Much ado about nothing: Is Fernando Alonso’s team a mirage?
The long running saga about the Fernando Alonso cycling team continues to rumble on without any evidence that it will turn into reality; according to Spanish daily AS, the squad will not happen for the 2015 season.
The newspaper reports that sources have told it that neither Alonso nor his representatives have applied for either a WorldTour or Pro Continental licence for next year. The deadline for both has passed, although some leeway for the latter is allowable under UCI rules providing a fine is paid.
The project, named the Fernando Alonso Cycling Team (FACT) has long been making much noise without any significant progress being made. The Formula One driver is a fan of cycling and friend to riders such as Alberto Contador and Samuel Sanchez. Last season representatives for Alonso said that he was considering taking over the Euskaltel Euskadi team structure and WorldTour licence after it lost its sponsorship.
Indeed last September the driver’s own press office reported that he had purchased the WorldTour licence.
“After various days of intense negotiations between both parties, carried out with maximum discretion, we are pleased to announce that the Spanish sportsman has reached an initial agreement to buy said cycling team and so avoid its demise,” said the statement, released at the start of September 2013.
After speaking about what it terms his great enthusiasm for cycling, it states that Alonso plans to run a clean team. “Enthusiasm, seriousness, sacrifice, evolution and transparency are the words on which this team will build its foundations,” the statement promises.
“Alonso is thrilled to be forming an active part in cycling and to be able to improve the image of this sport. Transparency and “zero tolerance” will therefore be the fundamental pillars on which the foundations will be laid for this exciting sports project.”
It added that the new team will honour the contracts of the riders currently signed up to Euskaltel for the 2014 and 2015 seasons.
That all sounded well and good, but things unravelled soon thereafter. Just weeks after his press office suggested it was all systems go for 2014, the Euskaltel Euskadi team said that the takeover had collapsed.
“Euskaltel representatives can not hide their disappointment at the outcome of the negotiation process. It is a sad day for Euskaltel and the team, after the expectations generated by the agreement in principle reached in late August and public statements made at the time by Fernando Alonso and his representatives,” the team said in a statement on September 23rd of last year.
It added that a road map which had laid out terms of the agreement had not been completed, despite efforts to do so.
According to the Spanish publication AS.com, the preliminary agreement would have seen Alonso pay two million Euro per year for the three remaining years of the team’s WorldTour licence. It would also have seen him cover the existing contracts of fourteen riders and, apparently, to take the team buses.
However a sticking point was reportedly a requirement by Euskaltel Euskadi that Alonso would also respect the contracts of the directors and other team staff, plus retain the current deals with bike supplier Orbea and clothing manufacturer Bioracer.
Alonso said that he would step back for 2014, but that he would ‘definitely’ have a team in 2015. His representatives said that it was better to wait and to have the precise structure they wanted, and also ruled out any more considerations about buying into existing teams.
In December 2013 Spanish newspaper ABC reported that Fernando Alonso had secured a five-year deal with a Dubai sponsor to back his WorldTour team.
Alonso and his manager and business partner Luis Garcia Abad reportedly used the Formula 1 season timetable to negotiate with potential investors in India, Singapore and Abu Dhabi. According to ABC, Google and Fly Emirates were among the top companies in the running for title sponsorship.
This news was followed in January of this year by reports that one of the biggest young names in modern cycling was linked to Alonso’s project. Tuttobici stated that 24 year old Peter Sagan had agreed a provisional two year deal with the team, and that he could earn up to 3.3 million euro per year.
The same period also saw the announcement that former world champion Paolo Bettini would work with the team in a management role.
In February Alonso travelled to the Tour of Dubai and followed stage two in a VIP car. He confirmed then that he would have a team in place for 2015, but said that it was too soon for details.
In March five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain was linked to a role with the team, but the Spaniard dismissed those suggestions. Bettini continued to build towards 2015 and spoke to several riders at Tirreno-Adriatico. He said then that an announcement about the team’s backing was imminent, and would likely come before the Classics.
Bettini was excited about the team, and so too was cycling’s greatest-ever rider, Eddy Merckx. He described the team as being perhaps the best news cycling has received in several years.
“No doubt it will be a major project,” he enthused to AS. “I hope that his arrival brings more sponsors to our sport and helps it grow, which it deserves after this bad time.”
Alonso then reiterated in May that the team would go ahead, saying that a lack of confirmed news shouldn’t be cause for concern. That coincided with suggestions that the team was seeking a special – and unusual – guarantee from the UCI that it would be given a WorldTour licence.
Clock ticks as driver’s agent shows confusion:
Anticipation that the Tour de France could have been used to announce the team’s backers came to naught, with no concrete news emerging during cycling’s biggest event. Worryingly, rider agents said that there had been a lack of contact from the team; traditionally a lot of negotiations are done before or during the Tour, but what was a relative silence about the team’s plans led to some expressions of concern.
In August Garcia Abad moved to put such concerns to rest, telling AS that plans were continuing towards a 2015 start.
“There are still people working on the team,” Garcia Abad said, confirming the team still planned to join the pro peloton in 2015. He ruled out taking over another team, despite Belkin Pro Cycling’s search for a new backer. Instead, he insisted, the team would start from scratch in order to avail of the technologies that it wanted to use.
Worryingly, Garcia Abad appeared to show confusion about the process of applying for a WorldTour licence. He insisted that no contracts could be signed prior to getting a licence; however, UCI rules actually state that the points of five riders are used to determine if a team is of a high enough standard to be in the WorldTour. Such points can only be considered if the riders are set to be part of a team.
“I can’t contract anybody until October 1st because it would be illegal to do so,” he told Biciciclismo, displaying a clear lack of knowledge of UCI rules.
While the clock was ticking and it appeared increasingly doubtful about whether the team would be going ahead as a WorldTour squad, there appeared to be some positive news at the end of September. The driver issued a statement saying that he had combined with sports investment managers to build the necessary capital.
He said that he would work with the NOVO company to first acquire a portfolio of assets and then to accelerate their growth.
“I’m thrilled to be part of this new venture,” Alonso stated. “I get to indulge my passion for cycling and obsession with technology and design with likeminded people. We see a window of opportunity and plan to kick it wide open!”
NOVO’s Managing Partner Nathan Pillai said that the timing for the venture was perfect. “Current social, economic and market conditions have created an attractive proposition for investors. Our research points to certain segments of the market where participation, consumption and media interest in all things cycling are on the up.”
According to him, the planned Alonso team – which is currently trying to secure either a WorldTour or Pro Continental licence for year one – remained an integral component of their plans. “Just as motor sport provides a platform for manufacturers to reach potential buyers, professional cycling gives us a powerful shop window to integrate our portfolio companies, conduct R&D and promote our activities.”
However, that appears to be as far as things have gone. FACT missed the UCI’s deadline for WorldTour teams and, according to AS, it has not met the other requirements to be a Pro Continental squad. The newspaper is confident in its statement that there will be no team in 2015 and, if the Alonso project does ever happen, that the 2016 season is the earliest possible start.
Given the uncertainty the team has created for the transfer market in the past couple of seasons, riders and agents will likely be wary about any further indications from Alonso or his representatives that things are going ahead.
The double Formula One world champion may well be serious about wanting a top level cycling team, but clear indications of progress are what will be needed henceforth. As the Euskaltel example plus subsequent developments have shown, there have been numerous false starts and misfires.
For now at least, the driver’s project appears to have stalled on the starting grid.
Follow up article: UCI confirms Alonso’s FACT team won’t apply for a 2015 racing licence [link]