The Cannondale-Drapac cycling team has been operating on a shoestring budget. It just won a Tour de France stage with its only million-dollar rider.
CHAMBÉRY, France — If you don't have a lot, make do with what you've you got.
That's how the American pro cycling team Cannondale-Drapac has been operating for years on its shoestring budget.
Its manager, Jonathan Vaughters, has had to lead his top-level team with what he's referred to as a "Moneyball" strategy, in reference to the baseball bestseller. His organization has an annual budget of about $15 million, about one-third of defending Tour de France champion Chris Froome's Team Sky. That's meant he's had to find undervalued riders who have untapped potential, and who he can afford to sign.
Cannondale-Drapac's top rider, Rigoberto Urán, the team's only million-dollar athlete, won the Tour's biggest stage here on stage nine, and the Colombian climbing ace now has a decent shot at getting on the podium in Paris, one or two steps behind the three-time winner Froome.
Urán had twice been runner-up at the Giro d'Italia, and Vaughters said upon signing him last year that he knew he had big results in grand tours still to come. Vaughter's roll of the dice is now paying off wonderfully.
But Vaughters' "Moneyball" strategy hasn't always worked. Last year the team went into the Tour with French star Pierre Rolland, but he failed to crack the top 15.
And as brilliant as Urán's victory was, it was not a shocker to any of the team's sports directors, or Vaughters. They knew he was good coming into this race. They'd said he was fresh and lean and hungry. And he delivered big time, climbing with Froome and other favorites over unforgiving climbs and then capping it off with a wild stage win after a problem with his bike's rear derailleur left him with just two gears, versus the usual 22, going into the final sprint, which he won by a hair in a photo finish.
Relief, and renewed hope
Urán's stage win was the team's first in the Tour in years, and it couldn't have come at a better time. Vaughters is looking for a new title sponsor for next year, and he and his team are making their case.
In May, Rolland won a stage in the Giro d'Italia while American Andrew Talansky won a stage in the Tour of California before taking third overall. All things considered, it's been a very good year for the team.
Speaking with Business Insider on the team bus before stage nine concluded, Vaughters talked about his team's finances as he watched the race on TV as the riders sped down into Chambéry — with occasional shouts of "Go, Rigo!" peppering his analysis of where the team stands.
"The basic situation is that Cannondale and Drapac both want to stick around," Vaughters said. "There's no question of them wanting to continue. But the reality of this team on the budget that those two sponsors can provide, we really run on the ragged thin edge of really being able to carry on as a WorldTour team." (The WorldTour is cycling's highest level.)
"This year we were able put it together with duct tape and bubble gum, but we really need a corporation that wants this level of branding and publicity and content generation to step in and be the primary name. Otherwise we're in the difficult situation of deciding whether we want to bootstrap and duct-tape it along, or whether we can't do that any more."
Vaughters said he had a number of "superstrong leads" and that it's a matter of one of them signing.
"The conversations are super-advanced and I'm hopeful, but until it's signed on the dotted line, it's a bit of a question mark," Vaughters told Business Insider. "Large nonendemics, I feel that's the only sustainable way for this team."
A nonendemic sponsor is one that is not involved in cycling directly. The idea is that a big corporation outside cycling will reach a bigger audience and hopefully have lots of cash. All three American teams racing in this year's Tour are all owned or sponsored by endemic companies — the bike brands Trek, BMC, and Cannondale.
"Most teams are sponsored by government entities or extremely wealthy individuals. There are some — AG2R, Sunweb — that are operating on a commercial model like we are. But both of those are large nonendemic companies that can afford it. We basically need to get into that realm."
"First of all, the amount of money it takes to support a team, for any bike company, is big. Cannondale is not as large a corporation as Trek or Specialized, so for them to maintain that level of sponsorship is really difficult. It's a huge marketing expense for them. So to make the team sustainable and long-term, I feel we've got to get a nonendemic sponsor."
It's unclear what will happen next year if that big sponsor from outside the world of cycling does not sign on.
"Ultimately, it's not my decision but that of the ownership group," Vaughters added. "They would have to sort of plug up the holes and make the decision that they were OK continuing like this. As I said, you know, this year, our cars have 300,000 kilometers on them and we're not really able to go on the transfer market and bring on new talent as well as we should because we've been on a budget that's got us very run thin and run ragged."
"In the end it'd be up to the ownership group to decide to recapitalize the team and continue with this duct-tape thing. Or not. At this point I don't really have any indications to which way they point on that."
To put matters in perspective, Vaughters concluded, "Our entire rider payroll is roughly equivalent to Peter Sagan's salary, about $6 million."
As Cannondale-Drapac look to get Urán on the podium, it will continue to search for a new sponsor so that it can go even bigger next year.
See photos from the celebration around the team bus after stage nine below.