RadioShack, Leopard teams to merge

Updated: September 5, 2011, 11:13 PM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

The U.S. based RadioShack cycling team where Lance Armstrong rode until he retired earlier this season will combine its operations and roster with Luxembourg's Team Leopard-Trek in 2012, according to statements released Monday by both teams.

RadioShack, the Texas-based electronics giant, and Japanese automaker Nissan, already the secondary sponsor for the RadioShack team, will be title sponsors along with Trek, which supplies bikes for both squads. The team will be formally known as the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek Professional Cycling Team.

The long-rumored move will create another super-team in what is clearly a trend as professional cycling undergoes contraction in a difficult economy for sponsorships. The deal will unite three-time Tour de France runner-up Andy Schleck of Luxembourg, his brother Frank, who finished third in this year's Tour, and time trial world champion Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland with American riders such as American veteran Chris Horner, winner of this year's Tour of California, and Matthew Busche, the U.S. road cycling champion.

A press release issued by Team RadioShack Monday night stated that the team will be directed by Johan Bruyneel, the Belgian RadioShack director who oversaw all seven of Armstrong's Tour victories -- along with two by Spain's Alberto Contador -- at the U.S. Postal Service, Discovery Channel and Astana teams. Leopard was directed this season by Kim Andersen of Denmark, who was not mentioned in either team's release.

Bruyneel's management company will run the new team's business operations in Belgium and Luxembourg, and marketing will be handled by CSE Pro Cycling LLC, an offshoot of the same Austin, Tex.-based company that currently manages the RadioShack team.

"The staff and roster will be a combination from the current formations," RadioShack's release stated, adding all contracts already finalized for next year on both teams would be honored. Other riders confirmed for the team included veterans Andreas Klöden of Germany and Haimar Zubeldia of Spain; first-year pros Jesse Sergent of New Zealand and Ben King of the U.S.; Italian sprinter Daniele Bennati and Jakob Fuglsang of Denmark.

Under international rules, teams may carry a maximum of 30 riders, three of whom must be under 23 years old.

One notable absence from the list was RadioShack's Levi Leipheimer, a past podium finisher in two three-week Grand Tours, the Tour de France and Vuelta d'Espana and winner of this year's Tour of Switzerland, the Tour of Utah and the U.S. Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado. Leipheimer has made no announcement about his 2012 plans. Leopard's popular German support rider Jens Voigt, whose current contract expires at the end of this year, also was not listed.

The statement indicated that the team's license would continue to be held in Luxembourg, meaning that the number of elite teams officially based in the United States will shrink from four to two next season. California-based HTC-Highroad announced it would fold at the end of this year after failing to find a sponsor willing to finance the team at the level owner Bob Stapleton believed was necessary to continue to be competitive.

Garmin-Cervelo is headquartered in Boulder, Colo. BMC Racing, whose leader Cadel Evans this year became the first Australian to win the Tour de France, would be the only other team licensed in the United States. The team's primary owner, Andy Rihs, is Swiss.

Monday, the French daily sports newspaper L'Equipe reported that at least 11 riders from Leopard would lose their jobs. RadioShack has announced several signings this summer but does not have a full team under contract.

Leopard raced its first season on the World Tour this year with a roster stacked with defectors from Bjarne Riis' Saxo Bank team, including the Schlecks.

"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," Leopard owner Flavio Becca, a real estate magnate said in a statement included in the press release. The team's current name refers to its management company rather than a sponsoring corporation.

Other than naming title sponsors and a few key riders, Leopard's statement was short on specifics. Leopard general manager Brian Nygaard declined comment.

Bruyneel told Reuters on the eve of the Tour that RadioShack would continue to sponsor the team for two more years, but the company has made no public statements about its involvement.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com.

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.