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.
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.
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.