It's June 2018 and, although the majority of the professional peloton are at training camps or races, there are still enough of Monaco's cycling glitterati to form the occasional group ride.
On a coastal road, Richie Porte, flush in his red and black BMC Racing kit, comes into view. The Tour de France is just a few weeks out but today's an easy spin in the saddle before the Australian's final pre-Tour outing at the Tour de Suisse. Alongside Porte is a figure in Trek-Segafredo kit.
Luca Guercilena quickly checks the time before fastening his shoes and making his way towards his front door. It's relatively early in the day but the sun is already beating down on the south coast and the Italian will have to push some watts if he's to meet his riding partner on time. Dressed in full Trek-Segafredo kit, he leaves his house, near the base of the Col de la Madone, and sets off on his ride.
Trek Segafredo's general manager and Porte had met at races from time to time but, until this point, they had only shared the occasional pleasantry around the team busses or buffet table when BMC and Trek happen to share hotels while on the road. This is different.
Porte and Guercilena have been swapping messages back and forth for a number of weeks, and since the Giro d'Italia those WhatsApp messages, those two ticks that turn from a nervy grey to satisfying blue, have become ever more frequent. Today, though, is about face-to-face time and sensing each other out before getting down to the nitty-gritty of an actual contract offer for 2019.
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The general consensus is that Trek only focussed their gaze towards Porte once Simon Yates turned down their requests to join them on a multi-year deal. That is true in the context of 2018 but the reality is that Porte was on Guercilena's radar since well before the start of that campaign and - but for some cold feet on the Australian's part - could have signed for the American team during the 2017 season. He had options with BMC, Trek and a lucrative offer from UAE Team Emirates on the table. However, as tempting as the money was at UAE, Porte had reservations about the set-up and was put off by the fact that he could not take a mechanic or soigneur with him. In the end, he renewed with BMC for one year with the option of a second that would take him into 2019. Within his new deal with BMC was the clause that after May 1 he was allowed to negotiate with other teams, even though he and BMC had the option to extend into 2019.
However, as the 2018 campaign wore on, and BMC Racing began to struggle for sponsorship, Porte and his agent sensibly looked at their options. In an interview with Cyclingnews on the eve of the Volta ao Algarve, Porte himself announced that he would give the team until May 1 to announce a new sponsor. The countdown had been set.
Shortly after that, BMC Racing's manager Jim Ochowicz sent an email to all his riders and staff:
"The management team is working in a good direction on the future of the team, and the goal is a three-year project, starting in 2019. We are working to secure adequate funding to maintain our current level of commitment to the project, some of which is already confirmed. To keep everyone updated, we will revisit this issue with everyone again on May 1. Thanks for your support and good luck at the races. Och."
As the Giro d'Italia approached, Trek began to scout out the market with a greater sense of purpose. At the end of 2017, Alberto Contador retired, and, with little time to find a replacement, they decided to squirrel away the saved funds for a rainy day. The plan was to allow Bauke Mollema to hold the fort in 2018 and then sign a marquee Grand Tour rider for the following year. The saved funds from Contador's early retirement meant that they could play a far greater role in the transfer market.
They looked at Simon Yates, both before and during the Giro, while another perennial interest - Geraint Thomas - was also debated within the Trek hierarchy.
"Thomas' preference was always to stay at Team Sky," Luca Guercilena told Cyclingnews recently. "A British rider, on a British team, his market value was always highest at Team Sky."
If there was little chance in dislodging Thomas, who already had a contract offer from Team Sky in the bag before last year's Tour win, what of Yates? In relation to the Mitchelton rider, money wasn't the driving force. If it had been, he would be in UAE Team Emirates colours this season and running to the bank with the €4 million per-year the team reportedly offered him.
"The reply from Simon during the Giro was that he was interested in talking but he was comfortable at Mitchelton."
Trek interpreted that as Yates struggling to make a decision and, with only a few GC riders left on the shelf, the team wasn't willing to wait around until later in the year.
"We looked at various proposals in the market. There were riders on the market like the Yates brothers and we looked at them but at the same time, we were also analysing other possibilities. When it became clearer what was happening with some riders, we went deeper in conversation with Richie," Guercilena told Cyclingnews.
"I believe that Richie is a rider who has proved his qualities. He has the best attitude when it comes to one-week races and, on top of that, he's been challenging in Grand Tours. That's something that we've been missing. We had Bauke, but we need more than one rider at that level. It was really important that we went into the market for a rider like this."
As luck would have it, Porte, Thomas, and Yates all have the same agent: former UCI President Pat McQuaid's son, Andrew. At the start of every season McQuaid sends his portfolio of riders to a list of general managers, and in 2018 his hand was particularly strong. Along with Yates, Porte, and Thomas, the Irishman also had Rohan Dennis, Luke Rowe and Nicolas Roche on his books. All were out of contract.
As the Giro unfolded, discussions over Porte began to develop and, by the time the race concluded, Porte and Guercilena decided that the logical next step was to meet in person.
"I liked Luca from the get-go," Porte said closer to the time.
"Coming from where I've come from and having a general manager who totally gets you and doesn't have a bad word to say about any of his ex-riders, is refreshing. I also felt like I could talk to Luca about non-cycling stuff and that he was switched on."
The pair rode for a steady 30 kilometres, stopped for coffee in Ventimiglia and then rode back towards Monaco. During their coffee, there was a feeling from both sides that an agreement would be reached in a relatively short space of time. Porte asked if he could bring riders with him, with Adam Hansen - then out of contract at Lotto Soudal - part a package that included a mechanic and a soigneur. Although Guercilena had respect for Hansen as a rider, he also had a policy of not agreeing to take athletes unless he knew them. In the end, the name of William Clarke came up. The then EF Education First rider had ridden for Guercilena during his single year at Leopard Trek in 2011 and was obviously well-liked by Porte.
"The feeling I had at the end of the ride and the coffee was that he would join us," Guercilena said.
The ball was then in McQuaid's and Guercilena's court as they finalized the terms and length of the contract, with a two-year deal soon proposed.
While the deal with Trek Segafredo progressed, Porte was still a BMC Racing rider. However, by June, cracks within his then existing team had surfaced.
Cyclingnews has heard from several sources that Marc Biver had begun tapping up BMC Racing staff to join him on an ultimately failed venture that had no capital behind it, while Damiano Caruso, Rohan Dennis and a host of other names agreed to join rival teams.
Ochowicz tried to keep his band of riders together but had already acknowledged that unless a miracle came about - and it eventually would on the eve of the Tour - his 2019 operation would be a fraction of its former size.
Porte had an option of another year at BMC Racing but Ochowicz could not afford to keep both the Australian and his preferred choice of leadership in Greg Van Avermaet. By the time the Tour de Suisse concluded, with Porte winning the overall, Trek were pressing for an answer.
On June 26, Cyclingnews published a story that made clear that Porte was heading towards Trek. That evening, at a pre-Tour de France training camp in the Alps, Ochowicz came to Porte's hotel room, where the rider informed his boss that he would not be staying with the team beyond 2018. Ochowicz asked for more time but, with the Tour just around the corner and Biver's short-term hope of starting a new team still a possibility, Porte was unable to delay his future. At the same camp, Porte's long-term coach, David Bailey, was dismissed from the team and his access to the team's communications blocked.
"Within BMC there was a genuine belief that Biver could save the team. He was talking about Qatar Airways," Porte said last year.
However, by the time the Tour stage to Roubaix had finished, the dust had settled, and Porte had returned home to the south of France, his chapter with BMC Racing was almost over. He would go on to ride a series of races after his recovery from a broken collarbone, including the Vuelta a España, but by that point both he and BMC Racing had moved on.
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