ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK & RED
Salvation for the BMC team, which was in desperate need of a sponsor, came when the backers of the Polish ProConti outfit CCC stepped in. Procycling looks at how the team’s identity and goals will change in 2019
When stage 1 of the Tour de Pologne was doing laps of the Kraków suburbs this August prior to a predictable bunch sprint finish, at least the day held one surprising event.
On stages like this, team cars often pick up guests and VIPs to follow the race for a lap, before dropping them off to watch the finish. At one point, the CCC-Sprandi-Polkowice team car discharged its passengers. And rather than the usual set of suits from local businesses, it was Jim Ochowicz, the general manager of the BMC team, who climbed out, with a large smile on his face.
Ochowicz was as surprised to see us as we were to see him, and we did not exchange more than a brief “Good afternoon” before he disappeared into the throng of Polish fans. But given the upcoming takeover by CCC as BMC’s new main sponsor for 2019, it wouldn’t take a genius to work out what Ochowicz had been chinwagging!to the CCC management about. The man behind the wheel of the CCC team car that day was Piotr Wadecki,!CCC’s frontman in the negotiations that preceded the BMC-CCC deal this summer, and now overseeing the logistical operations of the alliance of the ProContinental and WorldTour teams from the Polish side.
For BMC, the attractions of the Polish multi-million-pound shoe and bag-making company saving the team from extinction almost at the last minute are obvious. By early summer, Ochowicz had still failed to secure a sponsorship deal for 2019, and stars like Richie Porte, Rohan Dennis, Tejay van Garderen et al were being linked to other teams.
The press releases from
CCC insist that it is not a fusion, that CCC is taking over as main backer. And this represents the confirmation Polish cycling has collectively arrived at the highest level of the sport. The nation’s riders were a force during the 1970s, riding as amateurs in events like the Peace Race and Olympics, but this represents a breakthrough at professional level. There will also be, it was announced, a development team at Continental level and a women’s squad.
Individually, it also confirms how greatly riders like Micha¯
Kwiatkowski and Rafa¯ Majka have raised public awareness of cycling in Poland. “I know Dariusz Mi¯ek, the owner of CCC, personally and he’s a big cycling fan,” says Kwiatkowski. “It’s a big step forward, they were aiming high for a very long time and now they’ve done it. Let’s hope everything goes right and they have this project for years.”
Apart from Kwiatkowski and Majka, for decades Polish cycling’s international reference points have been the Tour de Pologne, a WorldTour race since 2005, and certain, fleeting moments of glory for past stars like Zenon Jasku¯a, third in the 1993 Tour de France.
INTO THE WORLDTOUR
The CCC cycling team was formed in 2000 as Mat-Ceresit-CCC and it has been using its well-known day-glo orange kit since 2001. In recent years, it has been a stalwart of the ProContinental circuit. The team has also risen briefly as high as cycling’s top tier for a season in 2003 (when the UCI expanded the division to 30 teams), but sank to what was formerly known as division three - the equivalent of the Continental league – in 2004.
CCC have long tried to balance the ambition of running an international programme with being a big fish in a small pond back home, with the emphasis possibly being on the latter. In their three participations in the Giro, their biggest impact was a 12th place in 2003 for Dariusz Baranowski and in 2017 for Jan Hirt. Their only WorldTour win came when Maciej Paterski soloed to victory in the opening stage of the 2015 Volta a Catalunya and then led the race for two days.
Furthermore, CCC’s tendency to sign riders like Davide Rebellin and Stefan Schumacher, whose credibility had been damaged by positive dope tests, gave the Polish team the whiff of a lastchance saloon.
Przegl d Sportowy journalist Kamil Wolnicki, who broke news of the team’s speculative interest in signing Geraint Thomas, says: “There had been talk, in previous seasons, of CCC moving into the WorldTour. But it’s only now, when CCC saw that BMC were going under, that it’s happened. It was a kind of coincidence.
“For Polish cycling, it’s very important. At the moment, there’s very little money in the sport, just a handful of low-key Continental squads.” Rather than signing big names, Wolnicki says CCC’s big investment in the last few years was to create a service course in western Poland and on equipment like a team bus, a policy which will stand them in good stead now it is radically raising its game. (BMC’s service course in Belgium - behind a bike shop owned by Rik Verbrugghe in the small Flemish village of Eke - will remain in use.)
“It’s also really important because young Polish riders have had nowhere national on that level to sign for before. You had to be really, really good to get in any team,” says Wolnicki.
Kwiatkowski agrees. “So many riders are just getting lost in the U23 category and having a Polish team makes it easier for you to be on the radar,” he says. “The pro team scouts don’t come to Poland that often.” He would have liked, he says, such a team to have been around when he was struggling up through the ProContinental ranks at Caja Rural in Spain.
Majka and Kwiatkowski may have helped create unprecedented national interest in cycling, but Wolnicki rejects the idea that Poland is in a similar position to the UK when Mark Cavendish’s success preceded the creation of a first WorldTour team in Sky. In Poland, he says, cycling’s situation is much more precarious.
“In Britain, you had a series of programmes run by the federation to help develop your pros,” he says. “Here, the federation is nearly bankrupt and in serious difficulty, and what training programmes and subsidies riders receive largely come through the Olympic Committee.” Indeed, the federation’s former president, Dariusz Banaszek, resigned this January amid a corruption scandal involving officials in the institution he presided over, though he insisted on his innocence. The federation, in mid-September, was reportedly still lacking money to send a team to the Worlds.
Can CCC help plug the gap? One thing is certain, they won’t do it fast. According to Piotr Wadecki, who has been handling the negotiations over the practical implications, CCC will spend 2019
getting their feet under the table before aiming much higher later.
“The aim is not just to be the top Polish team,” he says. “We also want the top Polish riders. We’ve done the Giro three times in the past, in 2003, 2015 and 2017, but our big dreams are Flanders and Roubaix, as well. And this is a long-term programme, not just for three years.
“We had the idea to switch to the WorldTour before, and we have been first division in the past, but the offer came through from Jim and the decision was made really quickly, in five or six days.”
Wadecki agrees that apart from Greg Van Avermaet, the team will be short on headline riders, following the stage-racer exodus. “The problem was we only got the deal in July. In March, it would have been a different story. But we have Greg, he’s still the reigning Olympic champion and everything is in place for the Classics, and we will surely get a good name at some point for the Tour, because all we need is the leader. With BMC we have the infrastructure for the grand tours - mechanics, directors and so on, some of whom have done the Tour for 15 or 20 years.
“The one piece of good news is that because it’s all happening so late, we don’t have the pressure of other seasons. We can’t be the same as BMC last year; it’s too late. But when the team has a new name and is up and running, we should be able to open some more doors. Kwiatkowski and Majka would be our dream signings. From CCC’s current squad, we’ll hire those riders who can do a WorldTour calendar from January to December, which is maybe six or seven guys.”
The WorldTour team will have an international line-up, while the U23 team will primarily draw on central and eastern Europe. The women’s team also has big ambitions: it will be led by no less a figure than Marianne Vos.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
So the balancing act continues. The team will compete on an international level, while retaining a Polish flavour.
“I see Polish cycling like Polish economics in general,” Wadecki says. “The businesses are growing fast here and we really are getting better. In the 1990s and before, there were some great racers like Zbigniew!Spruch, Jasku¯a, Czes¯aw Lang…but that was over a long period of two decades. Now there’s a whole crop of riders - Lukasz Wisniowski,!Maciej Bodnar, Micha¯ Go¯as - at the same time and we’d like to keep them in a Polish team.” “Cycling in Poland now is a big deal,” says Simon Geschke, one of the 2019 signings. “But back in my day as an amateur when I raced there, there were hardly any guys coming out of there. What’s obvious is that Poland is turning into a really interesting market for cycling. A lot of rich companies are going to want to start sponsoring a team.”
The signs of a well-organised squad were already in place even as early as September, he says, when CCC started to make informal contact with their riders about next year’s planning. That ability to begin planning was one factor that attracted him, Geschke says: “The fact that they are all part of the WorldTour was very reassuring, and looking at BMC it’s a super-professional team. There are a lot of very talented people working there.”
Geschke was so convinced that despite having two other offers on the Tour’s second rest day, he says, he went for CCC.
Kwiatkowski feels that the decision to work with BMC, rather than start from scratch and try to create a new team, was a sage one. And not just on a practical level. “If you started from zero it would cost you a lot more money to sign a contract with the riders. They would ask for more money if it didn’t exist than if you already had a structure in place,” he says.
When we went to press, Patrick Bevin, Alessandro De Marchi and Michael Schär were among those BMC riders who had been retained, while Guillaume Van Keirsbulck and Serge Pauwels were picked up from other teams. “Those are the circumstances,” said Van Avermaet in a recent interview with Cyclingnews. “A sponsor came pretty late, which wasn’t good to build a WorldTour team around, but I think that the Classics team is really strong.”
Kwiatkowski himself is cagey about whether he would consider signing for CCC in the future. “I’m not dreaming about any teams, I’m dreaming about winning races,” he says. “If it would be best to sign for another team, to win the Tour or the Olympics or Worlds, I will go for it. It’s not if that team is Polish, or British or Russian. You have to think about what people do for you and if you want to be there, what other chances you have, the pressure you’d have, stuff like that.
“For your image of course it’s always better to race in your home colours. That would have the biggest impact, but sports-wise? I don’t know. I don’t know how the team will work because it doesn’t fully exist yet.”
The arrival of the CCC team in the WorldTour, in any case, has a few potential drawbacks. Underlying fault lines in the country’s cycling infrastructure, such as the parlous state of the federation, could be overshadowed by the impressive results CCC hopes to garner. It remains unclear, however, what will
happen to those BMC and CCC riders and staff who do not fit into either new project and who have not found alternative employment. There are unconfirmed estimates that around half the CCC staff will join the new team and some will move onto the development squad. “But if they do so in the devo squad, this will surely be for less money than in CCC at the moment,” suggests Wolnicki. Those CCC riders who are not able to join the U23 team or BMC may also be out of a contract.
“So, some guys will be angry,” Wolnicki continues. “But in my opinion this is a normal situation. The team is changing levels and some people won’t fit in.”
Overall, the CCC project looks like a good thing for Polish cycling, and it bucks the trend in some countries of sponsors disappearing from the sport. The team won’t win the Tour or Giro, but they have in Van Avermaet a strong contender in most of the biggest one-day races, a former winner of Paris-Roubaix and a two-time wearer of the Tour’s yellow jersey. Success should lead to a boost in media and public interest and therefore, the theory goes, more participation and greater strength in depth, just as happened with Cavendish and the advent of Sky in the UK.
As for the racing itself, come 2019, CCC should be able to hit the ground running, in the Classics at least. No wonder Ochowicz was smiling when he got out of that CCC team car.
Maciej Paterski wins stage 1 of the 2015 Volta a Catalunya for CCC
Davide Rebellin, then aged 44, won the 2015 Coppa Agostoni from Nibali
CCC DSPiotr Wadecki is managing the BMC# CCC transition
CCC’s best chance of a big win in 2019 is probably Greg Van Avermaet
Tour stage winner Simon Geschke is one of CCC’s headline signings
Former world champion Marianne Vos will lead the CCC women’s team
Michael Schär is one of the BMC riders who will continue with CCC
Czech rider Jan Hirt came 12th in the 2017 Giro d’Italia while riding for CCC