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After some rough years, Quick Step's manager Patrick Lefevere finally rid his team of the financial thunderclouds that have been gathering since the title sponsor decided to scale back its investment. Czech billionaire Zdenek Bakala stepped in to secure the team's future with a sizeable financial injection through 2013.
Lefevere and the Unilin Group, Quick Step's parent company, came to an agreement with Bakala where he provides financial support for 2011 and guarantees the operating costs of the team in 2012 and 2013.
During the team's presentation on Friday during the Velo Follies fair in Kortrijk, Belgium, Lefevere looked to the past and the future.
"This was the boost that I needed as now there's fresh air blowing in our team. I hated it when people asked me about 2012 while we were still in 2010. Now I can say the team's future is secured. Mr. Bakala has the money to guarantee that we can continue to ride on for the next three years, even without having a new main sponsor. That's not to be underestimated because some teams showed that it's not easy to find a main sponsor," Lefevere said.
Bakala will secure the financial future of the team, much in the way Bob Stapleton did for team High Road in 2007 when sponsor T-Mobile stepped away from cycling, or the way Flavio Becca financed Leopard Trek.
For most of the 2010 season Lefevere searched for a new main sponsor to bring the team's budget to a higher level as sponsor Quick Step wanted to take a step back. Quick Step will remain in the title spot until that moment arrives, but he hopes Bakala's connections will revive the search.
"I have blind confidence in this man. I guess that this is peanuts or maybe a hobby for him; probably half investment and half hobby," Lefevere said. "The man travels around the world and meets leaders of governments. His network sure should help to get in touch with another group of potential sponsors," Lefevere said.
The financing scheme didn't come quickly enough for Lefevere for his team to narrowly avoided being relegated to the second division after being ranked outside the top 18 in the UCI's teams classification, but Lefevere said he will stick with the riders he has rather than use the new infusion of cash to purchase riders like those from Pegasus Sports, who do not have contracts.
"The team's budget remains the same this year. I could spend my money on the riders who are available on the market, but with all respect to them, they're not the ones that I want. I prefer to work with the riders I have now and search for young talented riders."
The focus on young riders comes after a summer's worth of hard work wooing sponsors went up in smoke after Alberto Contador's doping positive.
"I was very close to clinching a deal with about five big companies. The Contador case ruined a lot for us. I didn't leave my couch for two days and when I stood up there were 50 pairs of eyes asking me what was going to happen. Due to the arrival of Mr. Bakala we know where we stand.
"I still have to look into the UCI points system because last year I feared that we weren't going to make the cut to be a ProTour team. We rode well but didn't score points. I hope the system becomes more transparent because suddenly we tumbled from 15th to 18th place. Another factor was the ethical background of the team but Allan Davis was no longer in our team and Iljo Keisse... well, who am I to argue a judge; I'm not the UCI," Lefevere said.
"I'm happy Mr. Bakala allows me to develop a young team. It's up to us to make sure these people don't leave in two or three years, disgusted by the sport," Lefevere said.
About the backer Bakala
Self-made billionaire Bakala will own 70 percent of the team in the new agreement, while Lefevere keeps 20 percent of the shares. Bakala's business partner and friend Bessel Kok bought a 10 percent share. The 70 year-old naturalized Belgian who resides in Prague, Czech Republic played a key role in this deal and he becomes the president of the board. Other members of the board are cycling legend and bike sponsor Eddy Merckx, current title sponsor Frans De Cock from Unilin, Dutch media tycoon Derk Sauer and Patrick Lefevere who remains in position as CEO.
"People said I was reaching the end of my career but that's not true. I remain manager of the team but I'm no longer risking to lose all my money. I'll be better surrounded now. There will be a full-time marketing director. The budget remains what it was although I'm not going into details about on that subject. Last year I got angry when other teams claimed to have a top team for only €6,000,000. It made me look like a fool in front of my sponsors as they probably questioned what I was doing with their money. " Lefevere said.
Bakala, married to Miss Czech Republic 1991 Michaela Malacova, escaped Czechoslovakian communism at age 19 in the 1980s by emigrating to the USA with $50 in his pocket. Climbing up from being a dishwasher in a Lake Tahoe casino to a man who graduated in Economics from Berkeley, he became a banker before returning to the newly formed Czech Republic and making fortune in the coal industry.
Bakala currently travels between his house in Prague, his villa in the Sumava National Park and his residences in Geneva and Hilton Head, South Carolina. At the team's presentation in Kortrijk, the Czech investor flew in at the last minute to explain why he chose to invest in cycling.
"I became passionate about the bike after seeing Eddy Merckx on television as a little boy. In spite of the weight I put on over Christmas I try to get on the bike as much as I possibly can. As both a passionate cycling fan and businessman, I strongly believe in the future of the sport.
"There is a large gap between the immense popularity of professional cycle racing and its commercial potential. The number of spectators and cycling fans who followed last year's Tour de France easily compares with those who regularly follow Formula 1 motor racing or European football. But if we compare the investment and resources dedicated to these popular sports, it is clear that cycling has a long way to go. I am pleased to be able to make a modest contribution towards closing that gap," Bakala said.
Bakala also explained why he choose this Belgian team while there are several teams out there searching for fresh money. "Most of my professional life I've worked with Belgian companies. KBC was a shareholder in my bank. Early on in my career I used to work for a bank where Bank Brussels Lambert had a stake. Since I had extremely good experiences with Belgian financial institutions it was time to join a team that happens to be an institution in the countries most popular sport," Bakala said.
Being ranked 828th on Forbes' list of world's richest people with a net worth of $1.2 billion Bakala isn't spending his fortune in approximate €9500000 budget of the Quick Step team.
The 49 year-old Czech hopes to see his compatriot and cyclo-cross World Champion, Zdenek Stybar, join the Quick Step team, but Bakala said their shared nationality isn't the main reason..
"Our plan is to build up a team that will become one of the top five in the sport. I wouldn't want to build a team around nationalities but around talent. With talented riders it's better to get commercial results," said Bakala.