Team Leopard-Trek’s glitzy launch in Luxembourg yesterday evening showcased the stars including the Schleck brothers and Fabian Cancellara that make the outfit the most talked about squad in the run-up to the 2011 season beginning, but one key figure kept a low profile throughout as Bryan Nygaard’s squad were introduced to the world.
That man was the main backer of the Luxembourg Pro Cycling Project, as it was known until yesterday, 48-year-old Flavio Becca, whose parents emigrated to Luxembourg from Italy in 1954, his father setting up a building company that has grown into a family business nowadays spanning food and property.
Team Leopard-Trek isn’t Becca’s first venture into the sporting world – he’s chairman of football team F91 Dudelange, which has won the national championship eight times in the past 11 seasons, and has also been involved in motorcycling.
It’s with Leopard-Trek, however, that the businessman, rumoured to be investing €15 million in the project, really announces his arrival on the international sporting scene, with the results achieved by its riders with their previous squads meaning that it sits on top of the UCI World Rankings even before a pedal is turned in competition.
Speaking to La Gazzetta dello Sport in an interview that appears in today’s print edition of the Italian sports daily, Becca reveals that perhaps appropriately for a team that takes its name from one of Africa’s Big Five safari animals, his involvement with the project arose as a result of his love of hunting.
“I’m friends with the Schleck brothers and their father. We share a great passion for hunting,” he explains. “It was them who suggested to me to set up this structure and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity.”
Becca insists that his attraction to the sport wasn’t just born from his friendship with the Schlecks, however, pointing out that as a teenager in 1978, he rode from Luxembourg to Germany to watch his hero, Francesco Moser, miss out by inches on claiming the World Championship, the Italian’s loss to Dutchman Gerrie Knettemann leaving the youngster in tears.
Another attraction of cycling to Becca is his belief that it is an easily accessible activity. “Anyone can participate in it, tall and short, young and old; a family can take part together; you can do it with the same equipment, the same clothing and on the same roads as the champions.”
Ultimately, it’s his early passion for the sport that has caused Becca to give his backing to the project. “My heart led to me doing something for Luxembourg that wasn’t just about business and finance,” he maintains. “But this is also a team that has deep Italian roots,” he adds. “The number one in his field, Luca Guercilena [trainer and directeur sportif] is Italian and he’s ours.”
Becca outlines the process that culminated in last night’s showpiece launch in Luxembourg, broadcast live on national TV. “The first practical step was speaking during the Tour of Switzerland with Kim Andersen, who is now our team manager.”
At the time, Andersen was directeur sportif at Bjarne Riis’s Saxo Bank, which of course would also furnish the new team with its star riders.
“I wanted him, and I asked him to inform Riis to explain the situation to him,” adds Becca. “Andersen was honest and so it hurt me to hear the lie that Riis had sacked him.”
Becca is aware that the sport is not without its issues at the moment. “There are two problems to combat,” he explains. “The first is doping, but you can’t do any more than is being done at the moment.
“Also, justice is not functioning well – how is it possible that we still don’t know who has won the 2010 Tour de France,” he says, a reference to the continuing investigation into Alberto Contador that may yet see Team Leopard-Trek’s own Andy Schleck named winner of last year’s race.
“The second,” he continues, “is the lack of professionalism with which some squads are managed,” and although Becca doesn’t name names, given his earlier comments about Riis, it’s likely that Saxo Bank may be one of the outfits he’s thinking about.
As for his goal for 2011, Becca is clear about the race he’d most like to win, and he certainly has a rider equipped to do so in the shape of the man who won it last year, Fabian Cancellara. “Paris-Roubaix,” he says, “because until the last metre you never know how it is going to finish. I think with Cancellara, we’re well sorted. But we’ll be competitive in all races.”
Finally, the businessman reveals his own recipe for success. “Hard work. I start at 7am and finish at 11pm. I’m precise, meticulous. They say that working with me isn’t easy because I want to know everything. Nothing comes out of here without passing under my gaze.”
If that sets the benchmark for how Becca expects the team to start repaying his investment, we’re guessing that 2011 is unlikely to see Andy Schleck and Stuart O’Grady slip out for a few beers of an evening mid-Grand Tour, as happened during September’s Vuelta, leading to their being sent home by Saxo Bank.
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.