Last week, Bjarne Riis, one of the owners of Virtu Cycling Group, announced that Team Virtu Cycling Women would close at the end of the year. Despite a string of excellent results including wins at the Ronde van Drenthe and Tour of Flanders, the group has not found a new sponsor for the women's team. The men's Continental team, Team Waoo, will continue.
Speaking to Cyclingnews at the Danish road race championships on Sunday, Riis expressed disappointment that there is no interest in sponsoring the women's team.
"When you race on the WorldTour like our women's team does, it's an international team," Riis said. "Unfortunately, this apparently doesn't have value for a Danish sponsor. Having now funded the team ourselves for three years, we had hoped that there would be someone wanting to join us. That hasn't happened until now."
Riis has not given up hope that a sponsor might be found in the time that remains.
"We are only halfway through the season, so if there's somebody changing their mind, we would be happy to continue. If we get the opportunity to save the team there is still time for that, but we have also made the decision that there has to be a sponsor if we are to run the team next year."
In addition to the two cycling teams, the group also runs Virtu Business Club, a networking group that puts on various events, and Virtu Villas, a travel destination in Italy. Riis stepped down as CEO of Virtu Cycling Group in late 2018. He remains one of the three owners of the group along with Lars Seier Christensen, former director of Saxo Bank and sponsor of Riis' erstwhile men's WorldTour team, and Jan Bech Andersen, a main shareholder in Danish football club Brøndby IF.
From November 2018, Anders Gram Simonsen has been the new CEO. The group reported a deficit of 18.8 million DKK (€2.5 million) earlier in June, with the two cycling teams accounting for 7.2 million DKK (almost €1 million) of that. Since August 2018, the men's team has had a title sponsorship deal with Danish telecommunications company Waoo that covers the running costs of that team. However, a similar sponsor for the women's team has not been forthcoming. In this light, it was a financial decision to stop the women's team, explained Gram.
"It is paradoxical to have to close a team that has delivered such good results this year, but we have not been able to create interest in women's cycling as a commercial platform. We have shown that we are committed to this and we think women's cycling has unique possibilities. We would love to continue, but Virtu Cycling Group is a business, not philanthropy. We don't consider it responsible to continue putting our own money into the team. That is why we have made the announcement now so that riders and staff have time to secure new contracts elsewhere."
Gram said that the group is looking for long-term sponsors that are interested not only in funding a cycling team but also in activating their sponsorship.
"We are targeting long-term partnerships. We are happy to have Waoo on board, they have experience in sponsorship activation, but it is a company focused on the Danish market only. We try to look at our cycling teams as one platform, with a men's team that we want to develop in the coming years and a professional women's team on the highest level. Our women's platform is international, but we are still based in Denmark, racing on a Danish licence with four Danish riders. There have been talks with foreign sponsors, but that has not been easy."
The Danish cycling federation has announced that it plans to host an 11-day, ten-stage women's stage race in cooperation with the Swedish Vårgårda Women's WorldTour race and the Ladies Tour of Norway from 2021 onwards. While Gram acknowledged that this was an interesting initiative, he made clear that continuing the team on its current (lack of) funding was not an option.
"If you can't see that you can create something sustainable within a certain time frame, you have to make a decision," said Gram. "A cycling team doesn't have to make money, but it does have to break even. We have to be realistic about where we are right now. We still have hopes to move our men's team up to Professional Continental or WorldTour status, but that is a long journey as well."
At the Danish championships on Sunday, Christina Siggaard was the teams' best finisher, sprinting to third place from a select group in the women's road race.
"It is really sad that the team is closing down," Siggaard said. "I have been happy to ride here. I want to continue at this level, and winning the champion's jersey would have made it easier in negotiations with a possible new team, but that's not how it went. Now it's about taking the best from it, try to have a good second half of the season, and then look towards the future."