Has Fernando Alonso’s Cycling Team stalled?

What is going on with Fernando Alonso’s cycling team?

The former F1 world champion says he’s still planning to bring a team into cycling’s World Tour in 2015, but murmurings from within the current ranks have led some to wonder whether the project has stalled in the pits.

Alonso insists the project is still going ahead, but rumblings of discontent and rumours of special treatment have brought to light some serious problems with the UCI’s process for selecting teams for the World Tour.

Just to refresh your memory: Alonso initially proposed to buy the World Tour licence of the famous Basque team, Euskaltel-Euskadi, when the team ran into financial problems in 2013 and announced it would fold.

Alonso, who is from Asturias, not all that far from the Basque country, is a close friend of former Euskaltel leader Samuel Sanchez (now supporting Cadel Evans’ tilt at the Giro for BMC). He’s also a keen cyclist himself (something he shares with a number of F1 drivers including Mark Webber and Jenson Button).

That deal ran out of time, and Euskaltel met an unfortunate demise, but the seeds of an idea were well and truly sown, and Alonso committed to launching an entirely new team, with the working name Fernando Alonso Cycling Team (FACT), in 2015.

So far, all good, but more information has so far been thin on the ground.

Of course, this being professional cycling, the vacuum has been filled by rumours, leaks, intimations of preferential treatment, sniping from other teams, and a general sense that perhaps there’s some bending of the process but nobody is really sure what the correct process is.

Let’s step back again.

FACT doesn’t yet have a major sponsor, and it hasn’t signed any riders.

It does have former double world champion Paolo Bettini as team manager. This is a big deal, because Bettini quit his job as head of Italy’s national team to take on the role.

In March, Bettini hinted that FACT was soon to announce a major sponsorship deal, rumoured to be worth €20 million from the United Arab Emirates, but two months later no public announcement has yet been made.

Dubai seems like a good match for a World Tour team led by an F1 star: it’s got money; its own shiny new race operated by Giro d’Italia owners RCS Sport; and a UCI Continental team, Skydive Dubai. A World Tour team would turbocharge this effort.

Alonso visited the Dubai Tour in February and met with some Very Important People: his celebrity status in Formula 1 is clearly something that can open doors in Dubai that are several layers of doors beyond what most cycling team managers could hope to achieve.

In fact it’s hard to imagine a sportsperson better connected with the kinds of businesses willing to sponsor a sporting team: for any company that can afford to sponsor an F1 team, a cycling team’s budget costs peanuts.

Then there’s Alonso’s personal fortune. As one of the highest-paid people in world sport, he could clearly fund the team out of his own pocket for a year or two, if required.

So we can probably assume that money is not the problem here.

What about riders? Well, rival teams and riders’ managers have been happily (and anonymously) backgrounding Velonews to the effect that FACT has not been approaching riders.

Curious, and this is where things get interesting for FACT.

Unless the team can sign some major riders, it’s in big trouble.

The UCI’s points system requires teams to have enough UCI racing points to earn its place under the UCI’s “sporting criterion”.

There are two parts to this criterion: the individual point scores for the top ten riders on the team; and the team’s collective component.

The riders’ component for 2015 is calculated by adding the points earned by the top ten riders signed, but the points were earned in 2013 and 2014 when they were riding for different teams.

Can you imagine if a team that finished mid-table in the English Premier League in one season was relegated for the next season because its best players signed with bigger clubs? It would be ridiculous. That’s the situation in cycling.

Effectively, Alonso needs to sign riders with ‘enough’ points before anyone knows if he’ll even have a team. The final decision won’t be made until November, just a few weeks before the 2015 season starts at the Tour Down Under.

But how many points are enough? What if FACT signs 15 riders and then falls short, or there’s a problem with some other aspect of the application and the team doesn’t get approved?

What do those riders do then?

Can you see the problem? From a rider’s point of view, the risk of signing with a team that may not even exist is huge. By the time the outcome of FACT’s application is known, if the deal fails it may be far too late to sign with another team.

As a rider, how eager would you be to take a big risk on a new team, even one with a big budget and celebrity owner, where there’s a reasonable chance that your career could come crashing to a halt if there’s a problem inside the black box containing the UCI’s approval process?

The likes of Peter Sagan, Alberto Contador, Fabian Cancellara, Edvald Boasson-Hagen, and Tony Martin have all been mentioned as possible targets, but all seem to be keeping their options open.

Simon Gerrans is another rider with lots of points who is out of contract this year.

From Alonso’s point of view, it’s a huge headache. He’ll be on the hook to pay out contracts even if the team fails to materialise.

Even for a man with pockets as deep as Fernando Alonso, it isn’t nice to waste millions of euros.

On the 20th of May, CyclingNews reported that Alonso had asked for certain guarantees from the UCI regarding his application. These guarantees were not extended to the other teams in the World Tour, or any others applying for 2015.

The possibility that Alonso might receive special treatment really, really irritated some of the other team managers.

Garmin-Sharp’s Jonathan Vaughters had this to say:

Now, I can sympathise with Vaughters, too. Why should Alonso get handed the breaks just because he’s come in with big money and glamour?

Rules are rules, right?

UCI President Brian Cookson was quick to reach for the fire extinguisher, telling CyclingNews on the 23rd that,

“Everyone has to follow the rules, no one will get special treatment. We will be as helpful with Alonso as we are with everyone else. It’s great they’re interested, we want to support a new team like that because we’ve lost too many teams but they have to respect the regulations.”

Cookson gets points for dodging that minefield, where his predecessors may have just resorted to old-fashioned nepotism, but the fact is the current regulations are junk and they need to change.

The current process seems determined to discourage new entrants into cycling with the UCI’s usual cocktail of inefficient bureaucracy and complete lack of transparency.

All it achieves is protecting the old guard of ex-dopers and their backers, discouraging the renewal that cycling desperately needs.

Alonso offers a clean slate, fresh ideas, money, power and an introduction to the really big time of global corporate sponsorship. You may not like him on the race track, but there’s no doubt he knows what success takes, and I believe he has the right intentions.

Sure, he comes from a sport as riddled with corruption and cronyism as cycling’s darkest days. Sure, F1 has the governance standards and transparency of a hessian sack full of vipers. But it’s also a sport with a powerful culture of innovation and excellence across technology, science and business, at the team level.

I think the UCI understands that it needs FACT to succeed, but doesn’t want to upset its incumbents, and that is fair enough. Balancing the conflicting viewpoints will require gobs of political skill.

But a new team launching in 2015 needs to be able to negotiate with riders and sign them in good faith. It needs to be able to provide guarantees to potential sponsors.

Riders need to know that they are signing with a real team.

This means licences need to be allocated much earlier than two months before the season starts, and the whole process needs to be much more transparent.

The regulations need to be changed. Add it to Cookson’s list.

In the mean time, Alonso is still insisting that plans are on schedule, telling Eurosport,

“We are doing [things] in a very professional way. We are doing step after step. There are some rules to respect, and we are respecting those. That is a surprise for some people but we never stop and everything that we want to achieve in these last couple of months we are doing.”

I hope he succeeds. If Alonso can’t make this work with his money and connections, who else can?

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