By Laura Weislo
It's been more than a year since banking giant Crédit Agricole, decided to end its sponsorship of the oldest active team in the peloton, but despite searching and negotiating for months the quest has yet to be successful, and time is about to run out for manager Roger Legeay to keep the team going.
Legeay is going on 25 years as manager of the team, and before that, he rode for the team during his career as a professional cyclist. In that time, he has grown accustomed to uncertainty and the constant battle for funding. "I've been in cycling for almost 35 years and in all that time I've never had a contract for longer than two years," he told Cyclingnews. But this time, he fears that his run of good fortune may be over. "That is the problem with cycling - the team structure is very difficult. If you have a sponsor you exist, if you have no sponsor, you're finished. There is nothing in between."
The 58 year-old Legeay stepped up from the ranks of the Peugeot team into management upon retiring from racing in 1983. He stayed with the team as it evolved from Z-Peugeot, to Z, to GAN and finally Crédit Agricole - the sponsor which signed on before the brink of the Festina scandal of 1998 and stayed with the team for ten years.
In that time, Legeay has built a reputation as being a staunchly anti-doping team manager. In 2004, he resigned from the French professional cyclists' organisation AC 2000 over the issue. Last year, he stepped down from his position as vice president of the AIGCP due to conflicts over the difficulties in enforcing the code of ethics. "Everybody knows about my very strong opinion against doping in cycling and in general. I'm very strict about that," he said.
Yet Legeay could not prevent his own team from being hit by the spectre of doping at the close of this year's Tour de France. Kazakh rider Dmitri Fofonov tested positive for a banned stimulant after taking a supplement he purchased on the internet.
But Legeay said that the case of Fofonov had little to do with the failure to seal a new sponsorship deal. "For the sponsor it's different; the decision is based on whether or not they want to come into cycling or not, and because it is a lot of money."
The fact that he faces unemployment after decades isn't topmost in Legeay's mind. He is not thinking about what he might do with himself if he's not circumnavigating the globe at the world's top bike races. Instead, he's most concerned with the riders who have been loyal to him and ensuring that they find a place.
"It's difficult because of the timing. I set a deadline of August 1 to let the riders know if there will be a new sponsor, and that passed today. But I am still going to work for the next few weeks to find a new sponsor and to continue the team," he said. "But it is difficult because for the next two to three weeks I can propose [to prospective companies] the same team with the same riders, but after mid-August, the strong riders will be signing with other teams."
Legeay said that he spoke to his riders and they expressed the desire to remain, and would call and let him know about any offers before signing new contracts.
But at this point, with just a few weeks to try to accomplish what he hasn't been able to do in more than a year, he is frustrated. "I'm frustrated now because when we lost Peugeot we got Z, and when we lost Z we got GAN, and when we lost GAN we got Crédit Agricole... I hope the team can continue because we have a very strong team.
"We're the best team in France, and one of the best in the world. In the last Tour we won two stages," he explained. "We're also a team for the future because we have so many good young riders - like Pierre Rolland, he is a very strong rider for the future."
Just as he wants to find a sponsor to keep his riders and staff employed, Legeay also is driven by a deep love of the sport. "I want to have a team and ride all the big races in the world," he said, not wanting to consider the possibility that budget problems might force him to downgrade his expectations. "I want to take a team to the Grand Tours and to the UCI's races. It's not important to think about what I might do [if there is no team]. It is important to find a sponsor and continue."