By Andrew Hood
Two decades of American presence in the European peloton are under threat by cycling’s credibility crisis in the face of a non-stop barrage of doping scandals.
For the first time since 7-Eleven paved the way with its pioneering start in the 1985 Giro d’Italia, there is a very real possibility there will not be a U.S.-sponsored team in the ProTour European peloton next season.
Why? Because U.S. corporations seem less willing to take a multi-million risk on cycling’s bad-boy doping image.
Two major American teams are scrambling to find sponsors for the 2008 season, and both are finding a cool reception in boardrooms as they try to convince would-be backers that cycling is a safe bet.
Discovery Channel – which began racing in Europe under the U.S. Postal Service banner in 1996 – sees the departure of its title sponsor at the end of this season.
Jonathan Vaughters has ambitious goals of transforming his Slipstream-Chipotle team into a U.S. super team to join the ProTour in time for the 2009 Tour de France, but he needs someone with deep pockets.
According to sources close to both teams, neither has had much luck persuading someone to sign on the dotted line. There’s been interest, but the recent spate of doping headlines seems to have brought a chill of hesitancy.
The collective muck of the Floyd Landis doping trial, Operación Puerto, Ivan Basso’s infamous declaration, “Lo sono Birillo,” and the latest tidal wave of confessions from the old Telekom juggernaut of the mid-1990s is prompting potential candidates to take a hard look before plopping down millions of dollars to underwrite a cycling team.
Several major U.S. companies have recently bailed on cycling thanks to the doping scourge:
Liberty Seguros – The Spanish division of the Boston-based Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. ended its title sponsorship a year ago when team manager Manolo Saíz was among five people arrested as part of the Puerto investigation.
iShares – The California-based ETF trading firm, part of the Barclays global investing empire, was set to replace Phonak, but jumped ship as soon as news broke that Landis failed doping tests en route to winning the 2006 Tour.
Discovery Channel — The cable-TV giant ends its sponsorship at the conclusion of the 2007 season, citing management changes and new priorities for its marketing dollars. But you can’t help but wonder if cycling’s plummeting image didn’t have something to do with that decision.
CSC – The software giant based in California has quietly sponsored Riis’s team since 2001. The sponsorship initially started with the company’s Danish division, but has been fully embraced and funded by the U.S. headquarters since 2004. The sponsorship ends in 2008, but so far the company has yet to publicly endorse Riis following his shattering admission last week that he took EPO and other banned products en route to winning the 1996 Tour, leading to speculation about the future of the team.
Making the sponsor quest even more treacherous is cycling’s tanking credibility in the eyes of America’s influential mainstream media. Cycling is like a punch-drunk boxer, and more than one columnist seems eager to deliver the knockout blow. Here’s a sampling of some of the verdicts hitting the newsstands last week:
“Sure, go ahead, enjoy the Tour de France this year. Stock up on the pâté and the baguette and the vin ordinaire, either in a beautiful corner of France or in front of the television. The Tour will still be a beautiful sight.“Just don’t take it seriously. That’s all I’m saying. Don’t take the riders into your heart the way I once took the gritty Tyler Hamilton or the loopy Floyd Landis into my sentimental journalist’s notebook, my common sense suspended.“When a prominent rider and coach like Bjarne Riis offers to turn back his yellow 1996 championship jersey because he cheated, as he did on Friday, cycling has officially become as bogus as pro wrestling.”
George Vescey, New York Times
“Only one thing was proven beyond a reasonable doubt during Floyd Landis’ appeal hearing over the last two weeks.“Professional bicycle racing is a filthy sport and, in a perfect world, the Tour de France would go away and never come back. Certainly there is no reason for anyone to watch cycling’s premier event with any faith that it is clean.”
Phil Sheridan, Philadelphia Inquirer
“What shred of credibility remained about elite pro cycling has disappeared as 1996 Tour de France winner Bjarne Riis of Denmark on Friday became the first Tour winner to admit he used banned performance-enhancing drugs.”
Philip Hersh, Chicago Tribune
Most VeloNews readers know more about bike racing than any newspaper hack ever will, so why should anyone care about what these columnists churn out?
What they publish in Chicago or New York certainly won’t change anyone’s mind in the Tuesday group ride, but in the boardroom of a Fortune 500 company considering plunking down $10 million per year to sponsor a bike team, their disparaging remarks are poison.
Writers like Hersh, Vecsey and others jumped on the Armstrong bandwagon and ventured to France to see the Tour for themselves. They grew enamored with the sport, learned the intricacies and the brutalities of cycling, and conveyed the beauty of the Tour to their readers using all their formidable skills and influence.
And now they’ve written it off.
Their collective dismissal comes at a critical moment for American cycling.
The U.S. has enjoyed an incredible European run since 7-Eleven//Motorola first crossed the pond in the mid-1980s. No fewer than 11 Tour victories in 20 years pushed the sport into the limelight.
Fueled by that European success, the domestic scene is exploding. The Amgen Tour of California is already a world-class event in just its second year. The U.S. development continues to feed young American pros into the big European teams. This year, American pros are represented on six ProTour teams.
That successful tradition has pedaled headfirst into the sins of cycling’s past and present.
Against this backdrop of doping despair, genuine progress is being finally made in the fight to clean up the sport. The UCI and major race organizers realize it’s now or never for cycling, and the sometimes-contentious bodies have vowed to join forces to break the “omerta” that rules the peloton and forge real change.
Unfortunately, those advances are being drowned out by the screaming headlines.
Ironically, it’s Riis’s current team, CSC, and the refit T-Mobile teams that are leading the fight with strict internal testing that’s on the vanguard to bolster the sport’s credibility among the ProTour ranks.
Vaughters is also garnering attention with his trailblazing anti-doping program. Sources told VeloNews that Vaughters could see a Tour de France wild-card bid as soon as next year if he can sign a few big-name riders.
That brings us back to the hunt for the elusive sponsorship dollars.
Unless there’s an American version of an Oleg Tinkov or a Giorgio Squinzi willing to pony up millions out of their own pocketbooks to underwrite a team, the boardroom will have the final verdict.
And unless there’s some major development in the coming weeks, major U.S. riders will have to revert to doing what Greg LeMond had to do 25 years ago — and find a European team all over again. That just doesn’t get the blood pumping: Try saying “Caisse d’Epargne” three times fast.
Andrew Hood is the European correspondent for VeloNews.