This article was originally published in Issue 114 of Rouleur magazine.
It’s safe to say Bora-Hansgrohe team boss Ralph Denk didn’t expect his team to win the Giro d’Italia in 2022. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t prepare just in case the opportunity presented itself. The team started discussing strategy months ahead of time, identifying three contenders for a podium spot in Milan.
They did more than talk. In the days after an already gruelling week at Tirreno-Adriatico, the team’s riders were tired, cold and ready to go home. Instead, Denk met them in a run-down roadside motel on the outskirts of Turin for three days of recon, riding in grim March rain and fog. “Ten days of racing, and then we made everyone spend three days in a shitty autobahn hotel,” says Denk. “The mood was shit.”
Two months later, things looked very different. On a dramatic stage 14 run-in to Turin, Bora-Hansgrohe relentlessly attacked on the short, punchy stage. Wilco Kelderman, Jai Hindley, Emanuel Buchmann and the rest of the team took turns hammering at the field. By the end of the stage, Jai Hindley was up to second overall, just seven seconds behind race leader Richard Carapaz. Once again, thorough preparation and a lucky throw of the dice paid off. Hindley went on to win the Giro by more than a minute. It was the first Grand Tour win for a team that only entered the WorldTour five years ago – one based not in a cycling-mad country like Belgium, France or Italy, but in the rolling hills of Bavaria, at the foot of the German Alps.
“Our goal over the winter was to transition to a general classification team, but the goal wasn’t to win the Giro – just to make the podium,” says Denk. “We thought we’d need four or five years.” Instead, the Giro’s iconic trophy – a whirlwind of gold engraved with the names of legends like Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx and Felice Gimondi, and now 26-year-old Australian Jai Hindley – sat perched atop a set of cubicles on the seventh floor of a corporate office building in Raubling, Germany, between Hindley’s pink-painted S-Works frame and a printer. (“We just weren’t sure what to do with it after the closing ceremony,” explains team press officer Ralph Scherzer a little sheepishly. “Jai went straight on vacation, and it was just sitting on the team bus afterwards.”)
Over the last two decades, 50-year-old Denk has slowly and steadily transformed the team he founded and still owns into a WorldTour powerhouse – growth he hopes to sustain for years to come. It’s a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that Bora-Hansgrohe is based in Germany, a country that still hasn’t quite recovered from the doping scandals of the mid-2000s. Over a two-decade career in cycling, Denk’s management style has mirrored his team’s racing – prepare carefully for opportunities and seize the right ones when they come along. By and large the risks have paid off, from the chance conversation in his German bike shop that led to a multi-million euro sponsorship, through the news that one of the most famous riders in cycling was out of contract, to the hometown cycling buddy who wound up owning a multi-million euro company in need of exposure. It’s a spirit that suffused Bora-Hansgrohe’s performance in the 2022 Giro, where the team started with three riders capable of contending for a podium spot and wound up taking the whole race.
Though Denk owns the team, his office is on the top floor of Bora’s headquarters in Raubling, a town of about 10,000, an hour’s drive south of Munich. In his office and in the long, light-filled hallway outside, the walls are lined with signed jerseys: yellow, green, purple and of course pink. At the end of the hall is the mud-spattered bike Peter Sagan rode to victory at the 2018 Paris-Roubaix. (A hand-scrawled note, perhaps left to ward off over-enthusiastic cleaning staff, reads “Hands off” in German.)
Denk is tanned, with a firm handshake. His slightly sunburned nose sits above a salt-and-pepper moustache that’s become a trademark over the years. Taking a seat, he explains that he’s a local: he grew up just 20 kilometres away, in the shadow of the Alps. On a clear day their peaks define the skyline south of his hometown, and as a kid he gravitated to skiing. After an accident wrecked his left knee at the age of 14, Denk turned to cycling. His family – used to shuttling Denk and his sister to ski meets – shifted quickly to cycling, clearing out their basement to make room for a growing collection of bikes. (Denk’s family still helps out – his sister works in marketing, his mum as a book-keeper, and his dad pitches in to drive and hand out bottles at big races.)
Stocky and powerful then and now, Denk rose quickly through Germany’s junior ranks, qualifying for the national team and travelling around the country to race. In some ways his timing couldn’t have been worse: a few days after his 16th birthday, the Berlin Wall fell. Within a year, Germany reunified and the up-and-coming sprinter found himself fighting for national team slots against a generation of East Germans that included Jan Ullrich, Erik Zabel and Andreas Klöden. Meanwhile, coaches from the former East Germany took over the national team, favouring their protegés and maintaining an all-or-nothing mentality. Denk stuck it out until he was 23, finally coming to the painful realisation that he had no future as a pro.
Looking back, he’s grateful his younger self had the sense not to prolong the inevitable. “I was committed. I was aiming for big things, I was talented – but not super-talented,” says Denk. “It’s always hard to stop doing something you love, but I’m also glad I didn’t become a bad professional rider.”
Through a friend, he landed a job as a mechanic at Sram’s European outpost in the Netherlands. At the time, the company was an upstart parts manufacturer best known for its GripShift mountain bike shifters; Denk was a novice mechanic out of his depth. He learned fast: his first task was organising Sram’s mechanic service for the 1997 Mountain Bike World Championships, wrenching for mountain bike legends like Tinker Juarez and Missy Giove.
His years at Sram were a formative experience. It’s where Denk learned to speak English, honed his skills as a mechanic, and figured out how to run a business. He recalls Sram as remarkably tech-savvy at the time, with internet cards for all its employees, far from a given in the mid-90s and almost unheard of in conservative Germany. After four years at Sram, Denk itched to start something of his own, and decided to leave the company to start his own shop, closer to his family in Germany.
“I was aiming for more than being an employee,” he says. “I quit because I wanted to be my own boss.” In 2000, he came back to Raubling; a carpenter friend from the area had opened a home furnishings store and offered Denk a space in the basement. Almost immediately, Denk decided to start a team to promote the store. Naming it was easy: Ralph Denk Bikestore became the title sponsor of the Ralph Denk Racing Team.
Denk dived into a dual life, simultaneously managing a store and an increasingly successful mountain bike squad. Over the next five years, Ralph Denk Racing Team rose rapidly in the sport, snagging sponsorships from Giant and winning the UCI World Cup series in 2006. Denk was spending most of his time on the team.
“At first the idea was to promote the bike store,” Denk says. “But after a few years, I realised I had more passion for managing a cycling team than for selling bikes.” Still, the focus on mountain biking meant Denk was a big fish in what turned out to be a small pond. “I found out mountain biking was still a special interest sport, not like football or road cycling,” he says. “We got great results, but we were never in real newspapers or on TV.”
To truly grow, he realised he’d have to hit the road. Turning back to his roots in junior road racing, Denk decided to start an amateur road team in 2007. Once again, his timing was catastrophic. The year before, Operación Puerto took a generation of Germany’s star riders – many of them familiar faces from Denk’s junior days – with it. Ullrich’s fall in particular ruined cycling’s reputation in Germany, a legacy from which it still hasn’t recovered. At the time, disillusioned German fans were turning away from pro cycling in droves, and sponsors were nearly impossible to find.
“It was the last years of T-Mobile, with all the shit around Ullrich, Zabel, and Aldag coming up,” he recalls. “It was ... quite hard.”
But Denk was determined. With big sponsors out of reach, Denk went small, founding a junior team with a handful of local sponsors and a budget of 100,000 euros. “I figured, let’s just start anyway,” he says. The resulting squad – Team Auto Eder, named after a local car dealership – is still active, serving as a feeder team for Bora-Hansgrohe.
A few years later came a chance encounter in Denk’s basement bike shop. A customer looking for a road bike started talking about the WorldTour and dropping names of pro team coaches he had met. It turned out the customer was the European director of a California-based internet company called NetApp, and he was also shopping for a cycling team to sponsor. “I got big ears,” says Denk. “I said, ‘Wait – I also have a concept in the drawer.’”
Rather than jump on as a co-sponsor at a bigger team, Denk convinced NetApp to start small. “I told them we should do something that was our baby and not on the highest level, at least at first,” he says. “The goal was to get to the ProTour after a few years.” In 2010, Denk found himself the coach of a ProContinental team, one of the first to emerge in Germany after the doping scandals of 2007. Wildcard invites to the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España soon followed, as races tried to lure German viewers back to cycling.
The NetApp squad was a springboard for a new generation of German stars, along with Czech talents Leopold König and Jan Barta. In 2014, Denk’s squad earned a coveted wildcard invitation to the Tour de France. But unbeknown to Denk, behind the scenes NetApp was cooling on the deal – not for lack of results, but because cycling wasn’t wired enough to showcase NetApp’s technological know-how. After a four-year run, the axe fell.
Cruelly, Denk found out while at his first Tour, sitting in a hotel room in Pau during the Tour’s last week in the Pyrenees. The team was sitting in tenth place, a remarkable achievement by any measure for a wildcard team on its first Tour outing. “It was really hard for me,” says Denk. “They said, ‘Nice job, but we’re taking the exit.’ F*ck, that was hard. We were tenth, and suddenly I had to find a new sponsor.”
Denk says he made hundreds of calls in the months after the Tour, struggling to find a replacement for NetApp. Finally, he turned to a friend from his days as a junior, a former amateur racer and carpenter named Willi Brückbauer – the same friend who gave him space for his fledgling bike shop a decade before.
Brückbauer had made a name for himself as a kitchen designer before inventing a new kind of vent for cooktops; his company, Bora, was growing fast but still didn’t have much name recognition outside of a few key markets. “Asking a good friend for sponsorship isn’t easy. It was hard for me,” says Denk.
It turned out Bora had already been looking into sponsorships. They had an innovative product, but virtually no name recognition, and were trying to figure out where they’d have the most return on an investment. Brückbauer took Denk’s proposal to a consultant. For the budget at hand, they would have been able to sponsor a middling German football club – but their customers were mainly in Belgium and the Netherlands. The same money might buy them a sticker on the front fairing of an F1 car. Cycling, the consultant reported, was a perfect fit. (After seven years, Bora’s market research shows it’s growing faster in countries with strong cycling cultures than elsewhere, a good clue the consultant was right.)
Not long after NetApp-Endura became Bora, another opportunity came along. As Denk and Brückbauer were driving south to Italy for the 2016 Giro, Denk idly mentioned that Slovak superstar Peter Sagan was on the transfer market. Over dinner that night, Brückbauer came back with a question: how much? “I told him we’d need $20 million, minimum,” says Denk – enough to make the jump from ProContinental to WorldTour, and pay Sagan’s salary.
“After a minute he said, ‘Okay, let’s do it. Let’s sign Sagan – if we can reduce the Bora share to $10 million and find funding from other partners for the rest.” And just like that, it was done.
Denk swivels in his chair and points to the conference room next door: that’s where the Slovak star, his agent Giovanni Lombardi and Denk met to hammer out a deal in the days after the Giro. Once they agreed on terms, Denk walked down the hall to print out a contract; once Sagan was signed, his name alone was enough to bring Hansgrohe, a German bathroom fixture manufacturer, in as a second title sponsor. Denk says Specialized hopped on board shortly thereafter.
“Sagan liked that we were German about it: ready to make a deal, not three months of phone calls and back-and-forth,” says Denk. “Our main argument was: you can build something of your own here.”
Signing Sagan took Bora-Hansgrohe to another level – by necessity. The team was transitioning to WorldTour status, a first for Denk. “We had to double everything to go to the WorldTour,” says Denk. “It was like Messi going to a second division club – it was a big risk for him to come to a team in transition.” The gamble paid off for both sides. Sagan brought a suite of experienced riders and staff to fill out Bora’s growing roster, helping shape a smaller team in a way he might not have at a more established outfit. In exchange, Denk got a string of Grand Tour stage wins, green jerseys for the office wall and a victory at Paris-Roubaix.
Bora, meanwhile, got a massive boost in name recognition – helped along by the sweetly awkward ads featuring Sagan pretending to cook on a Bora range. “For us, signing Sagan was super – we got a lot more exposure, but also knowledge and good employees,” says Denk.
“When Peter arrived, we were a wildcard team happy to just be part of the break. Then he showed up and suddenly we were a winning team, not just part of the peloton.”
Perhaps more than most team owners, Denk is acutely conscious of his sponsors. The team’s offices are in Bora’s headquarters, and he regularly rides with Brückbauer. It’s usually an advantage: the team owner can call the team’s main sponsor and make decisions quickly. Serving the sponsor means changing the team’s direction. Bora’s market research, Denk says, showed that Sagan’s strong one-day wins weren’t resonating in the German market.
“For people in the cycling community, it was really nice Peter won Roubaix, but the exposure wasn’t that huge, not like winning the Giro, or when Emu [Emmanuel Buchmann] was fourth in the Tour,” says Denk. For all Sagan’s strengths, Denk knew the Slovak was never going to win a Grand Tour for Bora-Hansgrohe. “We decided, let’s do something different: let’s aim for a yellow jersey.”
Bora and its star parted ways last year. Sagan’s departure freed up millions for the team to spend on younger riders with the ability to contest a three-week race, including Colombian all-rounder Sergio Higuita, the Dutch stalwart Wilco Kelderman, Hindley and Emanuel Buchmann, plus climber Lennard Kämna and a host of other young talents. Denk has worked hard to sustain that momentum, through two years of Covid-19 chaos and then the decision to part ways with their most recognisable star.
As summer edges into autumn, it looks increasingly like it’s working: as this issue went to press, Bora-Hansgrohe sprinter Sam Bennett had just bagged back-to-back stage wins at the Vuelta and German support rider Marco Haller took a win in the prestigious German one-day Bemer Cyclassics Hamburg. His next challenge may be his biggest: bringing Germans back to cycling.
Denk says Germans are notoriously fair-weather fans, willing to forgive just about anything if one of theirs is on top. That’s why the Tour is such a priority for the team: nothing less than wins at the world’s biggest races will move the needle. “As soon as there is a big success from a German on a German team,” he says, “things will turn around – from one moment to another.”
When it does, Denk will be ready. “Sometimes it’s the right moment,” shrugs Denk, “and you’re in the right place.”
*Cover image by Getty Images