News feature, December 3, 2008
Beginning of battle for Riis
Team presentations normally represent the renewal of a squad heading into the new season. For Saxo Bank however, it signifies the beginning of a new challenge before competition has even begun. As Susanne Horsdal discovered, the Danish town of Vedbæk was a quiet setting for the start of Bjarne Riis' latest battle.
Outside hotel Marina in Vedbæk - about 25 kilometres from Copenhagen - flags with the names Saxo Bank and IT Factory were waving slowly in the wind. Inside, everything from back walls to the riders' t-shirts said the same. It was exactly as it was supposed to be for a team presentation.
One thing was wrong, however. On Monday morning news broke that the company IT Factory had gone bankrupt, with the immediate effect that Bjarne Riis is left with only one main sponsor about a month before the new season opens... talk about bad timing.
"Obviously this was supposed to have been a different press conference," began team manager Bjarne Riis, who had been informed of IT Factory's collapse on Sunday evening. "This is also news to us, but the team continues. We'll work it out and that's the message everybody has been given."
Despite this major blow, which leaves the team at least four million euros short of its annual budget, Riis insisted that the ambition is still to be the world's best cycling team.
"Like any other company we'll take a close look at our budgets but we still have a fantastic product. We have the best cycling team in the world and the rider's salaries won't be touched. It's important that they can all keep motivated and focus on their job. Luckily the team wasn't completely full and I did have a few riders in my sight but now that's out of the question," explained Riis.
While the riders can start preparing for their 2009 season, Riis and the rest of the management team has the immediate task of finding a new co-sponsor. "It's possible that the financial crisis will make it hard to find another sponsor. On the other hand this leaves an opening for others to come in," said Riis. "In this respect it's no different from March this year when we only had Saxo Bank secured as a new sponsor."
The obvious place to ask for more sponsor money to compensate for this latest development would be Saxo Bank, but the investment bank is not willing to increase its sponsorship commitment. "Our sponsorship is at a level that we're pleased with and we have no intention of increasing it," Kim Fournais, co-founder and co-owner of Saxo Bank told Cyclingnews.
"Of course we'll be of assistance in finding another sponsor. We are very pleased to have been on board and are very committed. We have a three-year contract and intend to stay on for many, many years... to the extent that they [Riis and his management] need it we'll be more than happy to provide references."
However, this need for a new co-sponsor does not mean that it'll come cheap. "We're not interested in a new sponsor being on the same footing without paying a similar amount," said Fournais.
Saxo Bank officially stepped in as sponsor in June and from the Tour de France onwards the team was named CSC Saxo Bank. This autumn IT Factory announced it would be a co-sponsor, which meant that the team was supposed to be named Team Saxo Bank - IT Factory. Last week, however, Asger Jensby, IT Factory's chairman of the board and co-owner, realised that the company's managing director Stein Bagger had defrauded the company in the vicinity of about 65 million Euros.
Jensby filed a bankruptcy petition and reported Bagger to the police. Bagger, who was last seen in Dubai on Thursday, has been missing since and is now wanted by Interpol. The 'long and short' of the story is that IT Factory now finds itself in no position to support its own operations, let alone those of a cycling team.
Riders remain calm
Being a professional bike rider takes strong nerves. If it isn't doping stories haunting the sport it's the loss of sponsors. On Monday morning the Saxo Bank riders were informed by Bjarne Riis that IT Factory, one of the team's main sponsors, had been declared bankrupt.
"We've had a lot of crises in cycling. In March we didn't have any sponsors, and despite the bad light in which the sport was painted we managed to get a sponsor," said Switzerland's dual time trial world champion and Classics specialist Fabian Cancellara. "We live in a constantly precarious situation; whether it's financial crises or doping.
"We can only wait and see... nobody was thinking that this was the end of the team. Now it's up to us to perform on the bike and give it everything."
This sentiment seemed to permeate through the Saxo Bank riders during Monday's team presentation, which suddenly adopted a completely different agenda. "Of course it's a somewhat special situation. But we don't fear for our jobs and we trust Bjarne [Riis]. He's saved us from worse situations than this," said young Danish climber Chris Anker Sørensen.
Brad McGee, who's preparing to embark on a new career as assistant sporting director, was singing the same tune as the riders. "There's no reason to get too exited. Sponsors come and go and this just makes us fall back on what works on the team," said the Australian, who retired just a month ago. "For these reasons we'll come through and if we have to tight down I'm sure we're able to do that," he added.
On a sporting level McGee admits that he's going through an entirely new learning experience. He'll be learning on the job alongside Kim Andersen and has been put in charge of a group of riders consisting of Stuart O'Grady, Matthew Goss, Jonathan Bellis, JJ Haedo, Alex Rasmussen and Michael Mørkøv - riders with a track background. "At the moment I'm going through a complete change from physical stress to mental stress," he explained. "There are so many small issues that I didn't know, but people have been so willing and open and giving," he said.