F-1 racer and cycling fan Fernando Alonso confirmed today that he has ended any initiative to take over ownership of the Euskaltel-Euskadi Basque Cycling Project, which all but confirms the demise of the iconic team. According to AS.com, Alonso had agreed to a deal whereby he would take over 14 existing rider contracts, but balked at taking the old Euskaltel management team as well as assuming sponsorship deals with Orbea (for bikes) and Bioracer (clothing). Thus, the agreement in principle struck between the team and the driver on August 31 will now come to nothing.
One effect this announcement has is the opening of a spot on the World Tour for 2014. With two teams exiting the sport (Vacansoleil too) and the current WT oversubscribed by one, thanks to the beautifully-handled (cough) Katusha saga, that leaves 17 current teams set to roll over into the next season. Assuming the re-elected Pat McQuaid doesn't attempt another random sacking, just to keep the kids in line. And assuming Radioshack-Trek make a smooth transition to their new Shackless selves.
The beneficiary is almost certainly IAM Cycling, who have made little effort to mask their ambitions, and have done enough on the transfer market to be taken seriously. Their main coups are Mathias Frank, the erstwhile stage racer late of BMC, and Sylvain Chavanel, finally ready to strike out on his own. That alone may not turn the current squad (feat. Lofkvist, Larsson, Haussler) into major players but, along with their current performance, is likely to get their ticket punched. They rank second to Europcar on the Europe Tour, and I'm assuming Yurp still like where they are. Behind IAM, teams like MTN-Qhubeka, CCC Polsat,
Sojasun, Cofidis and Net-App seem interesting enough to warrant consideration, but if the transfer rumors are to be believed, those teams are all standing pat. Cofidis I could maybe see, but when you're a strong French team, you don't need the World Tour (and all its expensive trappings) to get you into the Tour de France. So by default, IAM should get invoted to take up Euskaltel's starts in places like the Tour of Beijing and the Giro d'Italia next year. Courage!
Next up, Alonso pledged to start his own team for 2015. He apparently asked the UCI if he could build a team from scratch for 2014, and was told, sure, but not at the World Tour level. Alonso said he didn't want to sign up sponsors for 2014 only to be turned down for the World Tour and the Tour de France, so it made sense to take another year and plan more thoroughly. With the license likely going elsewhere, a well-funded Alonso team would have to compete for any openings in 2015, unless for some reason neither IAM nor anyone else steps up to take the license in 2014.
I have to say, the idea that Euskaltel would insist that Alonso take over their dead-wood management as a condition of rescuing the team is kind of appalling. Now, fourteen rider contracts have just gone into limbo, and the jobs that would have been created by Team Alonso, quite possibly picking up experienced staff from the old Euskaltel organization, won't exist, at least for another year. Perhaps there are reasons not apparent to the naked eye, but if Euskaltel management ransomed the team's rescue to save their own fat salaries, then they deserve some scorn. Perhaps, though, it's not so simple.
In the end, Alonso seems determined to create a team in Asturias, out from under Euskadi tax laws and otherwise in the image of the owner, a native of Oviedo. He's constantly linked to Samuel Sanchez and Alberto Contador, and perhaps the delay will see Contador head to the 2015 Alonso squad. He has former ONCE rider Kiko Garcia as his manager. They'll be a cinch for a Vuelta invite, at a minimum. By then, Samu might be prepping for his DS career, since he'll be 38 that year, but it's always nice to have a DS on the road, and anyway Chris Horner showed that age isn't such a barrier to performance anymore.
I'll save the Euskaltel tributes for the end of the season. It's been a good run, but at the end they seem like a team ready for the end. Six wins was all they could muster this year, as the project supposedly turned toward a more international bent. For a publicly-funded project, results and enthusiasm mean a lot, and that was sorely lacking in their last go-round.