Bjarne Riis: Subprime Lender

Aug 3 2010

Riis sipping wineIs Bjarne Riis a “friend of Angelo“? It certainly isn’t an unreasonable conclusion following the Dane’s big announcement today.

In January, SaxoBank was done with this whole cycling thing: “the sponsorship has not been ideal in reaching our narrow target group”, though the bank added “we couldn’t have hoped for a better collaboration with the team.”

Well, apparently, they could. Lars Seier Kristensen, who carries the typically Norse title of “co-CEO” at SaxoBank, said his mind was changed by hearing “Bjarne Riis talk about his ideas about the future”—hard to see how there wasn’t a bait-and-switch in there somewhere.

Despite the fact that Contador’s 2010 Tour win was decidely lackluster, the Spaniard is still the top favorite for 2011. And sure, after Andy Schelck fat-fingered one of the best opportunities to unseat Contador since 2007, I might not be entirely disappointed to see the Luxemburger leave my shop. But a bigger picture view reveals some pretty serious gaps in the 2011 SaxoTeam.

Great chunks of the squad that drove Schleck to positions of advantage at the Tour seem poised to follow the gawky Luxemburger to his new operation headed by Kim Anderson. While a fistful of the choicest Astana domestiques are rumored to be coming with Contador, they did relatively little work treading that tightrope between pace-setting and leg-saving. It’s a given that the race will be hewn down to the heads of state in the hills; whether Dani Navarro or another spritely climber wields the ax is largely irrelevant. What matters is that a team’s favorite reaches that final selection with matches to burn and cards to play.

Contador trailing the Schlecks on a climbI think SaxoBank may also have been a bit too impressed by the exposure they’ve received through their sponsorship in the first seven months of this year. Their discontinuation announcement came in January, well ahead of a team Classics campaign remarkable not only for its dominance, but also for the international headlines spawned by speculation over what exactly was inside of Cancellara’s Saxo-branded seat tube. Add to that a surprise maglia rosa at a topsy-turvy Giro, and the furor over Chaingate and you’ve got a return on investment that far exceeds expectation.

But, as SaxoBank is legally obligated to inform its investors, past returns are no guarantee of future performance. While Cance shows no signs of slowing, the one-days are a notoriously volatile affair—a bad line on the cobbles, a single mechanical failure, and a season’s work goes up in smoke. Plus, Contador is hardly the lovable, quoteable, “gawky ectomorph” that Andy Schleck is. Combine that with thirteen months of mudslinging from Brand Armstrong, an unimpressive Tour ride, still-seething dissatisfaction over Chaingate, and the inherent dislike of persistent Tour winners among the cycling fanbase, and you’ve got an asset that’s looking decidedly distressed.

Of course, Riis is a master at turning riders around, both in terms of performance and marketability. His team-building and motivational efforts produced the the rejuvenation of Bobby Julich, the reinvention of Stuart O’Grady as a Roubaix winner, and have made his squads into media darlings—no small feat from a man once glibly referred to as Mr. 60%.

But Contador, who’s had, since 2006, perhaps the roughest go of any three-time Tour winner, may—to borrow Riis’ own expression—prove a tougher diamond to polish. Certainly, I’m hoping that Riis sudden reacquisition of a big money sponsor doesn’t trigger a bout of irrational exuberance among potential cycling investors. Sure, it’s great to see more money coming into the sport, but with the Armstrong bubble deflating for good, it’d be a shame if Riis’ repackaged acquisition leads to another collapse.

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