By Andrew Hood
Spanish cycling took a blow Monday when perennial team sponsor ONCE announced it will end its 15-year support of cycling at the end of the 2003 season.
Rumors began circulating last week that ONCE (a Spanish agency that serves blind people and runs a national lottery) would pull the plug at the end of the year instead of continuing through the 2004 season as planned.
The team will compete in the 2003 Vuelta and the remainder of the racing calendar, but an internal decision taken Monday leaves Spain’s premier team without a title sponsor come November, reported the Spanish daily MARCA.
“This news is worse than my crash at the Tour,” said Joseba Beloki in an interview last week in MARCA when the rumors started to fly. “I put my contract negotiations on hold because I thought the team was going to continue. It’s going to be difficult now to find a contract.”
The ONCE organization wants to change the focus of the marketing strategy and decided Monday to shift gears away from cycling.
“We’ve been providing sponsorship for 15 years, and 98 percent of Spaniards recognize the ONCE brand,” communications director Fernando Mendia told AFP. “We prefer to concentrate our efforts now on other sponsorship ventures, such as the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games, which are closer to the organization’s social aims.”
Team director Manolo Saiz told AFP the team would lose no time in seeking new sponsors.
“I’m grateful to ONCE, as they gave us 15 years at the top level of international cycling,” he said. “Now, sadly, we have to get out and find a new partner as quickly as possible. August is a holiday month in Spain, and it won’t be easy. However, ONCE has contacts with other possible sponsors, and that will help us.”
The news comes as part of a growing crisis for Spanish cycling. Longtime sponsor Banesto is pulling the plug on its sponsorship at the end of the season, leaving two of Spain’s top Division 1 teams in limbo. Jose Maria Echevarri, who guided Miguel Induráin to five consecutive Tour de France victories, has yet to secure a title sponsor for the 2004 season. As a result, promising riders such as Juan Miguel Mercado are leaving, with Mercado signing a deal last week to join Quick Step.
Team fakta on the way out
The Danish fakta team is also expected to lose its title sponsor at the end of the season. Fakta, a chain of discount supermarkets, has decided not to extend its sponsorship deal into 2004. Team officials, however, are hopeful a new title sponsor will step in to continue for next season.
Beltran extends with USPS
Spanish rider Manuel Beltran has signed a one-year contract extension with the U.S. Postal Service. Beltran, nicknamed “Triki,” joined the Postal Service team in May after leaving behind troubles at Team Coast.
The popular Spanish rider helped push Lance Armstrong into a record-tying fifth Tour victory and finished in the top 15 overall. “I’ve achieved my dream of continuing for one more year,” Beltran told the Spanish wires. “I am happy for the work that I did. I helped in the mountain stages, and I finished among the top 15, the fifth-best Spanish rider behind Zubeldia, Mayo, Sastre and Mancebo.”
Beltran will ride September’s Vuelta a España where he will try to help Roberto Heras claim overall victory.
Only one positive during Tour
The second sample came back positive from a still-unidentified rider who failed a blood test that showed the presence of EPO during the 2003 Tour de France.
The UCI reported Sunday it would not release the name of the rider until punishment was dealt, but Tour sub-director Daniel Baal said the rider in question is not among the Tour’s overall leaders.
The UCI also reported that the average level of red blood cells taken during 164 blood checks revealed 43.2 percent. The average before the Tour was 44.9 percent while the last tests taken on July 22 revealed a level of 41.8 percent, a reduction that is considered normal after nearly three weeks of hard racing, the UCI said.
The allowed limit is 50 percent hematocrit – anything above that is considered dangerous and could indicate the presence of EPO, the banned performance-enhancing product. A rider who gives a reading above 50 percent is given an automatic two-week suspension on health grounds and faces stricter sanctions if the presence of the banned product is detected.
EPO, or erythropoietin, is a hormone naturally produced by the body but now available as a genetically engineered product. EPO artificially increases the level of red blood cells and therefore enhances aerobic capacity.
The last rider to test positive for EPO at the Tour was Txema del Olmo of Spain in 2001. He withdrew from the race and was subsequently banned from competing in France for three years.–The Associated Press contributed to this report
Kintana positive at Cataluyna race
Spanish rider Aitor Kintana, of the Division 2 Labarca 2-Café Baque team, was found with traces of EPO in his system during June’s Volta a Cataluyna race in Spain. Kintana asked for a sample B counter-analysis and insisted on his innocence.
“Either the analysis is not trustworthy or a mistake has been made,” Kintana told the EFE news agency. “I am most surprised by this, and at the same time I am most interested in the full facts, which should be made clear as quickly as possible.”