Whatever happenned to the Leopard dream? Part One

As the RadioShack-Leopard experiment lurches on putting every foot on a mine, we look back at what on Earth happenned.

2010 was the year of the Tiger in the Chinese Zodiac. Whether that was a sign that big cat named teams would have success the next year is increasingly looking to be false. The Leopard ‘Luxembourg Cycling Project’ is hobbling from one problem to the next in what would appear to be a perfect exemplar of everything that can possibly go wrong for a team. And it had all started so well.

March 2010 had heard the first rumblings of the team, which was quickly found to be being fuded by Flavio Becca, a wealthy Luxembourg buisnessman who would ensure 4 years of financial stability for the team, with a sponsor of secondary importance to the billionaire. The team, quickly confirmed to be fronted by the duo of Andy and Frank Schleck, was to be built on national identity, and would deliver the counties hopes to Tour de France glory whilst Becca ensured that the swings and dips of the economy did not batter the shores of his new toy.

Flavio Becca

Things turned even more promising with the news that the new team, still nameless, would be pillaging SaxoBank for it’s talent and back room staff, taking its best and brightest to turn what was already probably the most successful team bar HTC and concentrating it into an even stronger apparatus. Kim Anderson, Bryan Nygaard and the jewel in the Saxo crown, the defending Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders champion Fabian Cancellara also came across to not only make SaxoBank look rather threadbare once Contador saw his positive test, but also make the Luxembourg team look increasingly strong.

But this was somewhat of an illusion. Cancellara’s classic support was somewhat lacking – O’Grady the only true powerhouse to support him, the rest being young riders like Wouter Weylandt and Dominic Klemme. Even the mountains support looked a little weaker once the overwhelming hype was pushed aside – whilst Jacob Fugslang was a promising rider, he was just that – promising, while Linus Gerderman seemed to increase his worth in everyones head purely because he had joined the team, seemingly dining for a little too long on his stage win and day in yellow from 2007. Some outlets even called the team ‘what you’d get if you had to pick your perfect fantasy cycling team’ – an odd statment for a team that included Daniele Bennati, who had lost the zipp that carried him to the Giro points jersey and two Tour stages a few years earlier, as it’s top sprinter. Unfortunately, it was what was going on behind the scenes that was causing more problems for the team.

For bankroller Becca was somewhat confusingly looking for a title sponsor, despite having offerred a personal guarentee to fund the team for 4 years, as required in the ProTeam application. Becca supposedly wanted a big offer rather then the small offers he had from (apparently) Belgacom to go along side the few million Euros he got from Trek and Mercedes-Benz. Unfortunately, such an offer was not avaliable, and so the team, formed in just six months, hap to register the buisness name of Nygaard’s company, Leopard, with the UCI, although Nygaard denied the team would be called Leopard.

And he was correct. On the most tenuous of technicalities. Leopard would be Leopard-Trek, and the Leopard would be pronounced Lay-oh-pard, as a odd team press release instructing the media to always write the team names in upper case asked rather pretentiously.  At least the kit was well received, although there was a sense of dissapointment that a spotty kit to match their name wasn’t to be used. So with a glossy launch, the team was away, and hoping that the results on the road would relegate the odd backroom negotioations away from the thoughts of many. With a ‘true racing’ tag line, a strong line up, and classy kit, what could go wrong?

Chavanel and Nuyens beat Cancellara after a 60km break and final attack failed.

Expectations unfortunately got the better of everyone, mainly Becca. Fabian Cancellara destroyed the field at E3, was pipped to Milan San-Remo, then had the Ronde nicked off him by SaxoBanks Nick Nuyens in a result that must have made Riis extremely happy. A second place in Paris Roubaix was another strong result, but ultimately, not enough for Becca. Despite what for another team would be a glorious spring, Becca was unhappym to the extent that he ordered the 7th placing Team time trial team at Tirreno-Adriatico team (yes, that was March, pre-flanders/roubaix) to take the train home as punishment for losing. It was apparent that management had little idea how a cycling team was meant to run.

Cancellara found himself marked out of Roubaix by Garmins tactics.

The teams first Grand Tour was poor before it even began – Daniele Bennati broke his collar bone in the Tour of Romandie and had to withdraw, taking the teams best chance of a stage win with them. He was replaced with Brice Feillu, an ex-Tour stage winner, and so the team went in search of glory.

This all tragicaly fell apart on the Stage Three descent of the Passo del Bocco, a name that will forever be burnt into the minds of anyone watching on TV that day. The sight of a bloodied and stricken rider, motionless in the road, was intensly distubring. It was 26 year old Wouter Weylandt. Weylandt had crashed after clipping a a stone wall at some considerable speed – had he survived, his lower leg would probably have required amputation – but the damage had been immense and thanfully, so to speak, Weylandt had not sufferred and had died instantly. After the most emotional piece of sporting symbolism the next day, as the team crossed the line arm in arm, with Weylandt’s dear friend Tyler Farrar taking his place in the Leopard line and breaking down in sobs as he did so, the team withdrew from the race.

Of course, Weylandt’s death took a terrible toll on the team. They regrouped at the Tour, sporting caps and wristbands with ‘WW #108’ emblazoned on them, and set about in their aim to take the Tour. Unfortunately, the backroom meddling seemed to have transferred to the team. The team time trial was an odd scene, with Fabian Cancellara leading the team most of the way, and Joost Posthuma, supposedly included for his strength in the event, being dropped early on. The Schlecks didn’t even take a turn and simply sat at the back of the line – ‘resting’, we were told. The team then set about with a very odd tactic of setting a very high pace in the mountains on the second to last climb, which meant that by the time they came to the final climb…they had no riders left, and the Schlecks were isolated. As Evans, Sanchez and Contador danced away up and down hill, the ‘True Racing’ moniker was beginning to look a bit hollow.

Schleck takes the Galbier stage.

Stage 18 was the high point though, probably of the whole teams two year existance. A well executed plan on glorious scenery around famous climbs catapulted Schleck back up the standings, and enabled him to take yellow the next day. However, the team was still to lose, recording yet another second place. Even 2nd and 3rd was not good enough, and somewhere, Becca made a call to Johan Brunyeel.

Two Leopard’s on the podium, but the wrong places…

We’ll never really know what was going on in Becca’s mind, but  apparently he now required a naming sponsor, and rumours of his own financial problems began to circle. At the Vuelta, the team was having problems finishing things off as well – having won the TTT (no train home this time), it took till stage 20 to finally get Bennati to a stage win, after one sprint ended with his leadout man going the wrong way and off course. Like many incidents on Leopard, it appeared a fitting metaphor for how the team was doing. Even when the team finally did win a monument with Oliver Zaugg, his first pro win, the reaction was indifferent.

Oliver Zaugg takes Il Lombardia as we have to call it now.

By the end of season, it was clear that Bruyneel was coming to Leopard, which gave optimism when faced with a Tour route with 100km of Time trialling to face for the Schlecks. But confusion reigned over what exactly was happenning – the team was to be called RadioShack-Nissan-Trek, and surely that meant that Leopard was disintegrating and moving to RadioSchack? Apparently not, Supposedly the ‘merger’ was more a takeover of Leopard by Bruyneel and a title sponsor. Of course, half the teams had be to moved on, as did the sponsors – Mercedes in particular expressed suprise in suddenly being moved on and replaced by Nissan. The team that was a consolidation of the strongest part of SaxoBank was thus now a distillation of RadioShack and Leopard. God knows what Fabian Cancellara, who claimed he left SaxoBank as Riis couldn’t guarentee stability given SaxoBank claimed they were ending their sponsorship at the end of 2010 (Only for Riis to announce a new sponsor…SaxoBank), must have thought as the team rocked and rolled around him.

Still, the team now looked much stronger. The Schlecks, Kloden, Horner, Popovych, Fuglsang, Monfort, Machado and Gerderman comined with strong workhorses Rast, Voigt, Bennati and co looked like a strong combination to catapult Cancellara back to Monument success and the Schlecks to Grand Tour glory. And it surely couldn’t get any worse…could it?

To be continued…

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