ProTour outfit's 2010 season starts with challenge of recruiting new sponsor...

It may be another fortnight before the new ProTour season starts with the Tour Down Under, but Team Saxo Bank’s 2010 has got off to the worst possible start with the news that the Danish Bank is terminating its sponsorship of Bjarne Riis’s outfit at the end of this year, 12 months earlier than originally agreed.

The blow comes a little over a year after a separate deal to bring on board a co-sponsor to Saxo Bank had fallen apart, reportedly leaving officials of the bank unhappy at it being left as sole title sponsor of the team.

Saxo Bank began sponsoring the team in 2008, and during that year was its co-sponsor alongside US-based IT business CSC, which ended its association with the outfit at the conclusion of that season.

A Danish company, IT Factory, had been lined up to replace CSC, but that deal was left in tatters in December 2008 when the company filed for bankruptcy following the discovery of fraudulent dealings by its founder and CEO, Stein Bagger. 

The team is owned by Bjarne Riis, winner of the Tour de France in 1996 – although the Dane subsequently confessed to using performance enhancing substances such as EPO at the time – through his company, Riis Cycling, which now faces the challenge of recruiting a replacement sponsor as soon as possible, particularly since the more time elapses before one is found, the greater the prospect of the team’s star names beginning to explore other avenues for 2011 and beyond.

The IT Factory debacle aside, finding his team without a sponsor is not an unusual situation for Riis, who was one of the original backers in 1998 of its predecessor, Team Home-Jack & Jones, which he bought outright in 2000. Home withdrew its sponsorship in 1999 following the ban for doping of team member Marc Steels, and CSC came on board as a sponsor in 2001, initially as CSC-World Online, then CSC-Tiscali, before bcoming sole sponsor in 2003.

Riis is confident, however, that a new sponsor will be found, saying: “We have already started the process of finding a new title sponsor for the coming years. We have one of the strongest teams in the world that includes some of our sport's biggest profiles. The experiences and challenges of the last two years have prepared our company for this challenge. We are better organized and positioned to handle this challenge now, than ever before. We are convinced that there are companies that can benefit from what we have to offer and we are excited to explore the possibilities,” added the Dane.

Officially, Saxo Bank says that its sponsorship of the team has been been a “great branding opportunity and increased our name recognition around the world,” but adds that it “has not been ideal in reaching our narrow target group,” and as a result, from next year, it will reallocate its marketing budget. It also says that it believes that a sponsor with a broader profile will achieve much more from sponsoring the cycling team.”

Certainly, Saxo Bank can’t complain that it suffered from lack of TV or press coverage during its first two years’ sponsorship of the team, initially as co-sponsor with IT systems provider CSC, and in 2009 as sole sponsor.

The Spanish rider, Carlos Sastre, won the Tour de France in CSC-Saxo Bank colours in 2008, and the Schleck brothers and Fabian Cancellara figured prominently in last year’s edition of cycling’s flagship event, including the Swiss rider spending five days in the yellow jersey and Andy Schleck retaining the young riders’ classification and finishing second overall on the podium in Paris.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.