LEON, Spain (VN) — The tsunami triggered by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation of Lance Armstrong continues to sweep across the peloton.
In a stunning decision, the title sponsor of the longest-tenured men’s professional team in the sport, Rabobank, is cutting all ties to professional cycling, ending nearly two decades as one of the most visible brand names in the peloton. Team management says it will continue under a “white label” as they search for a new title sponsor.
The Dutch bank said Friday the USADA report outlining a doping ring spanning nearly 20 years was the final nail in the coffin for the sponsor that’s endured its fair share of doping scandals over the years.
Board member Bert Bruggink said the report made the bank lose confidence in the sport’s ability to compete clean.
“It is with pain in our heart, but for the bank this is an inevitable decision,” Bruggink said in a statement Friday morning. “We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport. We are not confident that this will change for the better in the foreseeable future.”
The decision ends its relationship with the men’s pro team dating back 17 years. It also cut ties to the women’s pro team that bore its name, but will remain a sponsor of an amateur team, a cyclocross team and back youth training.
Rabobank was one of the sport’s highest profile sponsors, and its most determined. Despite many brushes with scandals involving its own riders, including the disastrous 2007 Tour de France with Michael Rasmussen, the bank stood by the team.
The statement made no mention of Carlos Barredo, against whom the UCI opened disciplinary action under the biological passport program on Thursday.
Instead, it appears the bank has lost faith in professional cycling under the weight of 1,000 pages of testimony and evidence as part of the USADA case against the Armstrong doping ring.
“Cycling is a beautiful sport, which millions of Dutch people enjoy and a large number of those Dutch people are clients of Rabobank. But our decision stands: we are pulling out of professional cycling,” Bruggink said. “It is painful. Not just for Rabobank, but especially for the enthusiasts and the cyclists who are not to blame in this.”
Rabobank’s first full season as a sponsor was in 1996. The team’s distinctive orange jerseys and Dutch accent quickly made it one of the most important teams in the peloton. The team survived the Festina Affaire, Operación Puerto and the Rasmussen embarrassment, but the Armstrong Affair was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
The surprise departure comes just after the bank seemed to be forcing real changes within the team structure. Longtime manager Erik Breukink was shown the door earlier this year and the team had built its future around younger, supposedly cleaner riders, such as Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema. The shake-up came as revelations that team doctor Geert Leinders and others were involved with organized doping in the team during the 2000s. Levi Leipheimer last week admitted to using performance enhancing drugs and methods while riding with Rabobank between 2002 and 2004.
Rabobank’s exit leaves the team’s future on shaky ground. Not only did Rabobank sponsor the team, it owned it as well.
Initial reports out of the Netherlands indicate current team management will try to restructure and race next season without a sponsor until they can find one, similar to High Road following Telekom’s exit in 2006 as well as recent startups GreenEdge and Leopard. Whether there’s enough money in the coffers to cover the budget in 2013 remains to be seen.
“The professionals and the women will be put as ‘white label’ under a new foundation yet to be established, while the continentals and the ’crossers will be accommodated by the Dutch Cycling Federation. The careers of a generation of riders will this way be secured,” said the team’s management in a statement. “The ‘white label’ team has instructions to continue on its own as soon as possible. Harold Knebel, the current director of the cycling teams, will be managing the transition. The cycling team will later report about the remaining composition of the new start. The cycling team will continue with the confidence it is following the right path.”
The men’s team had 28 riders confirmed for the 2013 season. New arrivals for next year included Jack Bobridge (Orica-GreenEdge), Lars Petter Nordhaugh (Sky), David Tanner (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), Robert Wagner (RadioShack-Nissan) and Matt Goos and Moreno Hofland from the Rabobank U23 team.
“I think I am the first of the new generation. We were just on the right path in recent years,” said Gesink. “It is a very bitter feeling of having to foot the bill for what happened in the past. All that we do now afterthought. We were just trying to make things happen.”
The news is also a blow to women’s cycling. Rabobank was one of the most consistent backers of women’s racing and the decision leaves Olympic-world champion Marianne Vos in doubt. American Megan Guarnier announced her signing with the squad earlier this week as well.
“The announcement of the judgment by Rabo is hard and poses many questions. This is not an incomprehensible decision in light of current doping scandals, but alas, it affects a lot of innocent people in our sport,” said Vos. “I sure hope our team (women) will continue, following a successful year when we showed pure sport and passion.”
The UCI issued a statement Friday thanking Rabobank for its longterm commitment to cycling and acknowledging the difficult environment surrounding the team at this time. The federation reaffirmed its “commitment to the fight against doping and full transparency about potential anti-doping rule violations.”
“Cycling is grateful for the many years of successful partnership with Rabobank, which have been beneficial for all,” said UCI president Pat McQuaid. “Its involvement has changed the lives of numerous athletes who in turn have undoubtedly contributed to make Rabobank one of the most recognized brands in sport worldwide.”
Sports marketing consultant Frank van den Wall Bake told Dutch news agency ANP that the decision was “unavoidable” in the Netherlands where millions love cycling, but where a bank cannot be seen to be involved in a tainted sport.
“I don’t expect a candidate to come forward to take over Rabobank’s role in cycling,” he said.
David Millar, who served a ban for drug offenses but is now an outspoken opponent of doping, took to Twitter to slam Rabobank’s decision, which leaves its riders without a team sponsor next season:
Dear Rabobank, you were part of the problem. How dare you walk away from your young clean guys who are part of the solution. Sickening.