Cannondale-Drapac riders stuck in career limbo as team searches for sponsorship

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JASPER, Alberta (CT) — The Cannondale-Drapac team bus was the first to arrive Friday morning, nearly two hours before the Stage 1 start of the Tour of Alberta. Except for a few curious locals and their dogs, the side street was quiet. Another day, another bike race.

Team riders had been competing for a week at the Vuelta a España with the future of the squad unknown. But the eight Cannondale-Drapac riders in the four-day Tour of Alberta were competing in North America for the first time since news of the team’s $7 million shortfall, and desperate need for a new title sponsor, arose.

Behind the scenes, it’s anything but serene for the longstanding American-based squad. Its riders know pro cycling is a fickle sport, with teams surviving on the marketing acumen of owners or a corporation CEO’s whim.

“I look at what’s happening with Hurricane Harvey in Texas, how it brings out the best in people, and it relates to the team on a smaller scale,” said Houston native Lawson Craddock, completing his second season with the American WorldTour team. “We are all in this together. We are trying to save the team — to get some good results here and get some exposure. It’s a natural motivation.”

Every rider is processing the situation differently. Some have put a short deadline on the team to quickly find its financial future before jettisoning. Others, like Craddock — who has endured a difficult season with illnesses — are more likely wait the see how the team’s dilemma is resolved or if the team folds.

“It’s definitely rider-to-rider,” said Craddock. “When you have a guy like Ringo (Rigoberto Uran) who finished second in the Tour, he has the luxury of waiting with his results. But if you have 30 riders potentially hitting the market in September, it’s never going to be good time deal with a new team.

“It definitely depends on the rider, where you are in your career, and what kind of season you’ve had as well. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the best year. I have had a lot of health issues and it’s just been a crazy year for me. At this point, I’d love to see the team continue because otherwise, there are some harsh realities to face.”

While many pro cyclists are accustomed to team-hopping and the nearly ever-evolving sponsorships component of the sport, Craddock’s teammates Alex Howes and Nathan Brown are among the smaller corps of riders who remain loyal to teams for long tenures.

Brown is competing in the Tour of Alberta as his first stage race since finishing 43rd overall in the Tour de France, where he wore the KOM jersey for two days.

“Like a lot of teams in this situation, a lot of guys would race for themselves because they are scared for their contracts and trying look for a new team,” said Brown. “But with this team, I have the confidence that we will ride together and it will bring us closer. We push aside the whole team issue when we race. We just focus on the race at hand. We will do that, for sure.”

Brown rode for the same Trek-Livestrong team for four years as a U-23 rider, and he’s been with Cannondale-Drapac in its different iterations since 2014.

“I like to say I am a franchise player and I would hate to see this team go away,” he said. “This team has been a family to me. Hopefully, they work it out and they get a sponsor for next year. But I don’t want to think about it. I want to believe Jonathan [Vaughters] will find a sponsor and we will be fine next year.”

“The second-best scenario is I find another team still on the WorldTour. But it’s so hard, being so late in the game. A lot of teams are already full and what not. But I have faith in Jonathan.”

Brown views a less-than-optimal but still-positive outcome if Cannondale-Drapac is unable to secure financing. He believes the U.S. racing calendar will likely have stronger fields.

“If the team happened to go away, a lot of the American guys would end up back on the American circuit,” he said. “I think it would make the racing in the U.S. a bit harder. You would be adding a fair bit of talent. The U.S. is already stacked with talent, but now you are adding a couple of more strong guys to each team and it just makes a new dynamic of racing.”

Howes, a recent stage winner and podium finisher at the Colorado Classic, has been with the Slipstream Sports squad since its inception, with the exception of one season spent with a French amateur team. Howes has five Grand Tour finishes, including this year’s Giro d’Italia.

“We are going to race the same way we always race,” said Howes. “The best way to save the team is to get results. But it’s a crappy situation for everybody. But I think Slipstream Sports has been upfront and honest with the whole thing. It’s not like we got the news in November or December.

“The transfer season is still pretty hot right now. Things are filling up, but it’s definitely not the end of the world. We’ll see what they can pull together. We have tremendous crowd-funding support and it’s impressive. But at the same time, it’s a bit of a band-aid. Ideally, we will have something a little bit more stable.”

Despite the concept that results could help the Cannondale-Drapac cause, it didn’t materialize on the Tour of Alberta’s opening stage. While Evan Huffman (Rally Cycling) soloed to his sixth win of the season, Tom-Jelte Slagter’s third-place finish was the team’s best effort. Howes finished sixth.

Craddock, who finished nearly 15 minutes behind, perhaps summarized the team’s situation and the possible outcome the most realistically.

“I am not a betting man; I just think we are going to have to wait and see what’s going to happen,” he said. But if you look at silver linings, the domestic scene could really step up next year. The best-case scenario for me is that the team stays, the second-best scenario for me is to be riding my bike somewhere.”

About the author

James Raia has reported on cycling for more than 30 years and is co-author of Tour de France For Dummies. In addition to writing about cycling and other sports, he contributes business and lifestyle content to several publications, and has been the editor and publisher of the automotive website theweeklydriver.com since 2004. James lives with his wife Gretchen and two cats in Sacramento, California.

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