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For the second time this season, it looks as if the team of general manager Thomas Campana is in trouble. Paule Ka, the new title sponsor that joined the team in July in place of Bigla-Katusha, will not follow through with a four-year commitment as initially announced. In fact, CyclingTips understands that the French fashion brand is behind on its payments, and the team is likely to fold at the end of the season.
An individual with first-hand knowledge of the team’s sponsorship plans told CyclingTips that Campana had indicated the team will not continue into 2021.
On Monday, team riders received a WhatsApp message asking them to fill out paperwork to receive payment via the bank guarantee. It is the second time the team has leaned on the bank guarantee this season. The message reads:
We have a bit of a tricky situation as there is a delay to the payment from the sponsor and Thomas needs to open up the Bank Guarantee in order to pay the salaries this month. I will attach the document here and I will also email it to you. Please return ASAP, this is really important if we want to get paid quickly this month. Thanks.
The UCI’s bank guarantee requires that women’s teams deposit a sum equal to 15% of their total salary cost, to be held by the UCI, and dolled out as a last resort when a team fails to pay riders and staff. It’s not yet clear why Paule Ka hasn’t kept up with its required payments.
Troubles all season
In April, Bigla-Katusha announced that not one but both of its title sponsors were being forced to pull their funding from the team. Shortly afterward news broke that the team had asked the UCI for access to its bank guarantee to keep paying riders. Team management also set up a crowdfunding campaign, with the hope that it would allow the team to continue racing when the 2020 season re-started.
It was a rapid decline after a season that opened with optimism for Campana’s team. Bigla, the title sponsor of the team since 2013, had been joined by Katusha for 2020, meaning more funding for a team that has always been home to good riders but has never been amongst the top teams in the sport. After sponsoring a men’s WorldTour team since 2009, Katusha looked primed to take the women’s team to the next level.
It was not to be. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, both sponsors pulled the plug.
As the summer approached and news started to look a little better for the cycling world, it was announced that the team had been saved by the French fashion brand Paule Ka. And even better, the new title sponsor had agreed to financially back the team all the way to 2024. What looked like the worst season ever for the team was all of a sudden filled with new promises.
Racing resumed in late July and the new Equipe Paule Ka started the new season off with a podium finish by the American Leah Thomas at Strade Bianche. The team had an incredible performance at the Giro Rosa, taking home the best young rider jersey with the 22-year old Kiwi Mikayla Harvey and a stage win with Lizzy Banks.
Early on the morning of October 5, the day after Paule Ka’s Marlen Reusser, 2020 World ITT silver medalist, placed seventh at Liége-Bastogne-Liége, rumors started to circulate that the team was in trouble. A potential partner that had been in talks with Equipe Paule Ka for the 2021 season was informed that the team would not be going forward after the 2020 season. Hours later all 12 riders received text messages that the team would once again be paying them with the bank guarantee.
This isn’t the first time Campana’s team has found itself in the headlines for the wrong reasons. In 2016, many of the team’s former riders came forward with accusations of bullying, fat-shaming, and withholding prize money. The riders and staff put forth incidents from the 2015 season and called for Campana to be removed from the sport. Campana denied all the accusations made against him.
At the time the UCI’s process of dealing with such complaints was through an ethics commission and the code of ethics did not apply to staff, riders, or management. If any riders were to submit a complaint it was not allowed to be anonymous, meaning that Campana would know who had come forward against him. Because of this, six of the 10 people withdrew their statements. After the incidents of 2015, the UCI changed the ethics code of conduct, but since the incidents all happened under the old code, Campana was never penalized.
A former team rider, who requested anonymity as she fears retribution, said she wasn’t surprised by the latest news on the team.
“Although the team has strong results, the culture within the team regarding diet, inter-team competitiveness and maintaining respect for us as athletes — it’s hard to be surprised,” she told CyclingTips. “From a sponsor’s viewpoint, the team doesn’t offer a lot of positive brand visibility.”
CyclingTips contacted both the UCI and Campana for comment on this story. No replies were received before publication.