The end of the Olympic cycle is always a worrying time for women's cycling, as 2009 saw a swathe of races and teams shut after their Olympic success, but this isn't something I saw coming - Wielerland.nl reports that Team AA Drink-Leontien.nl has announced that is will close at the end of the 2012 season.
The team is run by Michael Zijlaard and his wife, the Dutch cycling superstar, Leontien van Moorsel. Van Moorsel is a multiple World and Olympic champion, a total superstar, who has done a huge amount of work for women's cycling in the Netherlands, and Zijlaard has been involved with women's teams for the past fifteen years.
The problem seems to be with sponsorship - AA Drink, who make energy and sports drinks, won't be renewing their support for 2013. This isn't the first time this has happened, and there's an Olympic link here, as AA Drink pulled their sponsorship after the 2008 season. That time, the team survived, as in one of the most creative and inspirational approaches from a team, they carried on in the name Leontien.nl, using Van Moorsel's personal brand and business as the title sponsor for 2009 and 2010. It worked really well, and when AA Drink came back on board in 2011, it looked triumphant.
The team had always had a Dutch focus, and in 2011 it was built around sprint star Kirsten Wild, supporting her track and road ambitions, with the young Dutch GC/Classics riders of the future, Chantal Blaak and Lucinda Brand learning their craft. This changed somewhat this season, when the team rescued a lot of the riders who were left without a team after Garmin-Cervélo decided to stop their women's programme very late in 2011 - this brought a GC side on board, headed by Emma Pooley, who came second in the Giro Donne for the team, and Lizzie Armitstead, who has had a fabulous season, culminating in winning silver in the Olympic Road Race.
The biggest shock of the story - which admittedly is just bare bones at the moment - is that Zijlaard and Van Moorsel have decided not to seek alternative sources of sponsorship to continue the team. I can't blame them for that - it must be exhausting, having to go through this cycle over and over again.
It's much better for the riders than it could have been, because at least this has been announced early - with lots of chances in the last three World Cups for their riders to demonstrate how they'll be an asset to any team. However, the big problem remains - how the four-year Olympic cycle just doesn't help women's cycling, and the fact that there seems to be no leadership from the UCI, or plans to help stabilise, let alone grow, the women's side of the sport. The post-Olympic troubles are something that fans and commentators have been predicting and worrying about, and it is frustrating that the UCI apparently haven't planned for this.
There will doubtless be more information about this over the coming weeks - check the comments for updates and more information.
Personally, I am hoping for the best for all the riders and staff - and I'm very, very grateful to Zijlaard and Van Moorsel for all they've done for women's cycling over the years. I appreciate their hard work, personally and professionally - it's just sad the team has to end like this.