The End of The Road?

This week is supposed to tell us whether Europcar will continue as a team or not. Deadline after deadline has been pushed back but the point has been reached where the team’s riders cannot wait much longer.

In the short term the uncertainty has caused parts of the rider transfer market to jam up but beyond this is the prospect of losing a team that’s been enjoyable and innovative along the way.

History: the team was started by Jean-René Bernaudeau in 2000 with sponsorship from Bonjour, a classified listings newspaper. 15 years later Sylvain Chavanel and Thomas Voeckler are still riding. The team name changed with sponsorship from cake maker Brioches La Boulangère and then Bouygues Télécom, a cellphone operator which pulled out in 2010 and tthe team was set to fold. Emblematic rider Thomas Voeckler had even signed a contract to join Cofidis but had yet to fax it over when car rental firm Europcar emerged saying they’d sponsor the team if Voeckler stayed. The impression is that Voeckler had a good offer from Cofidis but stayed, accepting a reduced contract to save the rest of the team.

La Fin: Europcar told the team back in October 2014 they would stop sponsorship a polite advance notice to ensure the search for a replacement could begin early. Since then there’s been no news and it’s not been easy; he was visiting to one potential sponsor only for news of Ag2r rider Lloyd Mondory’s EPO positive to break on the same day.

It’s said there are five potential sponsors but this might not be promising because juggling five options suggests preliminary possibilities rather than money. There’s even talk of a British sponsor but this could be awkward, Europcar are resolutely French. The team even has its service course in a stone-walled barn and country manor house rather than the usual warehouse unit on an industrial park. There’s also the thorny issue of French payroll taxes, among the highest in the world, which mean for every Euro spent on sponsorship, ie mainly rider wages, only a reduced portion makes it to the riders because jobs are heavily taxed in France. A foreign sponsor may find this expensive yet if they tried to move the team offshore they risk losing the French identity that guarantees those wildcard invitations to the Tour de France.

Europcar may not be the most inspiring team today but that’s in large part because they’ve got a small budget and they’ve been discreet when it comes to promotion. There’s been plenty to cheer along the way:

  • A strong development team in Vendée-U to help cultivate new riders. However this U23 team has not churned out champion after champion, largely because there’s a solid base of French U23 teams. Vendée-U has no monopoly on talent
  • It’s been the United Colors of Bernaudeau. The manager signed Eritrean Natnael Berhane, Japan’s Yukiya Arashiro, Nambia’s Dan Craven and Yoann Gène became the first West Indian and Afro-Caribbean rider to do the Tour de France
  • There’s been innovation too, they were the first to bring a restaurant truck to the Tour de France only it never got talked about much. Similarly for all the talk of motorhomes generated by Sky this year, Bernaudeau looked at this a few years back but didn’t have the budget; Thomas Voeckler used one in the 2012 Tour de France with the help of his wife

There’s more and at times team manager seems to be more a philosopher of cycling with a vision for how to race and entertain rather than someone focused on the humdrum business of winning. It’s not all perfect, the team never seemed too clued up on the public relations front and is still improving on social media, a channel for free advertising and promotion. More seriously the team has never been big on training and sports science, budget is only partly to blame. Riders building towards grand tours could be find out training with goals measured in kilometres along the lines of “I’m doing 200km today” rather than more focused workout and power meters are a very rare sight on a team Colnago. Plus there’s still the unsettled question over some knee injuries and Pierre Rolland’s Dauphiné ejection.

Team of the setting sun?

Logjam: the riders said they’d stay true to Bernaudeau and his quest to find a new sponsor until July. It makes sense because the boss cannot present plans to a sponsor if half the talent has walked out already. So knowing Voeckler, Coquard and Rolland are part of the package matters. On the Champs Elysées the riders agreed to prolong the pact until 15 August meaning they won’t sign elsewhere until this date. If the recruitment market is like a game of Musical Chairs then the pact has had the effect of pressing pause. There are two dichotomous scenarios: if the team is saved they might even want to recruit a few extra riders thus shrinking supply in the jobs market versus the sadder story of the team folding in which case a lot of riders come on the market all of a sudden and the other teams can pick off riders, profiting from the sudden oversupply which will reduce the bargaining power of many non-Europcar riders on the market. The same game plays out every year and Europcar is one part of it but so is Etixx-Quickstep and their spending power as Patrick Lefevere still hasn’t got his budget and roster in place for 2016 yet.

Once the deadline of 15 August is passed riders have an interest in signing elsewhere. Loyalty is good but there comes a point where if the team management hasn’t found a replacement then it’s time to leave. Other teams are filling their rosters and spending their 2016 budget now, Europcar riders cannot afford to sit out the jobs market for much longer otherwise, at best, they’re scrambling for late offers.

Voeckler Tour de France
No power meter required

Europcar has struggled for results, it hasn’t won a World Tour race since 2013 and there’s been a gradual decline as the team got ejected from the UCI World Tour last winter. It’s never had a great marketing effort either. So there’s no surprise the squad is running out of road if viewed in these obvious performance criteria.

Only this team has confounded logic and its survival over the years has been a triumph in itself, it’s lined up genuine corporate sponsors when others rely on sugardaddy hobbyists. There’s been innovation with restaurant trucks and motorhomes plus it’s also brought something warmer to cheer with an attacking form of racing a willingness to recruit riders from Africa and Asia.

89 thoughts on “The End of The Road?”

  1. Most of the changes I’ve heard put forward in the hope of making more money would be detrimental to the races and racing, which – for me – should be the top priority. I wouldn’t like to see more money coming into the sport via means that would be bad for the sport – but I would like to see more money coming into the sport.
    Cycling’s first focus should be to sort out doping – aside from all the other problems associated with doping, it is surely the primary cause of the lack of sponsors (particularly as cycling is apparently one of the most effective types of sponsorship for the money you pay).
    Evidently, these sponsors have not been reassured by the actions cycling has taken. We all hoped that the new UCI president would provide this. What we have seen from Cookson has been a lot of talk, but very little action – e.g. the CIRC report (a huge opportunity missed: without an amnesty, no-one was ever going to admit to anything).
    On top of this, we’ve seen Cookson come out and make statements about the seriousness of certain doping cases – Astana and Kreuziger. Not only were these apparently serious cases left unpunished, but because of the president’s public proclamations, further damage was done to cycling’s reputation.
    At the very least, he should have learned not to comment until the punishments are handed out. Apart from anything else, it’s prejudicial.

    • I haven’t seen any real way in which (detrimental or not detrimental) which will cause more money coming into the sport. Sports generally make money from 4 streams: match/game/race coverage rights, merchandise, tickets and individual team sponsorship. The sport of cycling only really has 2 of the 4 streams and the teams only have access to 1 of the 4.

      And unless the ASO gives away money for free, I can’t see how that will ever change. Maybe it will just be accepted that this is not a sport you go into to get rich…or even cash flow positive in some circumstances.

      • I’m pretty sure Inrng has covered this previously in his excellent financial articles about the ASO. They seem far from a cash rich organisation with millions to parcel out to teams. They would end up with not much each and the ASO would be potless to boot.

        But at least the romantics would be happy. There just wouldn’t be much left to watch.

        I think you are right in saying that those involved in cycling need to realise its not somewhere you come to get rich.

    • Fair points, but what we you and I don about the doping issue, assuming that we are both consumers of cycling, and cyclist ourselves?

      I think cycling has a team fan issue, its hard to be a euroCAR fan, but maybe a bit easier to like Francis or Rolland.

      • Do the WT teams have a system of collective bargaining from tv rights to gain revenue, or are the spoils taken by the race organisers ?
        As discussed previously, I do feel there is very poor continuity with teams, the teams have very little story to tell its followers and it makes it impossible to develop a loyal fan base – always a good potential income source.
        A re-branded team, named after a region for instance, could look at multiple potential sponsors, especially those that have a local / national interest.

        It seems absurd, for example, that a top French team (the sport’s spiritual home) can disappear.
        Yet a team called Europcar…it just doesn’t have that emotional attachment.
        Now re-brand the team “Team Francais” and I do not feel such an institution would be allowed to fold.
        A patriotic sponsor / s, seen to be doing the right thing, would come to the rescue and of course pull off a major PR coup in the process.
        I am convinced of this, especially in countries that are hot-beds of the sport.

        • The main attraction of sponsoring a cycling team is that the name of the team is the name of the sponsor, and so a sponsor is able to very easily build brand recognition because the sponsor’s name is said everytime the team is referred to. Would any of us know what Aplecin was if they only had a logo on a jersey. If this is changed then the value of sponsoring a team will diminish which will leave the teams with less money.

          • Under the current model, I agree.
            However, you would have to recognise that in all other team sports, the model is a team / club identity. This does not deter multi sponsor assistance.
            On the contrary, the historical and easily-recognised team brand is the strength and an asset that sponsors wish to be seen to be associated with.
            This model works very well.

          • hmmm…I suppose my view is that due to the nature of the sport of cycling, which doesn’t get TV or ticket revenue, there just isn’t enough money to be able to afford being a non-sponsor named team. I dont have evidence of this though. I remember watching a documentary of the tour of France and there was a switch to national teams and then a switch back – might re-watch to see why they switched back.

          • Narkie, reason why they switched back to trade teams was that fundamentally the trade team sponsors – many from the bike industry – were being ‘deprived’ of the biggest publicity stage in the sport. And to add insult to injury still having the pay those Tour riders their wages to ride for 3 weeks for their national teams, for next to no publicity for their actual employers.

            Its was also really messy, with some countries fielding more than one team, and with some ‘mixed’ teams.

  2. You mention the high rate of income tax in France, however it seem to be to be a band of between 5 and 45% which is on a par with the UK.
    Is it the case that in France it is very hard for a rider who wants to remain living in France to set themselves up as a limited company as they might do in other jurisdictions?

      • “…only a reduced portion makes it to the riders because jobs are heavily taxed in France”.
        True, but it also must be said that maybe the “money paid” makes it to the riders in no-monetary ways. In several countries your social rights (including access to public health services) depend on the fact you’re contributing – or not – to the welfare system with your payroll taxes.
        In the case of cyclists, different forms of job protection (unemployment subsidies and the likes, maybe even some sort of retirement fund) could be interesting.
        Don’t know about sports, but a friend of mine is working in France for the film industry and he can manage an indipendent decent lifestyle precisely thanks to the specific welfare system the workers of that sector are paying through their payroll taxes. Same can’t be said for Italy… where the ups and downs of a normal career for those working in the cinema are nearly impossibile to face if you don’t have extra support from your family.
        Moreover, even if what I’m about to say isn’t a problem at all for many big names, I wonder if those WT riders earning a monthly salary of 3K-4K euro (net income of 1800-2400 euros a month) can manage to pay a private retirement fund, amongst other things. Well, if they don’t, imagine how their later years are going to be, if they’re starting to pay their first serious contributions to the pension system when they get a *real* job at… 35? 40? That is, in France they’re really *receiving* part of the money the team is paying, even if it isn’t cash and right out.

  3. I have wondered why a big name sponsor such as Europcar does not seem to want to lend a helping hand or, indeed, de facto take over the non-sporting side of affairs. It is after all a company with a professional marketing department where

    It is as if they were content with signing away what is, for them, a fairly modest sum and receiving nothing more in return than the minutes of brand visibility during the Tour and the positive public image of Thomas Voeckler for some of its ads.

    • Especially true with previous sponsor Bouygues Telecom, you’d have thought they’d put the whole team on Twitter and get them sending out messages about great 3G coverage across France etc… but it never happened.

      • I work for Hutchinson, tire sponsor of Europcar. I tried to get the the Europcar team FB page manager to give a shout-out to Hutchinson as a product sponsor for the team. Impossible, the word I got was that they didn’t want that “cluttering-up” their FaceBook page. What? As typical with many French enterprises, their marketing choices and abilities are questionable.

  4. With 20-20 hindsight I think they’ll regret going for a WT-license in 2014. Their squad (and finances) was obviously streched and although Rolland put in a great Giro I think it’s fair to say too many races for thin squad meant riders had less leeway to focus and peak on key targets. With the dearth of teams they would’ve been a shoo-in for their preferred races regardless.

    Apart from Rolland and Coquard I can see Boudat, Gautier, Martinez, Sicard and possibly Tulik be able to sign for WT- or a good pro-conti team, but the rest will struggle to find employment at a similar level to today. Should be a happy hunting season for Bretagne which recently announced new sponsorship for 2016.

    • Agreed. They were strong armed into it as well from memory.

      Although I will be sad if the team folds, it opens up a space for another team that’s just below WT level to do what Europcar did pre 2014 (probably MTN at present actually).

    • fully agree, but i am concerned that the team who could potentially replace them in the WT (MTN? Roompot?) would face a similar issue. What would be refreshing is if through reform or change management the UCI/teams/unions could help the future by taking on board some lessons learned.

  5. I think Europcar (France) or possibly Europe, It is certainly not the International company which are the source of funding.

    I stand to be corrected by those with greater knowledge.

    Fingers crossed Bernaudeau can pull a rabbit out of the hat. Although in many ways a poorly funded and very provincial French team, the overall structure, including the feeder team is to be much applauded.

  6. Interesting timing for this article.

    Only four days to D-Day – when, allegedly, we’ll all know the answer – and prominent question marks abound at the end of statements which would otherwise be definitive thumbs-down.

    And Inrng known to be especially well informed regarding the French scene.

    A little bit of news management as JRB does, eventually, go gentle into that good night?

  7. One thought about Social Media. Although channels are free (or SM Advertising is still relatively cheap), the content production isn’t. Pictures, copywriters, pro videos, infographics etc. cost a lot. And lets be clear: a pro team can’t do it with its own resources: they have to either hire or outsource PR/SM/Design/Video/Photo pros and pay them huge amount of money. And only small part of SM content gets attention and “virals” the web. In case of Europcar i Believe, that there’s a chance that Team Sky pays more for marketing than Europcar to their riders 😉 or sth similar.

      • Betabug,

        Xouted has a good point. Given the photo has no credits, it was probably purchased from the photographer. That is the “why” there are photographers at these events.

        Inrng can probably testify to the difficulty of filling a blank page with good material. That’s one person. Imagine a cycling team that is spread out all over the world with race-level staff focused on doing well racing for next year’s contract. Stories/media are the last thing on their minds. AND THEN the team is supposed to be generating a steady stream of professionally prepared media. That’s a big ask.

        We definitely agree that a smart team spends resources on producing media content and buying images. But, easier said than done.

        Also, Europecar had some adverts in travel-related print media using the team. I thought they were very well executed, not just riders standing next to a car or something boring like that.

        • I think what Belkin/Lotto-JumboNL is quite impressive. I follow their FB page and it’s got interesting daily content, rider commentary (sometimes too honest!), and fan interaction in abundance. Maybe the challenge for Europcar is the team is maybe too French! So limit the social aspect of following the team to a smaller audience. Lotto-JumboNL is predominantly Dutch of course, but the English content they produce is very high standard.

          That’s without the added bonus of seeing how their riders fared via Strava.

  8. Who would put millions into a cycling team other than the bike industry, rich chamois-sniffer, gambling interest or corrupt government? The rest don’t want to risk doping scandals or because of the general European austerity situation don’t have the budget or hope that customers will find the money to buy their product or service. Pro cycling continues to reap what it’s been sowing for far too long. I blame most of it on Verbruggen/McQuaid as they were in the position to do something about this and failed miserably.

    • Uhm – worldwide digital TV company?

      I guess the type of company that needs to be seeked are ones like Sky – ie globally disliked owner, who seriously needs a PR overhaul, so looks for a cheap way of doing it. I don’t think Murdoch’s reputation would have suffered if he was involved in a doping scandal, and bang for his buck, considering the rest of Sky’s marketing budget, it’s worked out a treat.

      So cycling should go after big banks and oil companies I think.

      • Sky’s involvement was purely down to James Murdoch being a cycling fan, and it was very much tied up with the Olympic track team heading to London 2012 etc… Brailsford’s success has helped continue and broaden the relationship.
        Banks are desperately trying to rebuild their public images… I’m not sure a potential doping scandal is going to be a possibility they will steer anywhere near in the foreseeable future. Rabo jumped ship for that very reason.

          • Giving the people what they want is often popular. But there are always the associated curmudgeons. For reference, Rupert M has nothing to do with the cycling. As noel notes, its down to James Murdoch.

          • Good to see that the pleas of many for a halt to personal comments have been well heeded.
            Rupert Murdoch is the power behind Sky – thus he has something to do with it.
            Enjoy Fox News and The Sun – if the people want bigotry, they should have it.

          • I didn’t stipulate which Murdoch.
            James Murdoch to Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards:
            ‘We know who you are, we know who your friends are and we know where you live.’
            In April 2012, he was forced to resign as chairman of BSkyB in the wake of the ongoing phone-hacking scandal, in which he was implicated.
            That’s who is backing British cycling.

          • Tinkov could make racist comments about Obama and it not affect his image. That’s who is trying to reform cycling to his advantage.

        • I am in the corporate / finance world and what I have seen is that banks and corporates are more keen to “sponsor” individual riders and appoint them as “corporate ambassadors”. The benefit is they select only the high profile riders they want, they get lots of “corporate days” with those riders to which cycling crazy clients get invited. The money goes in the individual’s pocket, not the team’s, and by selecting who they wish to support they can largely avoid the riders who have a bit of a whiff of scandal following them. eg. see Cadel Evans who has very profitable arrangements with Ernst & Young and Siemens. Why support a team when I could get access to, say, Geraint Thomas for my company and clients for a whole lot less? Some of that has to be to do with doping but as much is to do with bang for buck.

          And I am delighted to say that some female riders are getting support that way too – often they are more eloquent, need the funds, and will bend over backwards to assist.

      • Did you forget about IAM? Not a bank per-se, but financial services.

        There is a reason most sponsors come-and-go from the sport, never to be seen again. The faults lie with the UCI. There are many, many problems at the UCI-level that drive away any organization but billionaire hobbyists and State-funded sports programs.

      • And these riders would probably not even be in the World Tour:
        ‘Eritrean Natnael Berhane, Japan’s Yukiya Arashiro, Nambia’s Dan Craven and Yoann Gène became the first West Indian and Afro-Caribbean rider to do the Tour de France’.
        Also, riders like Narvardauskas.

      • This would also be bad for riders of ‘good’ nationalities: if you’re Belgian, you might not get in the Belgian team, even though were you Czech you’d get in that team easily.
        So, a lot of top riders would be out; replaced by inferior riders.

        • You could have two separate Belgian WT teams, based on Lotto Soudal and Etixx.
          Call them ‘Team Flanders’and ‘Team Wallone’ for example.
          Any realistic name would suffice, and it could galvanise the community to support in a far deeper and emotional connect than is the case with a commercial identity.
          Call Europcar ‘Team Paris’ if you wish. Would that team be allowed to go to the wall ?

      • I can’t see how national teams will solve financial problems. Many nations aren’t going to plunk down 10 or 20 million for a cycling team. So, many of the teams will still have to find the money somewhere. But now they’re at the disadvantage of not being able to name the team after the sponsor.

        • Maybe the problem is not lack of money, but that running teams is over-expensive. National teams could make the sport cheaper in the best sense (except for riders and DS, who would make less dough).

    • The worldtour is supposed to guarantee entry into the biggest races, right? The biggest race is the Tour de France, right? Being one of three French wildcard teams in the biggest race in the world should make a Europecar/cofidis/breton seche sponsorship a freakin bargain! Its world tour exposure at a deep discount. If these teams can’t find the cash to continue one of two things are happening. somebody at Europecar isnt very good at their job, or cycling is in a really bad way.

      • Yes, this is the part I too can’t quite figure out: The team will (almost) always find a place in the TdF, which is a huge plus. Whole teams were sponsered and founded before, just with the one goal to get in that race. I can’t really understand why it is so hard to get someone to commit for the missing 5,5 mio € (I think that is what he needs?)? And the fact that the riders so obviously support the team and everybody knows it, must give a potential sponsor a good feeling and a perfect marketing angle. I must admit, I am a bit puzzled. Maybe the VELON situation and the whole talk of boycot of the Tour makes new sponsors shy away?

        • No. Its never been a given that even the most successful teams (a description that can’t extend to Europcar) can find replacement sponsors. If Bob Stapleton couldn’t find a sponsor to replace HTC – which was never a big budget team, and was the most ‘winningest’ team – then I’m not surprised lesser teams struggle.

  9. ^ I often wonder if we’ll ever see a Red Bull Team? They spend a huge amount on marketing and a pro team would actually be a bit of a bargain in £/£ marketing in the samewah as Sky.

    • Red Bull like to either own the whole event or be fairly certain of winning (see their latest F1 tantrums). Cycling provides neither opportunity and the association with drugs likely scares them witless. Sugar water and caffeine is fine, however.

        • red bull cycling could happen, the owner is kind of a mixture between rihs and tinkoff and buys up everything he can, from formula 1, football and cultural institutions. his bought football teams in salzurg and leipzig are highly unpopular among locals though.

    • It’s just not fast and furious enough for them and doesn’t reach their teenage demographic. Bike racing has many great moments but there are some races and stages where a can of Red Bull is needed to stay awake.

      • Haha, I was going to say I wonder if it’s just not extreme enough. It’s interesting to note that they do sponsor a huge number of athletes in mountain biking and BMX. (Individually opposed to team sponsorship though which is interesting when we consider some of the comments up there ^^)

    • Well, the “United Colors” aspect of the team will be missed for sure– great photos of Arashiro up there. And being perfectly placed as the French underdog team (with TdF invite all but guaranteed), yet being unable to attract enough sponsor interest does make this a case worth considering. But maybe not if you are totally unsentimental. I think the team could continue its current approach with the right non-French sponsor. I’ll nominate Nike–they have the money, and no discernable qualms about scandal.

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  11. Surely Arashiro has a massive following in Japan..
    ..a market that could be tapped into to save the team perhaps at the expense of some French identity?

  12. Since the team was sponsored in the past by a bakery, why not a chocolate or cheese company next? They could change their name to Team Gastronomie.

    Or, better yet, “Team Benetton”–in line with the “united colors” theme, as long as it includes a few gay riders to make the rainbow complete.

    If the team wanted to go foreign, I’m sure they could find sponsors in the Mid-East or Asia, where $30~50Mil is not much of an investment. But who knows the rationale behind such things?

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