First there was the surprise signing of Primož Roglič, then it was the messy transfer of Cian Uijtdebroeks to Jumbo-Visma, and then – arguably the most interesting of all – it was reported that major energy drink company, Red Bull, have started proceedings to acquire a controlling interest of 51% stake of Bora-Hansgrohe. Naturally, now more rumours are swirling about the German team potentially being interested in signing Red Bull athletes in years to come such as Wout van Aert. It's been a busy, busy winter for Bora-Hansgrohe and even the most invested of cycling fans, it's a lot to get your head around.
With over two decades of experience in the WorldTour – first as a rider, then as a pundit for GCN/Eurosport and currently as a sports director for Bora-Hansgrohe – Bernie Eisel is determined to stay pragmatic and level-headed about it all. Speaking to Rouleur during the Tour Down Under, where his team have won all three sprint stages with their new signing Sam Welsford, the Austrian man shook his head at the number of rumours swirling around the team he works for.
“We don't know anything yet [about Red Bull buying the team.] I've read so many stories already. I understand what it's about, but the high management group are the only ones fully aware of what's going on. If it's happening, it's a big thing,” Eisel says.
“I mean, according to the newspapers, we’ve signed half of the WorldTour for next year already. The internet is full of it. We’d have to run six teams next year. I'm just waiting for Wout van Aert to come around the corner and start stages five and six of Down Under with us,” he laughs.
Despite his characteristically lighthearted nature, Eisel admits he is acutely aware that if Red Bull do end up working with Bora-Hansgrohe, it could have the potential to be transformative – not just to his team, but to cycling in general. Red Bull is a company that has breathed success into sporting ventures before, namely when the company bought SV Austria Salzburg in 2005, renaming the club to FC Red Bull Salzburg and changing the team’s colours. It didn’t please fans, but the move fundamentally brought fruitful rewards for the club who ultimately won the 2006–07 Bundesliga by a comfortable margin.
“It happened with Salzburg. I mean, we know what we're doing, and they know what they’re doing, so it could be a very good ground to do something big. At the same time, it's really too early for anyone to say if it's going to look like it did in soccer. For me, as a cycling fan and for the sport itself, this is the biggest step for cycling. One of the biggest players in the world entering the sport,” Eisel comments.
Eisel has been working with Bora-Hansgrohe since 2021 (Image: Getty/Dario Belingheri)
So, why now, Red Bull? The recent Formula One-esque Netflix series around the Tour de France has undoubtedly brought more fans to the sport and Eisel argues that the growing number of people using bikes during the Covid-19 period has also had an impact on why big companies are slowly beginning to view cycling as a more viable sponsorship option.
“Since Covid, the bike industry exploded. People always used to say that cycling is the new golf, and we could all see that,” Eisel argues. “It's now the time that the higher management groups don't go to play golf, don't go sailing, don't go horse riding, they probably go and ride their bikes. I think they find it fascinating to watch the race and see how much exposure sponsors get.”
Bora-Hansgrohe already work closely with Red Bull – rumours about Roglič’s move to the team this winter were bolstered when the Slovenian rider visited the Red Bull Athletic Performance Centre in Salzburg to meet with team staff. It could be that the partnership with the company is not only what gave Bora the budget to sign Roglič, but also what drew the former Jumbo-Visma rider to the team. Eisel argues that the arrival of the Giro d’Italia winner is crucial to Bora being one of the most competitive teams in Grand Tours to come.
“We were not really on the radar of the other teams to start with. We signed Daniel Felipe Martínez, we have Lenny [Kämna] who is going well, we have Sergio Higuita, [Aleksandr] Vlasov, Jai Hindley, and there are also riders coming up step by step. Then, out of the blue, we signed Primož Roglič,” Eisel says. “Then you look at the roster and you’re like, wow. Even for us it was incredible; when I saw someone put it on Twitter for the first time, I was like, boys, are we really aware of what we have now? I looked at the names and pictures and I saw a full roster of superstars.”
The Austrian sports director argues that with Bora’s current crop of riders, the dominance of Jumbo-Visma that was seen in the peloton last season, when the Dutch team won all three Grand Tours, will not be repeated in 2024.
“It was the dominance of Team Sky before, then it continued a little bit with Ineos and then Jumbo took over. Jai [Hindley] also won the Giro two years ago and rode Ineos off his wheel for the first time in years,” Eisel points out. “You can only look at what you are capable of to get your best team to the start line, but I think the races will open up. I think that’s what everyone is looking for. Jumbo might still be dominant, but the races will be much more aggressive.”
Bora-Hansgrohe celebrate after winning their third stage in the Tour Down Under (Image: Tour Down Under)
The team’s line-up for the Grand Tours is one box ticked, but their recent performances at the Tour Down Under also hint at Bora-Hansgrohe becoming one of the strongest sprint teams in the peloton too. New signing Welsford, combined with Danny van Poppel and Ryan Mullen is proving to be a worryingly good combination for those who want to beat Bora.
“Welsford has the commitment. It’s a new chapter in his life and the same for us. We knew we had a good train but we had to bring it together. Reading numbers is one thing and they are good, but then also having that power after three or four hours of hard, rapid racing, it’s a big step up,” Eisel says of his team’s sprinter. “I saw Welsford when I was commentating on the Tour and he showed that he's not just a fast sprinter, he can suffer, he can hurt himself, and he can get through it.”
Welsford replaced Sam Bennett as Bora’s key sprinter this season while the Irishman made the move to Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale Team in 2024 after a disappointing time last year which resulted in just two victories in non-WorldTour ranked races.
“[Welsford] has the top end speed. Sam Bennett was one of the greatest, he won a green jersey, but it just didn’t click. We had a good Vuelta in 2022 before he got Covid and we kept chasing that success. He was always just missing a tiny bit. People said Cav was done, though, it’s just for a sprinter that it can be like 20 or 50 watts missing and you look like a loser. You’re still up there in the top-10 or on the podium, but you don’t have that extra gear to be on the top step.”
With such a roaring start to the season Down Under, Bora could scarcely have asked for a better trajectory to begin 2024. It could be that the success of Welsford sets off a chain reaction of victories for the German squad, be that in Grand Tours or one-day races. And if the Red Bull partnership comes off, and has the impact that many expect on the team, the sky's the limit for Bora-Hansgrohe.
“For me, it's a success if the season continues like this with Sam Welsford at his peak. A Grand Tour stage win is definitely on the list for us,” Eisel says. “We have to follow the vision of the team and transport that to the riders. That’s why we do it, I could easily do commentary the whole year and be at home, but it’s that feeling of being in the car, watching Shane Archbold (Bora’s new assistant sports director), almost break the steering wheel when Sam wins, those are the moments we live for.”
Cover image: Zac Williams/SWpix