 2008, because he was riding for Astana. The return of Vino and Kash to the Astana fold could give rise to similar issues with ASO for 2010 and Astana without those two would be a considerably weaker side. He’s endured a number of months of uncertainty due to the war between Bruyneel and the Kazakhs, culminating in the blatant preference of Bruyneel to put Lance, and not Bert, in yellow and the subsequent psychological stresses of being isolated from the team one’s supposed to be leading. Frankly, this must have been both confusing and wearing for Alberto.

 Given that ASO will be courting Lance for next year’s Tour, we can assume that the course will be Lance-favourable, featuring not too many steep mountain top finishes, two ITTs and one TTT. Many of this year’s favourites found their GC chances laid to waste by the TTT. So Bert has to join a squad that can perform at TTTs. This doesn’t leave him with too many choices. You only have to look at the performance of the teams in this year’s to see how limited.

 STAGE TEAM STANDING

Standing Team                                        Time Gaps

1. ASTANA 46′ 29″

 2. GARMIN – SLIPSTREAM 46′ 47″ + 00′ 18″

3. TEAM SAXO BANK 47′ 09″ + 00′ 40″ 

4.LIQUIGAS 47′ 27″ + 00′ 58″ 5.

5.TEAM COLUMBIA – HTC 47′ 28″ + 00′ 59″

6. TEAM KATUSHA 47′ 52″ + 01′ 23″

7. CAISSE D’EPARGNE 47′ 58″ + 01′ 29″

8. CERVELO TEST TEAM 48′ 06″ + 01′ 37″

9. AG2R-LA MONDIALE 48′ 17″ + 01′ 48″

10. EUSKALTEL – EUSKADI 48′ 38″ + 02′ 09″