Tinkoff and IAM Cycling will leave the WorldTour at the end of 2016, but who will be the ones to replace them next season?
Oleg Tinkov is walking away from cycling after five seasons of being a headline sponsor through his Tinkoff bank, stating that nobody within the sport wants to work with him in changing cycling for the better.
After all these years, Tinkov feels he’s gained maximum coverage for his Tinkoff bank and other business ventures and so there’s no reason for him to plough vast sums of money into the sport.
IAM Cycling, however, have been forced to fold by the lack of co-sponsor, meaning 2016 will be their fourth and final in professional cycling.
Not only do their departures mean there are two licences that need filling at the top level, there are also 54 cyclists who will be looking for new teams come the 2017 season.
Here we look at the key players in the battle to snaffle the WorldTour spots for next year, and just who could be riding for them if they do.
Bjarne Riis’s new venture
It’s not got a name, it’s not definitely got a big sponsor, and it hasn’t yet got any riders, but there’s no secret in the fact that Bjarne Riis is plotting a return to the WorldTour and this seems the perfect time to do so.
Riis has teamed up with long-time supporter of cycling Lars Seier Christensen, the co-founder of Saxo Bank, and although the aim of building a top-level professional cycling team has not officially been announced, there’s no doubt that’s what the intention is.
Riis and Seier Christensen appointed former Tinkoff-Saxo rider Michael Rogers as the CEO of the project following his retirement from the sport, which could act as a catalyst for several riders to sign up.
Using all of their connections in the Tinkoff team, Riis and Rogers could tap up quite a few of the current squad to move across – especially Michael Valgren and Jesper Hansen to appeal to the Danish market.
Contador would want to bring some of his own men with him wherever he goes – notably Jesus Hernandez – and if it means having a competitive team for the Tour there’s no doubting that Riis will be perfectly happy with that.
Secrets of the toolbox: Tinkoff
While IAM Cycling are dropping out because of a lack of money, that’s absolutely not the problem for the proposed Bahrain team, headed up by royal prince Nasser Bin Hamad Al Khalifa.
Al Khalifa’s problem may be where to spend all his money, with rumours that Vincenzo Nibali is top of his priority list for next season.
With Fabio Aru coming through as a Grand Tour champion, Astana won’t be desperate to hang on to Nibali next season and the Bahrain project will surely tempt the Italian, given his friendship with the royal prince.
There were rumours that the Riis/Seier project could team up with Al Khalifa but that now looks unlikely with more than one licence available for next year.
A Pro Continental team stepping up
Unlike in recent years, there aren’t an abundance of Pro Continental teams with their eyes on the big stage or with a realistic chance of being given a WorldTour licence.
IAM Cycling moved up to the top tier in 2015 and Dimension Data (formerly MTN-Qhubeka) moved up ahead of the current season.
But looking at the current crop of Pro Continental teams, there’s no-one that stands out as a potential promotion chaser.
Of the four French teams – Cofidis, Delko Marseille Provence KTM, Direct Energie and Fortuneo-Vital Concept – only Direct Energie are really likely to be considered, having been a WorldTour team in the past. But then their history of holding down a sponsor could work against them.
And in any case, being French-registered pretty much guarantees three of them entry to the Tour de France as wildcards, so the lure of the WorldTour may not be so strong.
The same could be said of the Italian teams getting into the Giro d’Italia and Caja Rural getting into the Vuelta a España. The finances required to be a WorldTour team probably outweigh the benefits for the rest of the season.
One Pro Cycling would love to be a WorldTour team, but moving from the lowest tier to the highest in three seasons would be a huge ask, while Australian team Drapac are rumoured to be merging with Cannondale.
Bora-Argon 18 are the most likely to put in an application, especially with the Tour de France starting in Germany next season.