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Tour de France

New sponsor Belkin has much to cheer in its debut Tour de France

Aggressive racing, two riders in the top 5 on GC mean good things for cycling's newest big-time sponsor

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Professional cycling saw encouraging news a few weeks ago, when American computer and smartphone accessories maker Belkin International announced that it would take over sponsorship of the Blanco team, starting with the Tour de France. Two weeks into the 100th Tour, that investment is paying off — in excitement, at least — as the Dutch team has featured in breakaways and Friday’s big crosswind split, and sees two of its riders in the top five on the general classification.

Formerly Rabobank, Blanco has had a reasonably successful season so far; just before the Tour, the team stood ninth (out of the 19 WorldTour teams) in the UCI team points ranking, and had garnered several key results, including a Tour Down Under overall win with Tom Jelte Slagter and Sep Vanmarcke’s close call for second at Paris-Roubaix.

Lars Boom opened the Tour for the Dutch squad with a long day in the breakaway and now, after two weeks — with Bauke Mollema sitting in second place overall, and likely within reach of the final podium — Belkin has to very pleased with its investment.

Amidst much controversy, Rabobank — the long-running previous sponsor of the team — pulled out of the men’s peloton last fall, citing the Lance Armstrong scandal (despite its own long-term doping activities exposed in recent months). At the time, Rabobank said, “We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport.” Remarkably, Rabobank wanted out so badly that it took its name off the jersey, but continued funding the team through 2013. This was a pretty strong statement and sent shockwaves of concern through the cycling community.

But Belkin has a different and more positive stance — and decided to take advantage of the “your name here” opportunity offered by Blanco to promote its brand more globally. The California-based company manufactures cables, chargers, and surge protectors, mobile accessories, case, networking equipment, and a range of other computing and communications components. Belkin recently acquired Linksys — one of the top manufacturers of system routers — and if you own a computer or a smartphone, you’re almost certain to own a Belkin product.

CEO Chet Pipkin, who literally started the company 30 years ago when he was splicing together cables in his garage in southern California, is upbeat about the team and the future of the sport. And more importantly for cycling, he is upbeat about what sponsorship may be able to bring to his company.

Pipkin, who was recently described by Forbes magazine as the wealthiest tech entrepreneur you’ve never heard of, was in Amsterdam and Corsica before the race to kick off the team’s new look.

Pipkin told VeloNews that Belkin was reaching the point where it needed to increase its global visibility. He mentioned four factors driving the firm’s interest in professional cycling. First, it was concerned that technology and consumer electronic products can sometimes be a bit “cold” or even somewhat threatening to potential customers, and wanted to position the firm with a more approachable theme, like cycling. Second, Belkin wanted to extend its global reach, and get more involved with a theme or activity that would resonate with consumers around the world. Third, Pipkin saw parallels between the innovation and technological advances that characterize his business, and the world of pro cycling; he said he wanted to get associated with something that “celebrated not only individual success, but also the commitment to excellence required of a total team.” Finally, Pipkin, who describes himself as a casual cyclist, was excited about being able to help promote the sort of active and healthy lifestyle associated with cycling in general.

“As we started to get all of our needs mapped out, cycling looked like it fit the objectives pretty well,” he said. “We liked the folks at Blanco, and with the 100th running of the Tour coming up, the timing seemed good.”

Pipkin acknowledged the concern around doping, which has scared away many potential sponsors, characterizing it as “negative energy around the periphery,” but said, “we can look at cycling with a fresh set of eyes; look at it the way things stand in 2013.” He complimented team manager Richard Plugge, saying the team was in good hands, and that he was confident the team would be very proactive in terms of maintaining a zero-tolerance attitude going forward. He said he doesn’t intend to look over Plugge’s shoulder very much.

Belkin has committed to back the team for the next two and a half years. Although the dollar commitment has not been disclosed, Pipkin said, “it is a big investment for us, and we hope to be associated with the sport for a very long time.” Given the team’s performance in the Tour so far, this investment appears likely to be paying off for Belkin.