Jean-Rene Bernaudeau, the team manager for Europcar, always seems to pull rabbits out of a hat — or lapins out of a chapeau if you’re keeping it French.
The fact is, JR has pretty skilled at pulling in sponsors at the last minute and convincing riders not to jump ship until he does.
The last time around it was the loss of lead sponsor B-Box Bouygues Telecom in late 2010. Bernaudeau had enough charisma and conviction to induce his star rider Thomas Voeckler to stick with him until the final seconds. When the sky started turning black and JR was down to his last euro, he miraculously brought in Europcar.
Voeckler promptly rewarded his boss with a magical Tour de France in 2011, wearing the maillot jaune for 10 days and thrilling France with his podium fight. The favorite of the French housewives finished 4th overall and Europcar couldn’t have been happier.
Now the news is that Bernaudeau is again on the sponsor hunt because he’s unsure what Europcar’s plans are beyond 2013. The deal is, it’s not simply to keep the team in existence but to keep it competitive with the Skys and BMCs of the peloton.
“I need a bigger budget, not to be part of the WorldTour but to pay my riders what they deserve after their success. I want to give a rider like Gaudin the technical support he needs such as a mental coach,” said JR.
Basically, he’s saying he needs more money so his good young riders aren’t swiped way from Sky because they have the resources to develop them. He’s got Voeckler and Pierre Rolland but holding together a squad when Sky can offer a rider twice the paycheck and three times the resources is a tough gig even for the persuasive Bernaudeau.
It’s just another reminder of what Garmin-Sharp’s Jonathan Vaughters has been saying for ages: the financial structure of pro cycling is a disaster. That’s not just in terms of stability but also the shifting competitive landscape.
There’s a sizable group of people who will claim that Sky essentially bought a Tour de France by giving Bradley Wiggins a set of high priced climbers that nobody else could afford. A team that made a mantra of “marginal gains” went more than marginal when it came to spending euros. They opened the checkbook — one that’s three times the size of Europcar — and purchased a powerhouse squad.
In a one day race, luck is a significant factor and smaller teams — read smaller budgets — can still deliver a big win. (Sky and BMC haven’t figured out yet how to spend their way to a classic.) However, it’s in the stage racing where the budget really separates the haves from the have nots.
In the short term, a Voeckler or a Rolland can win a stage but over time the quality of the back-up band goes downhill and you have no new talent coming up that you can afford to keep. You can swap out the name Europcar for Euskatel or AG2R Mondiale.
Smart teams like Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin-Sharp squad have been keeping up with the rich by out-thinking them. However, now teams like Sky and BMC have caught up and even surpassed the Argyle Army.
The irony is that talent is the easy part. It’s supporting and developing and keeping the talent that’s the difficult challenge. “We have the ideas but we don’t have the funding. It’s obvious that the boss of Sky could make him [Gaudin] win Paris-Roubaix before I can. We’ve got the competence but not the rest,” said Bernaudeau. “It costs 200,000 to take 10 riders to the wind tunnel. It’s necessary. But it’s costly.”
Twisted Spoke hopes JR can pull another lapin out of the chapeau. Bob Stapleton couldn’t do it with Columbia-HTC but Bernaudeau has proven himself a tres resourceful guy.