There was no doubt a sigh of relief from the team bosses at the Giant-Shimano presentation, on Monday.
A little over a month prior, they had experienced the fickle nature of cycling, when their major sponsor pulled out without any warning. Now the team is looking at stability and a four-year deal with Giant.
Needless to say, the last few weeks have been a whirlwind of emotions for the managers of the Dutch team. “We experienced how vulnerable a team can be when there is a problem with one of the main sponsors.” Giant-Shimano’s team manager Iwan Spekenbrink told Cyclingnews.
Giant had already signed a four-year deal to supply the team with bikes, but stepped in when the team found themselves without a lead sponsor. Spekenbrink was quick to commend their swift action, “At the headquarters in Taiwan, they have earned big respect from me. What [Giant CEO] Tony Lo did, the decision he, and the others at the headquarters, took was a very brave one." Star riders, Marcel Kittel, John Degenkolb and Warren Barguil also expressed thanks for the company's swift saving of the squad.
The frantic exchanges over the festive period were in stark contrast to the same period a year before. Argos-Shimano was about to embark on a season that would reap much reward. Their success at the Tour de France made them a very attractive prospect for potential sponsors. When Argos chose to reduce their marketing, the team decided to take advantage of new opportunities.
“We had the chance to sign with another company, where we believed that there were more prospectives,” said Spekenbrink. “This company wanted to sign for four years. So for that reason, we reached a termination agreement with Argos, in order to sign with this other company.
At the end of October last year, it was announced that a the new sponsor were secured. With a long-term deal penned, many of the big names – including Marcel Kittel – renewed their contracts with the team. Things were going swimmingly, some €400,000 had been spent on kit and equipment for the entire team, when the team received a letter that could potentially end the their hopes of racing in 2014.
“All of a sudden we got this letter that they had pulled out,” Spekenbrink told Cyclingnews. The coldness of the approach still seems to irk the team manager.
Due to the change in sponsor, the team were not assured of their spot on the WorldTour and had to submit a number of financial documents to comply with the UCI’s regulations. The letter in question came a matter of days before the deadline to submit said documents, leaving the team an almost impossible task of keeping themselves afloat.
“It came as a big surprise to us. We were pushed into a situation where we couldn’t move. We just had to act quickly. There was no time to worry, because it was only a matter of days,” said Spekenbrink.
Fortunately for Spekenbrink, Giant was sympathetic to his plight, after suffering the demise of a number of teams they sponsored. Saving the team was only the first hurdle and they were challenged with re-designing and re-producing enough kit and equipment for the opening race of the Tour Down Under.
For Spekenbrink, though, this isn’t the end of the road. The team have taken up legal proceedings against the company, which they are unable to name.
The union with Giant may not have come from happy circumstance, but Spekenbrink is hugely optimistic about what it means for the team. “It’s natural and beautiful fit together, and I really believe that we can build something unique in professional cycling. I hope that we can do it for a very long time and prove that it is a very good formula.
"We will be a testing platform for Giant, as they try to make the most competitive bikes. All bike riders will benefit from the technology they develop. Our goal is to connect with the cycling community and inspire all riders around the world. They day after the launch, some of our riders went on a twitter ride with some cyclotourists."
Leading the way this season will be their superstar sprinter Kittel. He claimed 16 victories in 2013, and looked almost unbeatable at the Tour where he wore the yellow jersey for a day, after winning the opening stage.
Kittel will be looking to repeat that and more this season, but he faces a strengthened Omega Pharma-QuickStep sprint train. Mark Cavendish has been reunited with his lead-out man Mark Renshaw and, with the veteran Alessandro Petacchi returning for another year, they should be formidable opponents. This doesn’t faze the Giant-Shimano boss, who says his riders can still have the edge.
“It’s sport and we like to take on the challenge,” he told Cyclingnews. “The important thing in the sprint train is not the collection of individuals. In the best sprint train, which is what we have proven, teamwork is very important. The power of ours is that our guys have really fine-tuned the team work.”
Despite the turmoil behind the scenes, 2013 was a very successful year on the road. In total they claimed 31 victories, with four Tour de France stages coming at the hands – or pedals – of Kittel. Warren Barguil also shone at the Vuelta a España, taking two stage victories that belied his youthful years.
It’s a lot to live up to, but Spekenbrink believes it’s possible. “We have some young riders, but they are one year older and one year stronger,” he explains. “We have signed some very good talents, like the Americans, [Chad] Haga and [Lawson] Craddock and the Dutch guy, [Daan] Olivier. Then there’s a guy like Dries Devenyns, who makes the team stronger. I believe that we can be stronger and more often in the right position in the final.”