Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
Team boss Jérome Pineau led everyone to believe B&B would be heavyweights not makeweights in 2023, with Paris as a partner and a big-name backer. Ultimately, though, his claims were nothing more than smoke and mirrors…
Among the stories that I’ve been enthralled by over recent months has been the apparent rise and the then very evident collapse of the B&B Hotels team. Last July, the outfit managed by Jérôme Pineau with the assistance of his brother Sébastien, both of them ex-pros, appeared to be on the verge of stepping up from the ranks of the minnows with a boost in investment that would not only bring in some big names, including Mark Cavendish, but also see the birth of an elite women’s team and a collaboration with Paris leading into next year’s Olympics in the city. As late as mid-October, the revamped team was seemingly prepped for launch in the French capital. Yet, just six weeks later, its riders and staff were informed the whole project had disintegrated because the big brand sponsor much heralded by the Pineaus didn’t exist.
According to one anonymous individual linked to the B&B Hotels team, its demise, which left dozens of riders and staff without contracts, forcing many into premature retirement, was “the story of an invalid that you don’t want to pull the plug on. Or a train running at full speed but without any brakes and ends up hitting a wall.” Team members were left angry, complained of being lied to and of salaries and other payments not being made. “It’s crazy. In this instance, we’ve not fallen from the first floor, but from the 30th,” sprinter Pierre Barbier told Ouest France, which has conducted a long investigation into the fiasco that was detailed across three instalments earlier this week.
Team boss Jérôme Pineau’s sights started to rise when he went to watch the French Cup between Breton team Vannes and France’s footballing dream team Paris Saint Germain in early January 2022. During a game dominated by French superstar Kylian Mbappé, who bagged a hat-trick in a 4-0 win for PSG, the B&B Hotels team boss was introduced to Didier Quillot, a former executive director-general of the French professional football league and former chief executive of telecoms giant Orange France. The two men’s ambitions coincided: Pineau wanted to bring in a big-name sponsor to boost a team that had struggled financially since Vital Concept pulled out as a co-sponsor in 2020, resulting in an annual budget of €8m that barely kept the squad afloat at professional continental level, its losses covered by PCE (Pineau Cycling Evolution), the management company that owned the set-up. Quillot, meanwhile, decided he wanted to break into cycling, a sport he is said to love but in which he had no previous business experience.
Quillot’s plan was to make Paris the title sponsor by selling the concept of big name riders promoting the French capital at the Tour de France and other major races in the run-up to the 2024 Olympic Games in the city. Quillot was aiming for a yield of six to seven million euros from the collaboration, which would have boosted the team’s budget to around €15m per season. He and Pineau met with representatives of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, who was said to be very keen on the idea. However, while Quillot was hoping for a multi-million-euro investment, Paris was only ever looking to commit €1.6m at most.
During the spring and into the early summer, negotiations continued between the two parties, while Quillot and Pineau also sounded out other potential partners. According to Ouest France, 1,200 companies were sent dossiers for the project. This resulted in forty meetings and firm interest from five or six of the firms approached, among them Amazon’s French wing and Adecco, a recruitment company that was once a co-sponsor of the Belgian Lotto team.
On the final morning of the 2022 Tour, Pineau announced the new project with great fanfare in the pages of L’Équipe. In an article bearing the headline “Paris joins up with Jérôme Pineau”, the opening paragraph revealed that Mayor Hidalgo would confirm details of the partnership following the conclusion of the Tour’s final stage in Paris that evening. It added that as well as providing a boost to the men’s team, the structure would also feature a top-level women’s squad and a junior feeder team. “The commitment of the city of Paris to our project was immediate,” Quillot declared.
The article further revealed that the team would bear Paris’s name and logo and that the main financing would come from a “major private sponsor” whose name and brand would sit alongside the French capital’s, as well as that of the existing sponsor, B&B Hotels, and other long-term backers such as Bretagne, the team’s home region of Brittany. Mark Cavendish, Michael Matthews, Nick Schultz and Cees Bol were all being courted, the article also suggested.
Although the Hidalgo announcement was never made that evening in Paris, the indications were that the project was still advancing. Behind the scenes, though, the reality was quite different. Ouest France reports that Paris wasn’t prepared to partner with some of the mooted sponsors due to fears of negative publicity. At the same time, the B&B Hotels team was struggling for cash. In mid-August, the organisers of the Bretagne Classic de Plouay received a demand from the team for reimbursement of costs, the claim further backed by a supportive email from the UCI. The event’s organisers quickly pointed out that they had until 15 November to pay these expenses to the 48 teams competing in their two one-day WorldTour races, which drew an acknowledgement from the UCI that it had made an error.
When the men’s race took place at Plouay on 28 August, B&B’s upcoming star Axel Laurance took an impressive second place behind winner Wout van Aert. Pineau, though, wasn’t there to witness this sporting coup. He was instead on the other side of the world in Tahiti. “Jérôme said he was at a wedding that day, but I think he was hiding, aware that the project was starting to smell a bit fishy,” a team member told Ouest France.
On 9 October, the team’s riders and new recruits all gathered for a meeting, together with the new bike supplier, BMC, and kit supplier, Isadore. Several noted that there was still no major brand on either the bikes or jerseys. During that month and into November, rumours began to circulate that there was no sponsor. During all this period, though, Pineau consistenly assured the riders old and new that these whispers that things weren’t right were “total bullshit”.
However, on 2 December, Pineau called a video meeting and informed his riders that the much-hyped team wouldn’t see the light of day and that they were free to seek other contract options for 2023. Ouest France says that there was still an opportunity at that point for the team to continue on a much-reduced budget with B&B Hotels as its backer. The company set up a meeting in order to discuss this on 8 December, but the Pineaus didn’t attend. As a consequence, B&B Hotels withdrew its sponsorship. Six days on from that, the team collapsed completely. In addition to significant debts, 49 existing riders and staff as well as around 15 new recruits found themselves scrambling to find other jobs or, in the case of veteran racers such as Pierre Rolland and Cyril Gautier, forced into unplanned retirement.
The affair is now the subject of a legal investigation in the Breton town of Saint-Brieuc. According to Ouest France, riders “were promised bonuses that were never paid. One of them is still waiting for the €25,000 that Pineau had verbally promised him. Another has never seen any of the 30% of his salary that he was meant to receive in image rights.” Companies who worked with the team are also reported to have lost out financially. Barbier, meanwhile, told the newspaper: “Our salaries for November and December haven’t been paid, our travel expenses haven’t been paid since May, nor have our bonuses”.
Multiple French road champion Audrey Cordon-Ragot, who had been signed from Trek-Segafredo to lead the women’s team said it had felt like the riders “had been taken hostage”. Speaking to Le Télégramme, she said; “Until December 6, I was convinced that it was going to happen. It’s a crazy story. I still can’t believe it. For two months, we’ve been pushed around. When it comes to lying, we’re on a high level, aren’t we? Why is that? I’m still trying to find explanations. A vicious circle, a spiral, a descent into hell? You lie once, then a second time, then a third time and you end up convincing yourself of your lies…”
Asked for her opinion of the Pineau brothers, the French rider didn’t hold back. “I’ll never understand either that they’re not taking responsibility, that they’re looking for other culprits when, sorry, the only culprits are them and the bad people they surrounded themselves with. I can’t understand this lack of clarity and honesty,” she stated.
Speaking to Ouest France, one anonymous team member stated: “The worst thing was the lies, about anything, it didnt matter what. I realised much too late.” Another commented: “The Pineaus believe they’re entitled. They took the piss out of us and took everyone down with Quillot.”
Quillot defended himself by saying that, “there had never been any lies told and that it had never been said that a contract had been signed”. Yet the impression had been given for some months that a deal was done. In mid-October, for instance, the team set up a press conference on the day before the 2023 Tour de France presentation took place in Paris, only to cancel it little more than a day beforehand. This deformation of reality continued for weeks after this, the affair underlining once again the fragility of cycling’s sponsorship model and how this unpredictability can actually convince riders and other staff that things will fall into place despite the lack of firm evidence of this eventuality.
On a more positive note, the city of Paris will be represented in the professional cycling ranks this season in the form of a men’s third division and women’s second division team. With a budget of between two and four million euros, Paris Cycliste Olympique (PCO) will race primarily in domestic events and also take part in projects within the capital that are designed the raise both the profile of the sport and cycling as a means of everyday transport, particularly among children.
“The Pineau project was completely flawed,” said the city of Paris’s sporting delegate Karim Ziady at its launch. “He sold us a project with millions of euros and big champions, but in the end there was nothing…”