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Rabobank’s decision to pull mountain bike sponsorship is first direct blow to the discipline after Armstrong Affair

Rabobank's withdrawal from cycling has pushed the effects of the Armstrong scandal into mountain biking

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Rabobank’s October 19 announcement that it would discontinue sponsorship of its men’s and women’s professional teams was the first major corporate departure from cycling as a result of the Armstrong Affair and its impact spread past the professional road peloton and onto the dirt.

The Dutch bank has been a major sponsor of cycling for 17 years. In addition to backing men’s and women’s professional road teams, Rabobank sponsored teams in cyclocross, cross-country mountain biking and amateur cycling. Rabobank will continue on with the amateur and cyclocross squads, but has left a financial crater for its newly turned-over team management on the road and cross-country circuits.

The pro road and mountain bike circuits are as different as Formula 1 and Intercontinental Rally Challenge, but the casual consumer — and non-endemic sponsors — make little distinction between the disciplines, according to Evan Morgenstein, president and CEO of sports management firm PMG Sports. Rabobank’s Adam Craig says that the spillover may foretell rough waters for the dirt side of the sport in the wake of the Armstrong Affair.

Apples and oranges

Rabobank has said that it will respect riders’ 2013 contracts, but the company will remove all Rabobank branding as the pro road and mountain teams ride under white labels. Co-sponsor Giant will have one year to seek out additional sponsorship and will keep its own branding on the teams.

Rabobank-Giant Offroad Team rider Adam Craig isn’t personally impacted by the sponsorship change, as he has sought out personal sponsorship for his enduro racing as he steps away from World Cup events. The 2008 Olympian told VeloNews that he was not surprised that Rabobank pulled its sponsorship or that mountain biking was impacted by the decision.

“It’s unfortunate, but I don’t think it’s even remotely unreasonable,” said Craig. “It’s a business entity and they have to manage the risk of its image.

“I wouldn’t fault anyone for being, like, ‘wow, the biggest fraud in the history of sport has been uncovered in a sport that we put tens of millions of dollars into. We don’t want to do that anymore.’ I’d do the same thing if I was the person making the call there.”

Doping controversy is nothing new to the Rabobank ProTeam. In 2007, the team fired overall leader Michael Rasmussen and pulled him from the Tour de France after learning that the Dane lied to drug testers about his whereabouts prior to that year’s Tour de France. Thomas Dekker fell afoul of the UCI’s biological passport in 2009 and later admitted to having used EPO. Most recently, Levi Leipheimer admitted to doping from 1999 to 2007, including the three years he spent with the Dutch team.

In May, Dutch newspaper Volkskrant published the results of its own investigation into the tolerance of doping on the Rabobank team between 1996 and 2007. The paper reported that the team knew about and tolerated doping, and left it up to riders and doctors to decide how far to go.

According to the report, Theo de Rooij, who served as the team director in 2007, didn’t deny that team members doped.

“When it comes to medical care, you must find the line between doping and medical aid,” de Rooij said in the report. “Riders’ health, either in the short-term or long-term, is paramount.”

The Armstrong scandal, however, was the straw that broke the sponsor’s back, as Rabobank decided to distance itself from the sport.

And although the scandal does not pertain to mountain biking, Morgenstein thinks it is unlikely that non-endemic sponsors scared off by cycling’s current woes will distinguish between the two disciplines.

“Road rash is road rash, but it’s just a different form,” Morgenstein told VeloNews. “Where mountain biking is considered more of an action form, road biking is considered more of a traditional form.”

Craig agreed, saying it’s “guilt by association for sure, but it’s all cycling when it comes down to it.”

Can road’s loss be mountain’s gain?

It is conceivable that the current scandal in road cycling could lead sponsors to embrace mountain biking for its relatively cleaner history.

“Hopefully the lost opportunities for the road crew can be more opportunities for the mountain bike crew,” said Craig.

However, to a sponsor, mountain biking’s cleaner reputation may not outweigh its lack of visibility relative to road cycling. The dirt is no stranger to doping controversy either, with riders including Filip Meirhaeghe and Chris Sheppard testing positive for EPO around the time Armstrong was notching record-breaking Tour wins in the mid-2000s.

“No one in the general public really knows the difference between mountain biking and road biking, besides the fact that one’s on TV and one isn’t,” said Craig. “Maybe if there’s some non-endemic sponsor that is interested in getting into the cycling world they would choose a mountain bike or cyclocross program, and maybe they would come our way. But the reality of it is that road cycling is one hundred times more visible than mountain biking.”

So can mountain biking use the Armstrong Affair to raise its own profile? Perhaps, but Morgenstein doesn’t think sponsors’ willingness to embrace the sport will change substantially.

“I don’t think it will have any significant impact, because it’s already baked into the cake,” he said. “In the end, cycling has had such a prolific reputation when it comes to doping that companies are staying away anyway.”

Sponsors that have stayed with the sport after Operación Puerto and Alberto Contador’s drawn-out clenbuterol case still receive the same exposure they did before the largest and most recent scandal in sport’s history. But Rabobank’s announcement may yet be a sign of things to come for both road and mountain teams as the sport searches for its post-Armstrong footing.