A glimpse of the Leopard

The number-one ranked team in the sport was launched yesterday and was done on a scale so far unseen in the sport.

It didn’t start like this. The morning press gathering underwhelmed a bit. The name was confirmed as Leopard-Trek. Some were frustrated not to see the jersey revealed – although it leaked to Dutch website WielerRevue.nl. Everyone was dressed in suits and instead of ties they had scarves. It gave me the impression of mass laryngitis but it was just a trendy look. We got details that energy company Enovos is on board with the team and so is local airline Luxair.

But this was normal fare for a team, where was the promised different flavour? Well we got a glimpse when team boss Bryan Nygaard said cycling had suffered from “bullshit” and events that had “taken bike racing away from the people: too many scandals, too many political or technical issues that have taken the spotlight off of the beauty of the sport“, adding “what matters is a lot of fit, healthy, clean athletes putting a number on their back and racing as hard as they can“. I’m inclined to agree but this pre-season optimism has been done before. Plus I can’t quite escape the irony of Bjarne Riis’s media handler making this statement. Let’s see what this squad can do.

If talk is cheap what followed in the evening most certainly wasn’t. Government ministers, minor royalty and even Pat McQuaid were in attendance in a hall with thousands of people and a live TV broadcast. We had the conventional “what are your hopes for the season” Q&A sessions but in between the batches of riders onlookers were entertained by circus acts featuring acrobatic stunts. It was miles removed from the traditional launch of a squad in a bar, airport hotel or an out-of-season holiday resort on the Med.

What does it mean?
Legend has it that 18th century French diplomat Talleyrand heard of the death of the Turkish ambassador and asked “I wonder what he meant by that?” So what can we make of the extravagent show from last night? Without extrapolating too far this is more than a sports team. Leopard is very much the pride of Luxembourg, the country’s sports minister opened the proceedings, thousands of people sat in attendance and the national broadcaster carried the show live. Even Sporza doesn’t stream the Quick Step jamboree.

But for me the biggest impression was the slick nature of it all. It was controlled, safe and very corporate. You could imagine the marketing manager of Nestlé, Vodafone or Mastercard being at ease in the front row. It whispers “we’re going to win the Tour de France, put your name on our jersey” although I suspect any big name sponsors will watch with interest for the time being.

The Jersey
The kit seems to be causing some debate on the internet. But I like it. Again it is safe, the black and white aspects are discreet and note the blue banding is the same shade as that of Luxembourg flag. It’s not the Euro weirdness of Liquigas, the tribute to plastic floorplanks that is Quick Step and above all, it is quite discreet with no sponsor. An interesting format for a pro team where shirt space is a prime asset.

The design is part of a sweeping concept where the colours and graphic design are unified, whether it is the team bus, the jersey or the websites. Only a few other squads embrace this. It’ll be interesting to see the TV images to see how well it stands out from Team Sky and Garmin-Cervélo.

Last night we heard the team being called “Lay-o-pard” but you can call it Leopard. It’s just that in French, German and presumably Luxembourgish, the word for the large cat is pronounced like this, just as they say “Trrrrek” – rolling the R at the back of the throat – and you probably don’t.

One report I saw yesterday said the US bike company was spending $3 million to be part of the team, complete with naming rights. American bike manufacturers are strong in the sport, reflecting the booming participation in anglo-saxon countries. We had Cervélo and BMC last year (although the latter is more a plaything for Andy Rihs) but for 2011 we have Liquigas-Cannondale as well. This is very much a big deal for Trek. They’ve got a big option over victory in the Tour de France and I can’t help note how this contrasts to the demise of the Radioshack team. Similarly Oakley are named sponsors of Leopard squad.

Unanswered questions
I’d still like to know the answer to a few things. The team’s website isn’t fully functional but I’d like to know who is the team coach. It would be good to see the team’s anti-doping stance explained in writing.

Above all, I’d like to know what Flavio Becca is doing with the team, is he a fan in the Bob Stapleton mode who wants to put some money and above all his time and business skills to work? Is he more an Andy Rihs, putting a lot of his personal cash to support a team, or is this a business venture with the aim of generating revenue and perhaps a profit?

Safe. Stable. Dependable. Wealthy. These are words you could apply to Luxembourg and the new team appears to share similar characteristics.

Team Sky gave a bold launch last year –  choreography by Nygaard – but later suffered from raising the bar so high as expectations were not met. I think Leopard is different because they have proven winners, the Monuments and the Tour de France are almost there’s to lose. We’ve had the launch, now it’s time for action. Don’t expect too many results before March and April as this is a team going after the big trophies.

    17 thoughts on “A glimpse of the Leopard”

    1. The press release has Luca Guercilena as Sports Director/trainer and seems to imply he's the squad coach. Name doesn't ring any big bells for me, but I'm not a big follower of who coaches.

      I'd argue that, in terms of scale, the stage was smaller than other teams have used. Luxembourg is a relatively small and under-developed sporting nation, so a single broadcast about two of the biggest sporting names in the country launching a team backed by national businesses is going to be big business.

      Becca, Lux and Enovos might be big businesses in Luxembourg but on the scale of Astana's Samruk-Kazyna consortium? I'd imagine the Luxembourger's would have trouble finding the bottom on the Kazakh's pockets, as would most people.

      It may develop into the pro-national model that Sky and Astana have pushed but there's only 2 Luxembourgers on the squad right now.

      From my point of view, it was preaching to the choir. It's gone down well with Luxembourg and the cycling folk but I don't see any of the bigger message that Sky and Astana both put up front. Sky's launch was blanketed across both their news and sport channels and getting people into cycling was as much the message as win the Tour.

      If you want to be critical, you don't make such a big noise about launching a team then put up half a website that hasn't turned round pictures of the launch overnight, let alone first reactions from the people involved. Not even a press release to that effect.

      It still strikes me as odd that they've filled so many sponsor roles but there's still no big name or concept pulling it all together. And I can't decide whether that's bold new thinking or just inability to pull in a big name.

      As for the jersey, as you say, it's a very appealing space. It reminds me of the exercise that Bob Stapleton did with the original High Road kit. But, for a team promising such a bold new vision and a return to core values, it doesn't really stand out. It looks a bit like a generic cookie cutter club kit done by a designer with sense. No better than the El Cyclista blogs' kit really.

    2. I find it funny that you say "minor royalty, and even Pat McQuaid", like Pat McQuaid is major royalty.

      The royal representative was Prince Guillaume, future Grand Duke of Luxembourg (that is to say, head of the State). It's true Luxembourg is a small country and the Nassau-Weilburgs are not the Windsors but "minor royalty" sounds a bit demeaning.

      I agree with what you say that it was "very safe and corporate", and with what Alex Murray said that it was "preaching to the choir". The TV broadcast really wasn't that big of a deal – you didn't have to sell the Luxembourgers on the team, they will follow and support the Schlecks and their team no matter what.

      As for Luca Guercilena, I believe he worked with Quick Step before and studied sports and health or something like that.


    3. Alex: plenty of food for thought there. As for Astana, as much as bike names are linked, it's the pet project of a couple of politicians. A common irony is that new big teams happen because some guy wants his own team. I don't yet know what Sky and Astana want, Sky puts itself in front of the French or Belgians but they can't get its TV channels, Britons don't get to see much of the Tour. Astana as a team have been caught in so much scandal that it surely doesn't reflect well on an emerging state trying to shed perceptions of cronyism and corruption.

      Christian: forgive my moment of humour regarding the royalty, it was not meant to demean the Prince.

      And yes, we can see the colours is not the same on Frank Schleck's jersey, it just reminded me of the pale blue on the Duchy's tricolour.

    4. I think Pave summed it up best: http://www.pavepavepave.com/2011/01/06/team-leopard-trek-press-conference-summary/

      This is a great team on a porting level, but that is where it ends. All the hush hush about revealing sponsors was nothing but a delay tactic; they didn't have anything to announce. To me they are Pegasus with a real (hopefully) benefactor.

      As stated, many teams are started by someone who wants to own their own team; pro, amateur, club. However, cycling isn't a sport where there are any tangible benefits to team ownership, nor a proven profit incentive; perhaps it doesn't matter whether they are taking money from a sponsor, or are being funded from private pockets, as long as the funding continues.

      But since teams at this level require >10 million euros per year to function, it seems like quite the folly for an ego stroke. Therefore I think they are in the same boat as all other teams; eventually they will need to sign a corporate sponsor.

      And you can't say it will happen because they are number 1 in the world, with a potential TDF winner. Riis has been in this position several times before, and it has come down to the wire. A number of top teams have folded over the years.

    5. TR: yes, I liked Whit's version. But for me cycling is sometimes about PR. We had a team without sponsors doing a big PR job last night, complete with corporate entertainment.

      On teams, sport is a winner take all environment. So you could win the Tour and a classic and then say to sponsors "we win" and they will bid a premium for this. Whether it remains profitable is another thing, as I've written on here before you'd simply attract others to put in equity and bid for the best riders. We've seen this in soccer.

      Time to see what happens on the road. Paris-Nice is my first point of interest for this squad.

    6. Yes, this was a huge PR effort; all the requisite players were there to provide the air of legitimacy. While being able to say "we win" helps, it isn't always enough to have a sponsor come on board. And lovable "losers" can also sign sponsors; it is all a matter of fit (and timing), and connection with the targeted public.

      But the hush-hush game played before yesterday wasn't a publicity stunt (there was nothing to publicize); it was a way of avoiding stating "we have nothing to announce". This is both great PR and poor PR at the same time. While you avoid spreading the bad news (which can be detrimental to your sales efforts), you are selling hope. But those with a memory of what was said before will see through the smoke, which can hurt your credibility in the future.

      The sum and substance of the Press Conference and the team launch to me as somewhat of a cynic was, "nothing to see here", and that a large number of star riders have put their faith in someone's ability to sell a title sponsorship. Easier said than done.

      From the riders' stance, if their agents are smart people, it should mostly come down to, "does the funding guarantees equal the term of the contract we are agreeing to"?

    7. I think the team will probably evolve much like Slipstream and Highroad in 2008, that is by Tour time Leopard True Racing will have a big-name corporate title sponsor on that jersey.

    8. I don't see anything on the Pavé link, do I have to register in order to be able to read it?

      No problem on the minor royalty 😉


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