Sunday, 12 August 2007
Even Lance Armstrong is bailing out of cycling...
Professional cyclists must be quaking in their carbon-soled shoes at the moment. Although it has been known for some time that Discovery Channel will not be renewing sponsorship of the successful American outfit that was home to Lance Armstrong, the failure of the team he now jointly owns to secure the backing of a replacement speaks volumes. News broke over the weekend that Armstrong’s Tailwind Sports Group has abandoned its efforts, and spokesman Bob Stapleton cited doping as the biggest single obstacle to bringing in a new sponsor. More than anything we’ve seen so far, this underlines the arrival of the grim reality that so many predicted would be the sport’s undoing.
This is the same outfit that has won 8 of the last 9 editions of the Tour De France, including the most recent edition with Alberto Contador in July. The interconnectedness of the team and the Armstrong brand made it look like the safest bet in the world that sponsors would be clamouring to take over the reins when Discovery ended their deal. Instead the team has looked increasingly beleaguered and isolated, fighting renewed allegations of foul play from within the sport.
Hardly a day has passed since the race finished in Paris where Alberto Contador hasn’t had to defend himself against suspicions of doping. Contador was of course on the initial list of riders said to be clients of haematologist Fuentes at the heart of Operacion Puerto, and his association with Manolo Saiz’s Liberty Seguros team, before joining Discovery, almost invites accusations of guilt by association.
There has been a particularly strong movement in Germany to ‘out’ Contador as a doper. He has been prevented from starting next week’s Pro Tour one-day race in Hamburg on the basis of the link to Puerto. He is also under investigation by the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) after German biologist Werner Franke presented them with a dossier on his activities. It all seems to be heading the way of Floyd Landis’ ‘victory’ in 2006, and I doubt whether anybody would be surprised if sooner or later Contador is stripped of his Tour de France title.
The post-Tour news of Iban Mayo’s positive for EPO almost went unnoticed, and the public are so jaded that Andrej Kashechkin’s out of competition positive for blood doping barely registered either. He now joins former boss Alexander Vinokourov in the sin bin, and the writing seems to be very much on the wall for Astana. Manager Marc Biver expressed his regret at his own naivety, not knowing what the riders under his watch were getting up to behind his back. Given that Biver also defended notorious Italian blood specialist Michel Ferrari in the same interview, there would seem to be no end to his naivety.
So, it is against this chaotic post-Tour background that Discovery now bail out and leave cycling with its as yet unresolved problems. Astana may well be the next to fold, which must leave Unibet.com feeling very sick indeed. They paid their money over to the UCI only to find that a dispute with race organiser ASO prevented them from starting many Pro Tour races. If teams start folding at the current rate, they may be asked along to future races just to make up the numbers.
It could be argued that the tide was turning against Discovery in any event, the team already being excluded from the International Pro Tour team’s association following their signing of Ivan Basso. I’m sure they never had any intention of joining the French and German teams in the Movement for Credible Cycling, a striking contrast to the more enlightened approach of that other Pro-Tour giant T Mobile. Recognising that the team are leading efforts in the fight to clean up the sport, the German telecommunications giant rewarded them by honouring sponsorship commitments through to 2010.
A new realisation that money will only come into the sport in return for guarantees that sponsor’s brands will not be damaged looks set to become the biggest factor in driving change – Discovery paid the price for not being able to offer that. Let’s hope it’s not too late for the rest of the sport.