BMC Racing Team General Manager Jim Ochowicz was unable to confirm to Cyclingnews on Tuesday that the US-registered WorldTour team will continue past the 2018 season after Swiss media reported that team benefactor Andy Rihs will end his support following next year.
Ochowicz was responding to a report in Swiss newspaper 24 Heures, which suggested that backing from billionaire BMC owner Rihs will finally end after the 2018 season following several years of annual renewal. The newspaper reported that the long-term future of the BMC Racing will be decided in the spring and summer of 2018, according to Marc Biver, the former Astana team manager who claimed to be leading the search for new backers of the team captained by Richie Porte and Greg Van Avermaet.
Ochowicz, who confirmed Biver's role on the organisation's sales staff, said Biver's comments to 24 Heures represented his own opinion and that Biver did not speak for the team or for Rihs.
"We're still in the planning phases in a lot of places on a lot of different scenarios, too many scenarios to actually say that everything is 100 per cent in place," Ochowicz told Cyclingnews from the team's training camp in Spain. "But I can tell you that the motivation to continue with a program at the same level that we're at today is our ultimate objective, and we're on our way to completing that."
BMC began as a US-based Continental team and joined the WorldTour in 2011 when Cadel Evans won the Tour de France. They have continued to be one of the leading WorldTour teams in the peloton, with Van Avermaet leading the Classics squad and Porte targeting the Tour de France and other stage races.
With unconfirmed reports about Rihs' ill-health, Biver told 24 Heures he is searching hard for new sponsors to help cover the team's reported €21 million budget.
Ochowicz did not directly answer a question about the accuracy of Biver's comments to 24 Heures.
"They may or may not be, but the relationship with Andy and the team has been one that's been on going for 10-plus years now, and any decision of Andy's to not continue to sponsor after 2018 would be totally his call and would be his decision to make that public on his own," Ochowicz said.
"As far as I'm concerned, we're still in 2017 just finishing up the year here in Spain getting started with our planning for 2018. Andy is fully committed; he came down to visit us here for a couple of days. We're fully operational and ready to take on the fight in 2018 for the full season.
"Are we planning for the future at the same time after '19? Of course, and we have sponsorship in place for 2019 in different places from different sources," Ochowicz said. "But as you know, historically we don't give timelines on our contracts with riders and we don't give timelines on our contracts with sponsors."
BMC recently unveiled Sophos as the team's official cybersecurity partner, with the blue logo filling the collar area of the team's 2018 jersey. Ochowicz described Sophos as a "very capable company that has the ability to do whatever they end up deciding to do." A panel on the shoulder of the jersey has apparently been left blank, with an expected sponsor still to be confirmed. J.Lindeberg is the new leisure wear sponsor, providing a reported 1,200 items of clothing to the riders and staff.
The TAG Heuer watch logo again stands out on the sleeves of the red-and-black jersey after coming on board for 2017. The Swiss watch company is one of several luxury brands managed by Jean-Claude Biver, Marc Biver's brother, and has confirmed its sponsorship until 2019.
"So we're all working toward that ultimate objective of creating a long-term project with the existing team we have," Ochowicz said. "We've been here for 10 years now, so we're not going away. We've proven year after year that we can maintain this level, and I think that track record speaks for itself."
But in his interview with 24 Heures, Biver said time was an enemy of the team.
"The future of BMC will be played out this spring," Biver told 24 Heures. "If we want to keep them in our ranks, we must extend the contracts of Greg Van Avermaet and Richie Porte before the Tour. There is no reason to panic; there will be a solution. But, unless there is a miracle, we realise we will not find a partner like Andy. He literally fell from the sky. With him, there were no calculations; he embodies passion and generosity."
Ochowicz said renewing with his two star riders would be a top priority, although, as in any sport, the players and rosters are bound to change.
"They're our quarterbacks, and who doesn't want Aaron Rodgers on their team," Ochowicz said.
BMC Racing have made savings by cutting their roster from 28 to 24 riders for 2018 after the UCI cut team sizes in races. They have also ended their BMC development team and trimmed staff numbers. Other cuts and changes are possible going forward depending on future sponsorship.
"In the future we could consider not playing on all the boards and building a team just for the Classics or only for the Grand Tours. The door is open to all eventualities depending on the budget," 24 Heures report Marc Biver as saying.
BMC won 48 races in 2017, with Van Avermaet winning Paris-Roubaix and topping the UCI WorldTour ranking. Porte won the Tour Down Under and the Tour de Romandie but crashed out of the Tour de France on stage 9.
Ochowicz said there are no plans to change the team's focus.
"We're still focused on maintaining our current structure," Ochowicz said. "That doesn't mean that players won't change. Like every sport, people move around. We don't have any plans of changing our structure in terms of our commitment to the Classics or our commitment to the Grand Tours. And we'll have an even stronger commitment than that to the UCI WorldTour circuit."
In the end, Ochowicz was optimistic about pulling the budget together to maintain the team after 2018.
"We're in good hands, and we continue to do what we do," he said.