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Garmin is the new title sponsor of the Slipstream-Chipotle team

The new jersey to be unveiled before the Tour

By Neal Rogers

For the third time in 10 days, a major international cycling team has announced a new title sponsor heading into next month’s Tour de France.

GPS maker Garmin International has signed on as the title sponsor of American professional continental team Slipstream-Chipotle through 2010, Garmin and the team announced Wednesday.

The title sponsorship, which sees the team name change to Garmin-Chipotle presented by H30, will commence immediately. A new team jersey, which will incorporate Garmin’s logo with the team’s trademark argyle motif, will be unveiled on July 3 in Brest prior to the start of the Tour.

Garmin has been a second-tier team sponsor this season, below the squad’s three primary backers Chipotle, H30 and Felt Bicycles.

“We were content with that level of sponsorship,” said Garmin vice president of communications Jon Cassat. “But part of what we do is to get close with the team and its mission, providing technology to the team, both car navigation for their vehicles and more importantly GPS-enabled cycling computers. And as we’ve worked with [team physiologist] Allen Lim and [team manager] Jonathan Vaughters, and the riders themselves, trying to get closer to the whole training thing, it just manifested itself that we could take a bigger position. One thing led to another, and we realized if we stepped up now we could be involved in time for the Tour de France. That was reason enough.”

Known as the TIAA-CREF team from 2004 through 2006, New York-based financier Doug Ellis has primarily funded the Slipstream team since 2005. Slipstream is the name of the team’s sports marketing company, co-owned by Ellis and Vaughters.

Slipstream is one of two American teams that had operated during the first half of the 2008 season without the backing of a major corporate sponsor. The other, Team High Road, subsisted on funding from T-Mobile, which severed its relationship at the end of the 2007 season but was obligated to fulfill the majority of its contract through this year.

High Road announced Monday that it had signed American company Columbia Sportswear as title sponsor. Like Garmin’s sponsorship, Columbia’s title sponsorship begins with the Tour de France and carries through 2010.

On June 10 Riis Cycling, the sports management team of Team CSC, announced it had signed Saxo Bank as a co-sponsor heading into the Tour, with Saxo assuming title sponsorship beginning in 2009 for three years.

The three signings represent a positive step for professional cycling, which over the last year saw the demise of the Discovery Channel team as well as longtime sponsors T-Mobile and CSC terminate their involvement with the sport.

And while European ProTour teams Gerolsteiner and Crédit Agricole are still searching for new title sponsors, Vaughters said the recent signings — all, he noted, for teams running independent, third-party anti-doping programs —represents a shift towards accountability and responsibility within team management.

“Fortune 500 companies aren’t going to come in at multi-million dollar levels unless they feel secure in their investment,” Vaughters said. “If you do things right, and make an effort to do everything you can to set a precedent, there are companies out there that really love the sport, and are willing to use the sport as a marketing vehicle. It’s just that there is no messing around any more. It’s survival of the fittest.”

Cassat said Slipstream’s anti-doping policies were in line with Garmin’s corporate culture, emphasizing that the two organizations are a near-perfect fit — a North American sponsor with international interests backing a North American cycling team competing in international events that will not only promote, but also use its product.

“We are very, very happy,” Cassat said. “It’s hard to be humble and professional and all that when we’re just awfully excited.”

Navigating the sponsorship trail

Though Garmin will be known as the team’s first corporate sponsor since the end of the TIAA-CREF sponsorship in 2006, credit for the team’s existence truly belongs to Ellis, who shared Vaughters’ vision of a drug-free, primarily American team, and footed the bill during one of cycling’s darkest periods.

“Doug said, ‘I’ll do this, because I know the sport’s in a really rough spot, ‘ ” Vaughters said. “He should be known as the guy who floated a team in a time where things were rough, and really saved American cycling on an international level. He is an investor in the truest sense of that word. Whether or not he makes a 20 percent return on the team 10 years from now, who knows, that is impossible to tell. The point is that he invested in something he believed in on a financial and heartfelt level. He wants the sport to succeed.”

One of the most difficult aspects to landing a sponsor was leaving the “no-man’s land,” Ellis said, between a smaller domestic program and a full-blown ProTour team.

“From the beginning Jonathan prepared me for how financially challenging it was going to be,” Ellis said. “He told me how running a small team in the domestic peloton wouldn’t be that challenging to support, and once you’ve crossed over to the ProTour level, there’s a real precedent for those teams running with sufficient support. It’s the teams in the middle that run into difficulty.”

To make the jump to the next level, Vaughters recruited six stars for 2008. Five of those riders — David Millar, Christian Vande Velde, Magnus Backstedt, Julian Dean and Dave Zabriskie — are veterans of the Tour de France. American Tom Danielson has never raced the Tour but has twice finished in the top 10 of Spain’s three-week grand tour, the Vuelta España, where he also won a stage.

In its first season as a world-class squad, Slipstream received invitations to Amaury Sport Organisation events such as the Tour of Qatar, Paris-Nice, Critérium International and Paris-Roubaix. Season highlights include overall podium placings at the Amgen Tour of California and Tour de Georgia, the team time trial win at the Giro d’Italia, and a fourth place at Paris-Roubaix with revelation Maartijn Maaskant. The team learned in March that it was one of three non-ProTour teams to receive a wild-card invitation to the Tour de France. In May Slipstream and Garmin management began discussing an increase in sponsorship leading into the Tour.

“Garmin has $1 billion in cash reserves and no debt,” Vaughters said. “They are the number one GPS manufacturer in the world, but one of the biggest reasons they are sponsoring the team is because they are number three in Europe, as far as name recognition [behind Tom Tom and Mio.]”

Like Cassat, Vaughters emphasized that there wasn’t a particular performance that served as motivation for Garmin to increase its sponsorship status.

“It was never directly related to a race result,” Vaughters said. “We pitched them for title sponsorship in 2007, for the 2008 season. It just wasn’t quite the right time in their company. They said we really like this, but this is a big project, big price tag, but we want to be involved in the team. They decided on a lower level sponsorship. They came to team launch in November, had their head of marketing for France at Paris-Roubaix. They’ve been involved with the team, and finally they said all right, we’re interested in this on a larger level.”

At Slipstream’s presentation in November in Boulder, Colorado, Ellis hoisted the team’s 2008 jersey and told a packed theater, “No one wants to see another name on this jersey more than I do.”

The team sponsorship isn’t Garmin’s first marketing effort directed at the European sporting community. Garmin UK sponsors English Premier League football club Middlesbrough as well as the Milram ProTour team, and Garmin’s Italian office signed on as an official sponsor of this year’s Giro d’Italia. The professional cycling sponsorship, however, marks the corporation’s first global sponsorship attempt to raise brand awareness across both North America and Europe.

Ellis said the sponsorship serves as validation of a world-class professional cycling program.

“It means our program has sustainability,” Ellis said. “It was in no danger of going away, but for our own self-respect it’s nice to get that corporate backing.”

The path ahead

Landing a sponsor means a welcome influx of cash, but also an eleventh-hour image overhaul. Vaughters said team clothing, vehicle logos and bike branding can all be swapped in a matter of weeks but will require a massive effort on top of his team’s Tour preparation.

Part of that preparation involves Garmin working closing with PowerTap innovators Saris to wirelessly link PowerTap hubs with Garmin’s Edge 705 GPS units. Lim, who is also a longtime Saris consultant, has been working closely with engineers from both companies to facilitate a seamless integration.

“In theory that ends up being the ultimate tech geek device,” Vaughters said. “Allen is off the hook, ‘You can graph temperature gradient differences when we climb the cols.’ If you saw these five-page emails that Allen and the Garmin engineers are shooting back and forth … I’m always carbon copied, but I get past the first three sentences and I’m lost.”

Vaughters said Millar, Danielson and Danny Pate, as well as development rider Taylor Phinney, are most enthusiastic about the Edge 705 prior to the sponsorship agreement. And not only will the team’s use of Garmin fitness units during races provide exposure, but it will also allow both the team and Garmin to promote ride data online in ways Slipstream’s Web site had only begun to this year.

“You can do a lot with their product,” Vaughters said. “We can do all kinds of fun promotions. One of the big things we want to do long term is start up a ‘Map My Ride’ community and have the Team Garmin-Chipotle Web site be a center point for people to go in and share — a social networking site for rides.”

Cassat said Garmin would likely utilize technologies from its Motionbased.com Web site to build its new and improved Garmin Connect capabilities, allowing users to upload ride, run or hike data to share workout data.

Looking forward, Vaughters said one team goal for 2009 would be to sign a proven “prolific” race winner. Asked if Garmin-Chipotle would register as a UCI ProTour team, he said he was waiting to decide, adding that his continental pro team was invited in 2008 to all the key events in areas Garmin hopes to increase market share. (Cassat named England, France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Belgium and Austria as Garmin’s key European markets.)

“Before we make the decision on whether to buy into the ProTour, I want to better understand the relationship between the UCI and ASO,” Vaughters said. “I know that definitively Garmin as a sponsor wants to do the Tour of California and the Tour of Missouri, because it’s close to their home state. Paris-Roubaix is a big race for them, and they want to do the Tour de France and the Giro, because Italy is a big market for them.”

Vaughters said that the team’s contract with co-title sponsor Chipotle is up at the end of the season, but he is hopeful the Mexican restaurant chain will renew its backing.

“Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, came to Paris-Roubaix and absolutely loved it,” Vaughters said. “And Chipotle is another darling of Wall Street. Both Garmin and Chipotle are both companies that have fared well in negative markets.”

The same could be said for High Road and Slipstream Sports, which have now each secured long-term sponsorship during one of pro cycling’s most difficult eras.

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