Ochowicz: You can always repaint the picture

BMC Racing boss on keeping Van Avermaet and saving a team through compromise

It's a risky business, this sponsorship game.

In 2016, the mighty Tinkoff squad folded, while last summer Slipstream came within a thread of Argyle of disappearing.

Even now, in 2018, and with WorldTour reforms on the horizon, several teams are struggling to hold their heads above water.

Then there's BMC Racing boss Jim Ochowicz, who, despite the death of his patron, BMC owner Andy Rihs, and the impending departure of all but one of his marquee riders, has resolutely stuck to his guns and come up with the most left-field sponsorship package since Tom Brady linked up with Ugg in 2010.

Step forward CCC, a Polish shoe and bag manufacturer which currently lends its name to the Pro Continental CCC-Sprandi squad.

The rumours of a deal between Ochowicz and CCC first emerged last week, mid-way through the first week of the Tour de France. The timing of the speculation wasn't because the parties kept the negotiations under strict embargo, but because the first set of negotiations took place on the eve of the Tour.

A week later, the deal was done, and Ochowicz had rescued a team and their remaining staff from the brink.

Only three riders have so far committed to the cause, with a raft of stars already departing for pastures new. And while a team name, a bike sponsor and a real model of transition remains unclear, this is quite the coup by Ochowicz after so many had written off his chances.

'Everything is risky'

Over the last few months, Ochowicz has kept his cards close to his chest. So close, in fact, that even a number of his riders had no idea that a sponsor had been found. It turns out that on the opening weekend of the Tour, Ochowicz had already been in contact and met with CCC's owner Dariusz Milek.

One BMC Racing insider had told us that Ochowicz's demeanour had changed the day before the Tour started, and that the veteran team manager had a spring back in his step. The sentiment coming out of BMC was that "Jim has something up his sleeve" and that he's "going around smiling and talking to everyone - he's definitely different".

It turned out that the source was correct. A week later, Ochowicz and Milek signed a multi-year deal that would see the CCC brand come together with the parent company of BMC Racing – Continuum Sports – who hold the WorldTour licence.
 
While the confetti is still fresh, it's still worth remembering that there are a number of unanswered questions: What was the real purpose in releasing a statement in June that confirmed that the WorldTour licence remained in Ochowicz's clutches? Why did Greg Van Avermaet stay while so many other high-profile riders left? And what part did Marc Biver play in the whole saga?

In fact, where is Marc Biver?

Some of the answers are unlikely to surface any time soon. Ochowicz refuses to reveal the length of contracts he provides his athletes, but over the coming weeks he has a number of important decisions to make.

For starters, the 2019 team lacks a name. It has just three riders with contracts, and there's no bike supplier, although Giant are said to be on their way. There's also the small matter of bringing together around two thirds of the BMC Racing staff with a third of the staff at the current CCC squad. Those situations are never easy – just ask Slipstream – but there is a sense that this is a new start for both parties.

"Everything is risky. This sport is risky," Ochowicz told Cyclingnews when we sat down with him after the announcement.

"But I've been in this sport a long time, and I know there are timelines, yet I've always told you that I have no timelines," he continued. "Yes, the longer you wait today, the more the picture changes, but you can always repaint the picture the way you want it to look if you have a good partner. The first year is going to be a transition year, but not a big one."

Moving away from Grand Tours

In his mind, Ochowicz always knew that he had more time than many others would have suspected. The market will be flooded with riders come August due to downscaling at a number of teams, so finding bargains for a roster was never a problem.

He also knew that he could afford to gamble with his stars. Unless another Andy Rihs was found, the chances of keeping Richie Porte, Greg Van Avermaet, Rohan Dennis and Tejay van Garderen were slim. One-by-one, they left, with Porte agreeing terms with Trek-Segafredo in June, Dennis heading to Bahrain-Merida, and the likes of Damiano Caruso and Dylan Tuens also jumping ship.

The drop in wages meant that Ochowicz could lower expectations and open himself up to new, although smaller, partnerships. Tag Heuer already had a contract for 2019, and Sophos were also on board. The team had also begun to trim their budget in 2017 with the demise of their under-23 team, so funds were more manageable.

Losing Porte – and Ochowicz must have known that the Australian would have been chased by rivals – cut the budget in more ways than just salaries. With Porte leaving, the new team could also cut resources in other ways, with altitude camps, reconnaissance trips and several members of staff no longer required.

When Porte’s coach David Bailey decided to leave for Marc Biver’s short-lived plans for a squad, Ochowicz was unlikely to have been too upset.

"Moving away from Grand Tours with Richie changes your dynamic because your schedule changes. We don't need to do altitude camps or recons for Grand Tours anymore. That frees things up," Ochowicz told Cyclingnews.

"But the reason I didn't have a timeline is because we still have people interested in this team in the pipeline. There's a possibility of a second sponsor at some point.

"The riders who left made their own decision to leave," continued Ochowicz. "Everything is transparent. Mr Milek knows that Richie's left, he knows that Rohan Dennis has left, although I didn’t know he had left until last weekend, when I came back from my first meeting with Mr Milek. Dylan Teuns was very communicative about the situation, and maybe he can come back. Each case is different, and they have managers. Sometimes they have pressure from the outside. Richie would have stayed, but he had pressure to leave. Our good friends at Trek were aggressive for him to make an early exit."

Van Avermaet

The circumstances surrounding Van Avermaet staying still remain somewhat cloudy. The Belgian was prickly to say the least when asked at Monday's press conference as to when he signed his new contract, refusing to answer the question.

But during the long spring and summer of uncertainly, it seems as though he and Ochowicz had this almost telepathic understanding that the situation would resolve itself. Van Avermaet held negotiations with other teams, but, like Ochowicz, he kept his cards close to his chest in that regard.

The new deal between the rider and his American boss makes sense. A Classics team that also dabbles in week-long stage races is a smaller but potentially stronger outfit than a squad that spreads itself too thinly. Michael Schär has committed to the team and Van Avermaet will no doubt have a say in selecting his own support crew. For him, at the age of 33, this is a low-risk venture compared to, say, walking into a team like Bahrain-Merida or Dimension Data.

"I wasn't tying him down, and he made the decision to stay," Ochowicz said of Van Avermaet. "I kept in communication with him and other riders, and those were their decisions."

During the period of uncertainty, Ochowicz also had to deal with the illness and death of Andy Rihs. Be under no illusion: the pair were extremely close and saw BMC Racing as more than just a business. It was their joint passion. So it would have been a lot easier for Ochowicz, 66, to have just walked away at the end of the season.

"Andy was prepared to end the team in 2018," Ochowicz said, "If he was sitting here today, he would be proud of us – proud that we're still finding funds from the outside, as that was something we worked on together. He would have liked this to carry on.

"He would have found it exciting. He wasn't ready to stop. He loved cycling, and he loved to ride. We'd go to bike races and ride bikes. His memory will always be with us. How could that go away? He was one of my best friends. I talked to him every day of my life for 10 years. The riders and the staff were close to him. He was respectful of us and us of him, and his memory will be with us."

It's a team with no name, and it's a risky business, and whether Ochowicz or BMC Racing are a team you cheer for, it's worth noting that a passionate bunch of riders and staff now still have jobs in 2019.

It may not be perfect, and it might have some teething problems, but sometimes keeping the show on the road is worth celebrating. 

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