Astana Takeover Talk

All the focus on Astana this week has obviously been Mark Cavendish’s stage win. Yet what next? Cavendish is surely going to retire now, up to him to pick the moment.

The team goes on, or does it? Both both and L’Equipe have published items saying the squad is going to be taken over by XDS, a Chinese bike manufacturer keen to promote its X-Lab brand. This raises plenty of questions and some have to get answered quickly because the clock is ticking if a new owner wants to take over the team.

The story is that XDS Carbon wants to take over the team. Both CN and L’Equipe say the squad will be under a Chinese flag next year. Can you have a Kazakh-funded team with a Chinese flag? Presumably something has to give here.

XDS is Xidesheng. It has a Conti team and supplies the Chinese Olympic team with MTBs. The company claims it has “the world’s largest carbon fiber factory” on a dated website in English.

To find more updated info Xidesheng you need to search the Chinese internet instead, and 喜德盛 (“Xi-de-sheng”) is located on the outskirts of Shenzen where it has a large factory and makes everything from its “X-lab” road bikes to MTBs, e-bikes kids bikes and accessories like bidons and bike computers.

The old English website is interesting as some factory photos include frames with Orbea decals (pictured) so while the company has its own bikes it is working as an “original equipment manufacturer” or OEM. This is how most bikes in the World Tour are made. Specialized, Scott, Trek, Canyon etc are not all made in factories belonging to these companies, instead third parties make the frames for them and do assembly. In the past we’ve seen one OEM company make the all three bikes of Tour podium finishers.

Several OEM manufacturers have been thinking about breaking into the market with their own brand because the margins are so much bigger. Why make a frame for someone else who sells it with juicy margins when you are capable of making these products and stand to gain from controlling the whole process? The answer is because branding is subtle and if manufacturing is hard, so is design, marketing and after-sales too.

Xidesheng’s website says it wants to become the world’s leading bicycle brand. Having a shop window in the World Tour could be part of this.

Now come the questions…

Why Astana? Well the licence could be for sale so it makes for an entry point for someone looking to buy their way to the top… but the team is facing relegation from the World Tour and so is not an obvious start. A bike brand wanting to crack the market could back a more successful squad that will be guaranteed entry to the Tour de France and the rest of the premium events.

They can buy their way out of relegation but this means big signings for 2025, the final year of the three year cycle. Astana is roughly 4,000 points adrift of 18th place, the safety spot. For illustration Mathieu van der Poel has 3,000 points this season and could score more by the end, let’s say he makes 4,000. He’s not moving teams of course but is just an illustration for the arithmetic involved, the kind of gap they need to close, a rider of this calibre would need to have a spring like he did to close the gap. More realistically supply your own list of five riders who can each deliver 1,000 points next season, then see if they are available, and then willing to sign.

If they want to do this then the time to do it was last spring but it can be done now, but we’re at the “rest day announcement press conference” stage, big names won’t be on the market for long.

Cyclingnews understands that the Shenzen-based company will become a major investor in the team for a period ranging from five to 10 years. The Chinese-registered team will have a budget in line with the ‘super teams’ of cycling’s top tier such as UAE Team Emirates and Visma-Lease A Bike. The team will also switch bike suppliers as part of the deal, moving from Wilier to little-known Chinese brand X-Lab.

Why take over a whole team? Control is the answer but this comes at at a price. The quote above shows ambition but almost too much. It’s one thing to come on board as a bike sponsor but to buy the whole team? The trend in the sport has been in the opposite direction with bike sponsors being priced out of naming rights and not seeing the World Tour as the be-all and end-all of marketing. Just being present at the Tour is not enough, what really works is a charismatic rider who makes winning look easy and fun, think Tadej Pogačar or Peter Sagan.

The quote above evokes a budget equivalent to €30-40 million a year? Can XDS afford this? Maybe if it was a Chinese project backed by big brands (think “Byd-Air China” on XDS bikes) the funding might look more ready but there’s no sign of this. Assume Astana stays and there’s still €10-20 million needed for a super team budget. As a business proposition it is not an obvious one; although what if the XDS owner is a massive cycling fan?

It all creates a Catch-22 scenario where riders and their agents might be wary of signing with a team with likely relegation and uncertain funding. In order to convince them the team and its backers would probably have to pay a premium to secure their services because if you are a “thousand point” rider you can sign elsewhere, especially to a team that doesn’t have the reputation as career cul-de-sac.

If Astana is going to be taken over it’s big news, more so if the ambitions stated are to come true, it’s one thing to say you want to win the Tour de France in five years, another if someone is briefing about half-wheeling UAE in terms of team budget.

There’s a clock ticking here as for a team to exist in 2025 a lot has to be signed off by mid-August under the UCI timetable. The backroom admin is important and there are still weeks to resolve this but if they want big signings now is the time otherwise the fanfare arrival could be a sad trombone moment if they are relegated.

There’s a lot to put in place. Crucially a lot needs to be seen to be put in place if they want to tempt riders across and reassure them about the continuity project.

30 thoughts on “Astana Takeover Talk”

      • Wouldn’t even be surprised if he stays. After all pro’ly still his best chance for success. Total Energies seemed a logical option as well but if Astana has money to spare and need a marquee rider, it could be an interesting joint-venture 😃

        • Schachmann and Almeida come to mind. QS pays low wages – Cavendish rode for free effectively – riders who do well there can leave and get big contracts and so maybe they don’t have the same incentives any more. The surprise with Alaphilippe is if he re-signed rather than get a one big final fat contract elsewhere but if you are Cofidis or Total, how much do you pay, taxes included? Maybe staying at QS for something similar or with win bonuses works. We’ll see.

        • While agreeing with your general point, sticking to recent names a couple of Hagens Berman boys they hadn’t much patience with (or was it the other way around?) do come to mind, i.e. Narváez and Almeida. Schachmann also grew further at Bora before his subsequent decline.

          Kwiatkowski although always through very variable seasons was at least as good in 2017-2018 at Sky as in 2014-2015 at QS, I’d say.

          Further back and by memory I recall several Italian riders who could keep their level or improve it after leaving QS, say Pozzato, Visconti, Trentin…

          However, it’s very rare that a rider goes away from there and improves *dramatically*, so you always have the impression they let them go knowing what they had in their hands, not because there was still unexplored value to mine out.

        • Kwiatkowski immediately comes to mind. Schachmann had some succes but also a lot of bad luck. And Cavendish won a significant part of his 35 tour stages with Dimension Data, which he was part with in between his two stints with DQS. It’s true that many riders seem to falter somewhat after leaving DQS but counter-examples are available as well.

    • Yes, the CN piece mentions this too and for a team without Cavendish he’d make a good replacement. He had a very good 2023 and if he could repeat this at Astana/XDS it would help… but they’ll need more.

  1. Seems like a lot of ifs, buts and maybes Mr Ring for this one to fall into place! Surely there must be an easier way to get a WT tour?

  2. Looking through the list of out of contract riders for next year it looks like it might be hard to sign up lots of riders suddenly capable of making up the points required to stay in the world tour. Getting enough points next year to be one of he two highest scoring pro teams looks more achievable.

    What is going to happen to the management of the team? Is Vino no longer 4-ever?

  3. The Cavendisah win may be a good exit point for Astana. Forever more there will be pictures of Cav winning his 35th in Astana kit. They got perpetual advertisement for an upfront payment now. So job done, sell the license as no more maketing can ever beat that.

    • I know, I was thinking this too. Astana has been a solid funding source for the league for years (I’m withholding judgement – the team’s history and politics is what it is), but for the rest of time the image of Mark Cavendish breaking the all-time win record will be in the teal of Astana! It won’t be on QS, or Team Sky or even High Road/Telekom… it’s on the team sponsored by a small 1.5M city in Kazakhstan.

    • I’m not sure that Astana is currently giving us those things. Nothing about that team has seemed poetic. I hope the team just goes away.

      • One of the few creative teams in GTs during an era of oppressive pharmapolitical power?

        The 2013 Ti-Ad? Pure poetry. That Giro was good, too.
        Nibali and Fuglsang ripping apart the cobbles?
        The great strategy at the 2015 Vuelta. Nibali’s 2016 Giro.
        The young climber trying to rise the uphill pace against the moloch of the ol’ defensive superteam whose leader hence bullies the youngster? Poetic enough.

        Even before that, the 2006 Vuelta was one of the best GTs of the decade…

        Etc. Etc. (Nibali’s TDF stage win in 2015, Il Lombardia, Aru and Landa vs. Contador…)

        I struggle to name a single team which has provided such a quantiy of cycling at its best theoughout a decade, despite a degree of constant aggressive political pressure, deserved or not (and surely not as much when you look at their Italian block). And even was it deserved, still it was unfair when you think at what was happening «within the family» of the UCI prezzie.

        • gabriele – I completely agree… everyone is always quick to judge. Astana has employed some great teams and riders. Nibali’s TdF win was epic.

          But, you might question the ethics of Astana, but as we all know lots of Euro or US based teams have been just as questionable.

          So, moving onto a Chinese backed team – I see this as a natural progression. China’s economy is epic, and if they want to sponsor our sport, I think we are foolish to start with judgement.

      • Vested interests=too much to lose if you get adventurous and it goes wrong. More bike industry influence. More riders riding for the money than for the glory and the fun. More money for doctors and performance assistants. More “nouveau riche” attitudes.

        • Who are you to say that people who are elite at their craft and putting the health and lives at risk for your entertainment shouldn’t be paid well?
          Do you get compensated for your work with ‘glory and fun’?

    • “All publicity is good publicity.”
      Astana does seem a strange choice knowing their probable demise from WT status, but it might be the only currently available team. Other teams would welcome the extra funding but probably are unwilling to let go of overall control.
      As for buying up talented riders, there again they’re a bit late as the big budget teams have already the set up, reputation and money to entice contractless guys and gals.
      Thinking of current big budget teams, I can only think of Ineos, if Sir Jim’s more interested in his soccer boyhood idols, who might want to team up with XDS.

  4. Even if they manage to put all the administrative ducks in a row and sign a new roster of riders capable of scoring points, there’s still a really high likelihood they will be relegated. I see both Cofidis and DSM as much more likely (both culturally and because of their rosters) to go “points farming” in .1 and .pro races than Astana. If the new owners are willing to spend three years doing what Lotto and Israel have done, then fair play. It does beg the question, though; if they have that kind of patience for a long-term project, why not just invest that huge budget in the Conti team they already have?

    • I wonder if there is ‘cultural’ appeal for a Chinese company in Astana, particularly due to the geopolitical climate in Western Asia and the movement of Chinese influence into the region of Euro/Asian confluence. Surely there is also plenty of points farming that can be done in Asian races?

      • By “culturally” I was thinking in terms of the sporting culture of the teams, not nationality or ethnicity, but you make an interesting point. There are a lot of races throughout Asia that no world tour teams ever go to. That said, I doubt that all of the UCI points in the Asian calendar would add up to one month of races in Belgium. Astana should have been way more proactive about their points situation, and now it’s very likely too late.

        • DSM until now have shown a “sporting culture” quite far from the “farming point” concept. I’d even say they’re in the complicated position they find themselves in partly because of such a lack of attitude, which has been there also before Covid. Few wins, but a high percentage of WT ones.
          Astana’s case is more about a change of cycle. They apparently fit less in the “new cycling” and even more so several funding crisis.
          As for Cofidis, another different case again, it’s not like they adapted to the point system… rather the point system was made to fit them 😉 although their historical lack of consistence prevents them from keeping a safer position.

  5. Having visited this factory multiple times, as recently as February, I can confirm that these guys are the real deal. They are closer to a Giant of mainland China than any other comparison. A number of international brands have frames and forks built there. It’s a very vertical manufacturing operation and makes their own pre-preg to extrusions for almost all of their aluminum product. I saw the frame that they were proposing to offer under their own brand and you can see they have learned a lot over the years working with other major brands. 560g Carbon frames are nothing to sneeze at…. Stay tuned.

    • Good to know. In french football, quite a lot of clubs have been bought by mysterious chinese owners (Sochaux, Nancy comes to mind) who were about to invest big money over a long period, and few months after the clubs were in big trouble, often even went bankrupt.

  6. I think it makes sense as a long term project, since Astana already rides a lot of races in the Asian circuit, so that is a good place to add and develop Chinese riders. I don’t think even a relegation would be bad. Retain Lutsenko and sign some good Belgian and French riders to get the invites and you can still get plenty of screen time, just like Lotto and Uno-X. Chinese companies have shown they are willing to play the long game in developing a brand, with plenty of government backing and since this seems to be already a big manufacturer they should have the cash.

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