Companies usually merge to strengthen their position with the idea that 1+1 = something greater than two, perhaps because they can assume a dominant position in their market. Think of Exxon and Mobil joining to make the biggest oil company in the world or Air France and KLM joining forces to match European rivals like Lufthansa.
Now in cycling we are seeing mergers between teams only this time it’s for quite different reasons. Rather than growth or dominance, this looks more like a story of survival. More like half a team plus a few more riders hopefully makes up a whole team.
Take today’s news that Quick Step is to merge with Omega Pharma. The current Omega Pharma-Lotto team is splitting with the Belgian lottery setting up its own squad and taking many of the current riders with it. Still keen to remain in the sport, Omega Pharma’s boss Marc Coucke is again linking up with Quick Step’s Patrick Lefevere. They’ve worked together before when Couke’s Davitamon brand was co-sponsor to the Quick Step team during its initial years from 2003 onwards… but split after differences.
Quick Step is a shadow of its former glory. Perhaps once the super team of cycling and certainly a major force in the classics, these days it’s visible in the races but sits 17th out of 18 in the UCI’s World Tour team rankings. Team frontman Tom Boonen has collected a handful of wins in Qatar and Oman in the last couple of years but in Europe he’s “only” won Gent-Wevelgem and a stage in Tirreno-Adriatico, although he’s come close in several classics. Meanwhile Sylvain Chavanel is currently the subject of a bidding war between several French teams, although he might still stay in Belgium. Should Boonen and Co. keep coming close then they risk losing out on top team status, unable to deliver the “sporting value” criteria of the licence.
Similarly the HTC-Highroad team has been looking at a merger with other teams. This time we have a team on the hunt for a sponsor, a cast of players in search of a role. But the common thread is a lack of new sponsors. Highroad has yet to find new backers and in the Omega-Lotto-Quickstep deal a sponsor is simply leaping from one squad to the next.
Mergers in cycling teams are hard. Teams are capped at 30 riders and even then there are rules insisting some of these have to be neo-pros. So you can’t take two squads each of, say, 20 riders and end up with a giant roster of 40. 1+1 can never equal 2.
This all feels defensive, teams and sponsors are working out ways to stay in the game and hence the announcements of new combinations of old parties. Remember that a team’s “assets” are very mobile, in that riders can come and go and UCI licences can expire or be withdrawn.
In reality many mergers are takeovers, with one side being the dominant partner. The thing to look for in the team mergers is which side has control, who has the money and how much choice each party has, whether this is a choice or a necessity.