UPDATED: Leopard Trek has confirmed the substance, if not the practiclities, of reports in French sports daily L’Equipe this morning that it is to merge with fellow ProTeam, RadioShack. L'Equipe had reported that Leopard Trek would cease to exist at the end of this season; instead, according to a press release this evening from the team, it will continue but bring RadioShack and Nissan, the existing sponsors of the US team, on board as its own sponsors. The merged team will be based in Luxembourg, and Leopard will continue to hokd the UCI ProTeam licence.
In a statement released this evening, the team said: "Leopard announces that RadioShack and Nissan are joining the Leopard-Trek World Tour Team as sponsors for the 2012 and 2013 seasons. Leopard will continue to hold its existing UCI World Tour License. The team will be rebranded as RadioShack-Nissan- Trek Professional Cycling Team as of next year."
Team Leopard owner Flavio Becca said: “As we stated in January, 2011 would be our apprentice-year. We intend to improve upon our results. In modern cycling you cannot move forward without strong sponsors. It is in this respect that today is a further milestone in the development of this exciting young project, which has gained the trust of two well-established players in the world of professional cycling. I continue to believe in the bright future of our athletes and have high expectations for the performance of this team. This is a major strategic move for all partners involved.”
The team says that it will be led by existing Leopard Trek riders Fabian Cancellara and Andy and Fränk Schleck, and confirmed in the new line-up are the RadioShack riders Chris Horner, Andreas Klöden, Matthew Busche, Jani Brajkovic, Nelson Oliveira and Robert Wagner.
It added that "The final line-up will be announced in due time."
Leopard Trek had denied rumours of a merger with RadioShack last week, but today L’Equipe insisted that Becca, the Italian businessman based in Luxembourg who has bankrolled what began life as the Luxembourg Pro Cycling Project, would announce at the end of this month that the team, launched earlier this year to huge fanfare, would be dissolved.
While L'Equipe was correct about the merger, it's RadioShack that is effectively disappearing as an sporting entity. L'Equipe added that Becca would continue to back the merged team, but at half the level of investment that he has put this year into Leopard Trek, which despite its host of star names seemed unable to attract a high-profile headline sponsor.
Although it is the number one team in the UCI WorldTour Ranking, Leopard-Trek’s debut season has been one of near misses in the big races it targeted. Fabian Cancellara was second in both Milan-San Remo and Paris Roubaix, and third in the Tour of Flanders. Andy Schleck finished second, and Frank third, to Cadel Evans in the Tour de France.
The team’s Giro d’Italia was cut short in May following the tragic death on Stage 3 of Wouter Weylandt, whose girlfriend Sophie De Graeve's last week gave birth to the couple’s child, a daughter named Alizée.
According to L’Equipe, 11 riders under contract to Leopard Trek for 2012 have already been told that they will have to find a new team, including Brice Feillu and Fabian Wegmann.
The team’s manager, Bryan Nygaard, who was previously head of communication at Saxo Bank before moving briefly to Team Sky in a similar capacity, is reported to be set to return to his former role with another new team, the Australian outfit, GreenEdge.
RadioShack’s Levi Leipheimer has already been confirmed as heading to Omega Pharma-Quick Step for next season.
It had been rumoured earlier this year that RadioShack itself was due to disappear from the peloton at the end of this season, but in June the electricals retailer whose name it bears signed a two-year contract to continue its sponsorship until 2013.
That sponsorship does however raise one question regarding the influx of European talent to the team; led by Lance Armstrong when it made its debut last year, with Leipheimer and the 39-year-old Chris Horner also proven performers in stage races, where will the attraction in backing the team lie now for a sponsor that does not operate stores outside the United States and Mexico?
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.