The controversy surrounding Iljo Keisse's disqualification from the Vuelta a San Juan is creating tensions between the QuickStep team and their new title sponsor Deceuninck, with talks set to take place between the two parties after the race. Bike sponsor Specialized has also responded to complaints on social media, insisting it takes the matter "extremely seriously" and is "working with the team reinforce the expectations" it holds of riders.
After a record 73 victories in 2018, the QuickStep team have picked up where they left off in 2019, with two stage wins and the leader's jersey at the half-way point in San Juan. So far, so good for a new sponsor looking to showcase their name on the global stage.
However, the headlines have instead been dominated by off-the-bike controversies, with Keisse's disqualification from the race for an indecent act sparking a wave of negative publicity for Patrick Lefevere's team.
Keisse was the subject of a police complaint ahead of the race after feigning a sexual act behind a local café waitress who'd asked for a photo with the team. At first, the team played down the incident, though Keisse, who was fined 3000 pesos, issued a statement apologising for his actions on Tuesday. After appeals to the team to take disciplinary action fell on deaf ears, the race organisers expelled Keisse after the stage 3 time trial, causing an angry Lefevere to threaten to pull the whole squad from the race. They continued but were fined for skipping the post-stage podium ceremony on Wednesday.
The episode has been an unwelcome one for window manufacturers Deceuninck, who effectively secured the future of the team when they came on board late last year.
"We do not agree with what happened there. This is not behaviour that we accept," Jérôme De Bruycker, Marketing Manager Europe at Deceuninck, told Cyclingnews.
"There is a lot of controversy around the topic, which we hope will go away soon. We are sponsoring the team for the sporting part of it, and getting good results out there. So yes, that's an incident we don't like to have. But, ok, it happened and we need to try to close it."
- San Juan woman files police complaint against Keisse
- Deceuninck-QuickStep say Keisse incident was meant as 'a joke'
- Keisse apologises for 'stupid moment' after woman files police complaint
- Vuelta a San Juan organisers expel Keisse after woman files police complaint
- Lefevere threatens to remove entire Deceuninck-QuickStep team from Vuelta a San Juan
- Deceuninck-QuickStep skip Vuelta a San Juan podium ceremony
Keisse's actions were widely criticised as the story exploded on social media. If some felt the team didn't initially deal with the situation adequately, the ill-feeling has seemingly intensified after Lefevere's comments, with the Belgian boss also suggesting the waitress' complaints were motivated by money.
Deceuninck confirmed they were concerned about the negative publicity, and are lining up talks with team management figures once the race is over. Deceuninck CEO Francis Van Eeckhout is currently away on business and it's understood there has been no formal contact yet between him and Lefevere.
"We are also getting a lot of comments on our social media and through email and everything. We need to be aware today of what has been written. We read it, we see it, and we need to capture it. That's what we're doing internally. We are capturing all the information, then it's for us internally to evaluate this and see which actions we take," said De Bruycker.
"We are waiting until they're back from South America, but we already requested a statement from their part. I will discuss with Francis when he's back about the next steps we're going to take. If he's considering talking with Patrick, that's possible. We want to align with the team internally, we have a partnership together, and these are discussions we need to have and that we should have. We should be open to working with each other on that one."
The Vuelta a San Juan pauses for a rest day on Thursday, after which Julian Alaphilippe will look to strengthen his grip on the leader's jersey on Friday's summit finish on the Alto Colorado, with only two sprint stages remaining after that. Deceuninck hope the team can finish the race on a good note and the damage can be repaired as quickly as possible.
"We cannot turn the clock back," said De Bruycker. "This shouldn't have happened. You want to avoid those situations, that's for sure. But it happened. And we need to try and have it solved quickly, and then we can focus back on cycling activities, which is why we became partner of the team."