The Stavanger Stallion and a wristful of luxury.

Watch-watch: Who’s rocking a hideously overpriced timepiece this season?

US$120,000 watches, sponsorship wars, and a political crisis in the making.

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As time ticks down to the first WorldTour race of 2021, ink is drying on the final sponsor deals of the year. Bikes and helmets and components have found new homes. Logos have been carefully placed on lycra. A fragile equilibrium had settled. 

Until five hours ago. The seismic revelation broke overnight that UAE-Team Emirates has netted a big fish: ugly luxury watch brand, Richard Mille. 

All of which can mean just one thing. That’s right: it’s time for an instalment of Watch-watch

A horo story

Nestled at the core of UAE-Team Emirates’ latest deal is a betrayal, built on a foundation of regional sponsorship machinations. Richard Mille, you see, has jumped ship from one oil-rich team to another. 

In 2020, Richard Mille –  who is not just a bloke, but a bloke that makes cartoonish, multi-thousand-dollar timepieces – signed a deal with Bahrain-McLaren that saw known horophile Mark Cavendish further his relationship with the company. Selected team members including Cavendish and Mikel Landa got to ride in a chunky watch, delivering middling results in exchange for a blue stripe on the sleeves of the team’s jersey.

Mikel ‘You with the Sad Eyes, don’t be discouraged’ Landa and an expensive watch at the 2020 Tour de France.

This year, however, Bahrain was not Victorious at keeping Richard Mille’s sponsorship dollars. In swooped UAE-Team Emirates, risking a regional incident by snatching the relationship in a four-year deal. 

That leaves Bahrain with an empty blue stripe on its cursed hellscape of a jersey, and UAE-Team Emirates flaunting hundreds of thousands of dollars of hardware on their wrists. 

The Stavanger Stallion, Alexander Kristoff, has always known where the magic happens, but now he knows when. Meanwhile, Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar has been forced to forsake his ambassadorship with Breitling. The Swiss brand has since scrubbed press releases about him from its website. Scorched earth.

Time for some history

Richard Mille – the brand, not the bloke – has a long relationship with the sport of cycling. As we learnt last year, Julian Alaphilippe raced the Tour de France in a US$120,500 Richard Mille watch that the brand describes as “thin, lightweight, coloured, elegant and athletic”.

To this day, Mille continues to brag about colour as a feature, and Alaphilippe continues to rep the brand.

And while that particular watch ruffled some feathers among the CyclingTips comments section and beyond, Alaphilippe is far from the only cyclist to have a penchant (or sponsorship deal, or both) for Mille’s ritzy wristwatches. 

Team sponsorships sit alongside personal affiliations. Alaphilippe’s new teammate, Mark Cavendish – who allegedly burst into tears upon first meeting Richard Mille – is still backed by the watch company. Alaphilippe still rides with his RM 67-02, and this week was brand-compliant to the point of wearing it over the top of his arm warmers.

Alaphilippe snarls his way to third on the queen stage of the Tour de Provence.

Cav and Lou-Lou, meanwhile, are not just teammates but Wolfpack watch-buddies, and pose together with their house-priced timepieces.

Which is pretty cute, in a 1%er kind of way.   

A rival’s revenge

Breitling, meanwhile, has bounced back from being snubbed by Pogacar. This week it announced a partnership with the UAE Tour that will see the winner of each of the tour’s seven stages – and the GC winner – score “the ultimate athleisure watch”, a Breitling Endurance Pro.

Valued at a modest US$3,000, it’s no Richard Mille, but it nonetheless boasts a “thermocompensated SuperQuartzTM movement ten times more accurate than conventional quartz to offer optimal comfort, matchless precision, and functionality that will appeal to both committed athletes and more casual sports enthusiasts alike”, which is great, I guess, and my compliments to the copywriting team responsible for that novella. 


All of which sets up the tantalising prospect of Tadej Pogacar getting caught in the middle of two competing watch brands – one a current sponsor, one a former flame – in the dusty luxury watch battleground that is the Middle East. 

And if that’s not reason enough to tune in to the UAE Tour, I don’t know what is.

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