Comment: The Leopards pounce

Team Leopard-Trek has been launched, and, we’re promised, it’s different. But is it?

Words by Edward Pickering

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Team Leopard was finally launched yesterday in Luxembourg. A project which started with a mass exodus from the Saxo Bank team in 2010 was presented as cycling’s version of the Promised Land. It was a slick, well-organised extravaganza, which had the fingerprints of Saxo Bank’s former PR officer and now Leopard team manager Brian Nygaard, all over it.

I’ve been to many team launches, and while the organisers think they are different, they are actually pretty much the same. The riders look bored and self-conscious during the presentation, the management promise us this team is different, and the riders inform us that the atmosphere is the best they’ve ever experienced, and – hold the presses – they are looking forward to winning some bike races. Leopard might have had some pretty impressive bells and whistles – acrobats and circus performers were part of the show, but the subtext was no different from any other presentation: Here is our bike team. We want to win races.

But there’s more. “True Racing” is what Leopard is all about, we have been told. Nygaard was reported as claiming that Leopard would aim for a “fresh, innovative style, [taking] cycling back to its proper roots,” although I don’t know if anybody present at the launch thought to ask him what all this actually meant. It wouldn’t be the first time meaningless guff had been volunteered at a team launch.

“It’s all about the racing,” Nygaard concluded.

Not a pedal has yet been turned in anger in the 2011 season, but Leopard already look like the biggest thing in cycling. They top the UCI’s team rankings, worked out using an obscure algorithm behind closed doors in Aigle, despite not having raced yet – their riders, including Fabian Cancellara and the Schlecks, take points from previous seasons across to Leopard with them. They’re apparently bankrolled by a passionate fan who has deep pockets – Flavio Becca, a Luxembourg-based businessman is paying for Leopard to operate for at least four years.

What’s more, it would be foolish to assume that Leopard will endure teething troubles. In Cancellara they have the rider of 2010 – an almost-guaranteed Classics winner. Andy and Frank Schleck provide the most potent mountain climbing double act in cycling – even if Alberto Contador somehow avoids a sanction for his positive Clenbuterol test, he might not be confident of beating them at the Tour.

Other brand new superteams in the past have misfired, like Sky last year, or Katusha before them. Sky deliberately didn’t take more than a certain number of riders from any one team, in order to avoid cliques. While this might work in their favour in the long term, it didn’t make last season easy for them, because it takes a long time for a new team to gel. Leopard are essentially Saxo Bank in disguise – their core has forged team spirit together through numerous boot camps under Bjarne Riis. This might result in the old Saxo riders dominating within the team, or it might not, but nobody can doubt those riders’ solidarity.

In short, Leopard look formidable, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t win some big races this year. There’ll be exciting victories as well – every time Fabian Cancellara gets on his bike, you sense something is going to happen. And while Andy Schleck took some criticism for a passive style at the Tour de France, he was hamstrung by the early departure from the race of his brother Frank. It will be a different story this year.

But they’ve made it quite clear that they are not just about winning races. They are laying claim to the spirit of the sport. Nygaard said “I think there’s a lot of bullshit in cycling. You see very little racing and a lot of arguing, debate and politics. I’d like this team to take cycling back to its roots, back to racing.”

Nygaard himself, of course, was involved with some of cycling’s biggest bullshit in the past decade, having managed the PR for both the Bjarne Riis EPO confession and Ivan Basso’s involvement in Operacion Puerto. Let’s hope he means what he says when Leopard will have zero tolerance of doping. “No grey areas,” he stated baldly.

Some people’s grey areas are different from others, but I’ve still got bad memories of the wholly unsatisfactory explanation given by Leopard rider Frank Schleck about the 7,000 euro payment he made to Eufemiano Fuentes in 2006. Fuentes, you’ll recall, was the doctor at the centre of Operacion Puerto.

Another grey area is the hiring of Kim Andersen as a directeur sportif. Andersen tested positive when he was a rider, in 1987. Then he tested positive again in 1992. Does a leopard change its spots? I’m generally in favour of riders being allowed to come back into the sport, with the proviso that they face up to the responsibility of making a big contribution to clean sport. Andersen, as far as I can see, got banned, came back, and got banned again – I’d say he learned little from his ban. I look forward to seeing convincing evidence that he is now a proponent of clean and ethical sport, but he’s one of many symbols of cycling’s continuing inability to come to terms with its tainted past.

In a few weeks’ time, the racing will have begun, and it will be seen that Leopard are just another cycling team. A strong and ambitious one, granted, and probably a successful one, but just another team among the others. Sky boss Dave Brailsford might warn Nygaard against making big claims about just how innovative his team is, first because it seems to rub up every other team, who take it as a perceived slight, and second, because it’s probably not.

The PR around Leopard is formidable – no surprise given Nygaard’s background, and it’s almost watertight – few details leaked out before yesterday. In my experience, the more obsessive organisations are about PR, the more paranoid they are. Secondly, without a lead headline sponsor, they don’t have to worry about representing a brand, they’re free to dictate their own agenda. In Leopard’s favour, however, they have hired some of the most approachable and quotable riders in the bunch. No PR manager in the world can stop Jens Voigt from giving funny, insightful quotes every time a Dictaphone is pointed at his face.

I’m looking forward to watching Leopard-Trek racing. I’m not looking forward to the brand awareness campaign. And I’d like to see a transparent attitude to anti-doping.