The Irony

I believe that Bjarne Riis holds the keys to the future of professional road racing in continental Europe [Cue the sounds of a needle scratching a record/glass shattering/monkey's rioting at the banana packing plant].

For years we’ve been talking about the impact that each new doping scandal would have on the sport’s ability to attract sponsors able to support teams on the financial level necessary to race the UCI’s evolving, global race calendar. And, certainly, sponsors have dropped out after prolonged exposure to the negative publicity of having their athletes frog-marched out of the Grand Tours, heads hung in shame. What brand benefits from having their name associated with a bunch of anorexic junkies?

And yet, every time we lost a stalwart sponsor like T-Mobile, we gained a Garmin or a Columbia. Even the recent emergence of teams like RadioShack, Sky and BMC suggest that there are still deep-pocketed brands who believe in cycling. It is, perhaps, noteworthy that the Shack is built specifically to support Lance Armstrong, a marketing juggernaut independent of cycling. Sky comes out of the British Cycling Federation’s successful track tradition, a group without doping-related baggage to carry around on tour with them. Among those three, only BMC, formerly Phonak, has struggled through years of dope-conjured setbacks, specifically with Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, Oscar Camenzind and others. Their survival can be put down, completely, to the iron will of owner Andy Rihs, who loves cycling, perhaps to his own detriment.

On the European continent, things have not gone so well. Formerly dominant Italian teams have self-destructed or soldiered on, shadows of their former selves. Spanish sponsors have fled nearly wholesale, and the French, well, they seem to be underachieving on every front. Milram, the only ProTour team in Germany, will end their sponsorship commitment at the end of this season. Doom? You’re soaking in it.

That brings us back to Bjarne Riis and his Saxo Bank team. Among the ProTour horde, Saxo Bank stands out. They have dominated the Spring Classics through Fabian Cancellara, a rider who will also bring them Grand Tour stage wins in any race against the clock. They also have the Schleck brothers, Andy and Franck, who, in addition to contending for GC honors in the Tours, also represent the fresh, young face of cycling. Few teams bring to the ProTour what Saxo Bank brings, and much of that is down to their owner and manager, Riis.

And now that Saxo Bank is ready to end its sponsorship of the team, it is Riis scrambling around to find funding for what is, arguably, the best team on the continent. The irony is that Riis himself is a repentant former doper, who confessed, without coercion, to having won the 1996 Tour de France with the help of the blood booster erythropoietin (EPO), even offering to give back the yellow jersey he won that year.

A polarizing figure in cycling, Riis is clearly at the forefront of modern team managers, bringing new training techniques and technical innovations to the table more aggressively than any other. Many cycling fans are ambivalent about his influence though, disgusted with his participation in the drug culture of the late ’90s peloton, but intrigued by the performance and tactics of his team. Never a particularly warm presence, Riis has managed his team in the same ruthless way he raced. It wins races, if not always fans.

So now it’s down to this man to find a title sponsor for his team. It’s a proposition that tests the very premises of continental racing. Can a former doper with the best squad on two-wheels secure the funds? There is probably not a more valuable commodity than Team Saxo Bank, not a better end product to sell. But Riis may well be his own albatross. The deal maker might just be the deal breaker.

And this dilemma is not peculiar to this team. Every continental team has baggage to contend with when talking to sponsors. That is what makes Saxo Bank such a clear litmus test for the ProTour.

Let’s not be too dramatic. Pro cycling will not die. Where teams fail, others will spring up, but the new shoots of growth might come from unexpected sources, Australia or Japan maybe. The UCI has undertaken a globalization project for the sport. This can be looked at as either an effort to grow into new markets, or a tacit admission that the peloton has simply poisoned the well in mainland Europe.

Let’s hope this isn’t the case. Whether we like him or not, let’s hope that Bjarne Riis can present a business plan that overcomes the trepidation that must come from shaking hands with a former cheat.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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26 comments

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  2. Lachlan

    enough already with the bland, unarguable headlines… can’t you be a bit more provocative???

    ; + )

    I somewhat reluctantly agree though…. Riis as tour winner was (is) a scandal. But as a manager he represents many good things, and in the midst of the Basso storm instigated strong clear blood testing program and contract clauses in his own team, to set a standard before the UCI passport was fully up and running. So along with his unforced confession I think that means l we can put him more in the David Millar camp of reformed Dopers, and welcome his efforts in the sport, rather than put him in the VIno camp of reluctant and unrepentant ones. who make us boo at the finish line.

  3. Big Mikey

    Good question, and I think you’ve correctly identified the stakes here. It will be interesting.

    If he can’t pull it off, professional cycling is going to face serious difficulties.

  4. todd k

    Riis’s victory in the 96 tour made him the poster child for the EPO era. While EPO was prevalent within the peloton prior to 96, up until that point the folks implicated in it tended to be of a somewhat lower profile, or athletes on the downside of their careers, or athletes that were viewed just a step below the top. Up until 96 one could dismiss doping as an activity that those who could not win would use as a last resort. (This is a flawed argument. I think pre EPO we simply tended to permit ourselves to be naïve. I think the high profile use of EPO simply forced us out of that naivety)

    With his victory in 96 Riis became symbolic of the start of era in which winning and EPO were seemingly synonymous.

    That is a hard image to change. The starting point of modifying that image was an admirable and repentant confession. That it was post retirement diminished its value somewhat. But that he did so as a director for a team during the era in which EPO was still prevalent does make it important and that is relevant.

    It is difficult to quantify how much that image challenges his ability to obtain sponsorship. He has been able to do so thus far and his actions after doing so demonstrate that perhaps those that helped create that problem can be part of the remedy. Provided he continues to do so, we would imagine time would alleviate some of the negative aspects of his image.

    But it still tarnishes him as it does any athlete. An athlete implicated in a doping scandal is always going to fair worse in the market compared to a clean athlete. More irony: Riis’s success as a director may also be some of his undoing as the bankroll required to sustain his team has increased disproportionately to the value that the market appears to assign to a team lead by a former EPO user.

  5. Touriste-Routier

    Even after admitting to using EPO, Riis was successful in signing Saxo Bank & Sungard as sponsors. I don’t think he has to shed personal tarnish to be successful. In fact his experience with EPO can be turned into an asset (document your flaws and call them features).

    His challenge, is finding potential sponsors who are collectively in the position to make commitments in the $15 – $20 million per year range, which is what it takes to run a Pro Tour team. Not only is he competing against other cycling teams seeking new sponsors, but against other sports, which might offer better return on investment, or lower points of entry. Cycling is a hard sell; widely known scandals don’t help matters.

    Fortunately he has a proven track record, and a winning team. Being positioned as an international team (as opposed to a Danish team) also probably helps; the German scene clearly shows how hard it is to position yourself on a particular nation basis.

    The true test of the 2 new big teams will be: a) How long does Radio Shack stay after Lance retires, and b) if Sky sticks around after the 2012 Olympics.

    1. Padraig

      All: Great, provocative, points.

      I think Riis has already proven he can overcome the liability of being a confessed doper. The bigger hurdles have to do with the economy in large scale and the particular financial requirements of a team his size. Sponsorship functions on a bell curve and if you think it’s hard to find a sponsor willing to part with a million dollars, just wait till you ask around for $10 million.

      Concerning Sky, they have indicated that they really have changed their focus to a more “American” mindset by stating they want to win the Tour. If what they say is true and they ride well between now and 2012, they could be on the road for some time to come.

  6. SinglespeedJarv

    Robot, an unusual one this, but I disagree with you. I think Riis is ‘a’ key, but not ‘the’ key. I’d add a few more factors in to stop the continental rot.

    Be first we can discount Spain and Italy – although there is the rumour of the Fernando Alonso/Santander Spanish super-team – as no-one in the sport in these countries seems to want to acknowledge that doping is wrong, let alone do anything about stopping it. Add to that the fact that both their economies are teetering on the brink of disaster, the chances of new sponsors seem very slim.

    French teams aren’t a write-off, but they need to build on their early-season success. Maybe that will take until next season to allow the benefits of another winter of using modern training methods, but their seems to be a new motivation amongst the French riders and the sponsors don’t seem to be rushing to leave.

    Milram inexplicably fail to deliver every year and along with the seemingly chaotic set-up at Omega-Pharma-Lotto, these two teams highlight the worst extent of a crisis in the continental peloton that I think is the key to the survival on the continent. Along with Rabobank, Quick-step and until this season the French teams, the back-room staff seem unable to get anything out of riders who should perform far better. Irrespective of budget these formerly big teams (other than Milram) have not seemed able to step up to the level set firstly by Riis and more recently attempted by Team Sky. Other than a few individual riders, these teams have been left to the role of pack-fodder. It is the complete opposite to what Riis has done with his team. He has a team full of very capable riders who sit comfortably alongside the stars. Perhaps it is his motivational techniques, perhaps, as some have suggested, something more sinister, but whatever it is it seems to work and Marc Sergeant, Patrick Leferve and Erik Dekker need to look very closely at their own abilities. This is where I think the key to continental cycling lies.

    That, and whatever happens with that rumour about the Schlecks setting-up their own team up with Cancellara. Mind you, if Riis can’t get a new sponsor I can list a few teams who’ll be clearing their decks and racing to stuff a contract offer through his door.

  7. Souleur

    I agree that Riis will have the fortitude to stand alone on his own, on his own merits, and seek other sponsorship successfully. As he has, as cycling has. His biggest difficulty I will submit is not dope, not his own confession and involvement, but rather the current state of the European economy. That may be the biggest hurdle he has to pass because they are in a desperate state in most countries, fortunately, Germany is fairly stable, but very conservative.

    The irony you mention Robot is as cyclical as the spinning of the wheel. Its very predictable these things, conflicts, will these things survive? These conflicts of interest have long lasted and the seemingly delicate balance between that of for-profit business ventures and cycling sponsorships/teams may indeed not be as delicate as we once thought IMHO. Can it be a shared mutualism? Do they really lose money or is there a shared benefit even in the scandals? Dope has definitely been harmful, but cycling has seemed to weather these things surprisngly well as you point out, and it goes back in time as old as Desgranges conflicts of the first many TdF’s. There seemed then to be times cycling was over, even wars, but in some, they still rode. Over passes thought impossible. Distance beyond imagination. The harder the times and tours, actually the more L’Auto newspapers Desgrange sold. And, I would expect these too, including Riis, will survive. It is ironic.

  8. wvcycling

    Bjarne will pull out a new title sponsor at the precipice of disaster. I still say they need to put Fabian Cancellara’s face on Switzerland’s own Hero Jelly:

    http://i44.tinypic.com/jg48zs.jpg
    ( http://wvcycling.net/2010/04/24/hero-jam-fabian-cancellara-edition/ )

    I am not completely familiar with how cycling athletes are used in promotions overseas, (Only domestic thing I can think of is Tyler Farrar and Transitions lenses) but maybe they need to get more face time and money making opportunities out of their riders.

    Lance’s Michelob/Radio Shack/Trek/Nike/Oakley/ marketing plan is gold. On an average day, I see his face at least once, when not even in my local Trek Dealer… Other teams could learn a thing or two…

    1. Padraig

      WVCycling: It’s important to note that most cyclists, no matter how likable they are, just aren’t as marketable. Greg LeMond, as popular as he was among cycling enthusiasts back in the early ’90s, only made it to Taco Bell commercials—and it wasn’t even a speaking part.

      If you stuck George Hincapie in a commercial for … anything, most of American would wonder, “Who’s that?” Good advertising doesn’t end with the viewer asking questions. The proper conclusion is: “I gotta get me some of that.” Anything else is a fail.

      In Europe, cyclists have been used to market anything and everything. I once saw a set of Gino Bartali razor blades. Consider that. Bartali. Razor blades.

  9. wvcycling

    Ahh, I see. Euro sponsors /do/ take advantage of their riders a bit more than the North-American based teams. :o

    I’m sorry for my lack of knowledge on the subject, but I never could imagine Yates, Ullrich, Patani, or even De Vlaeminck being impressionable faces for products/services.

    I know Merckx did spots for Adidas, and even Anquetil had some major face time/pages devoted to him promoting products, but can you give any modern examples?

    1. Padraig

      My recollection is that both Castorama and Mercatone Uno both did TV ads featuring sponsored riders, much the way the US Postal Service used the whole team in some TV ads.

      Andy Hampsten was on the Nutrigrain bar boxes for a while back when Kellogg’s sponsored the Motorola team.

  10. James

    I’m thinking that maybe more teams will go the Cervelo test team and BMC route. Isn’t it cheaper than being a full blown pro-tour team? Plus, they aren’t required to attend every race which means teams can be smaller and so on. It just seems to me that a sponsor may not be able to come up with 12 million but maybe 6 million is more doable so you go with a scale that works. Perhaps cycling goes to a bunch of small teams that are more affordable so a lot of smaller companies get involved in sponsorship. It would sure open things up for more people to succeed. Just a thought.

  11. todd k

    James: I was thinking along those lines and wondering if Riis could simply forfeit his protour spot to save money. That said, given the kind of money he is probably looking for, it may not move gauge in the greater scheme of things. I’m guessing it is the overall equation that Aldo includes 1 Cancellara plus two Schlecks plus…..

  12. Champs

    Pantani could have sold some razor blades.

    Other than the Vaughters teams financed by Caribbean shell companies, there are three kinds of sponsors:
    1) Quasi-national teams like Astana, Katusha, Rabobank, Sky, and Euskaltel
    2) Bicycle manufacturers
    3) Fools

    It’s mostly #3, and the supply is a little thin.

  13. Touriste-Routier

    Going Pro Continental as opposed to Pro Tour can be less expensive, and has less UCI racing stipulations. However, if you have star riders they are typically going to demand the same salary and bonuses structure regardless of team. I believe that they also are subject to a maximum average age rule, as a means of bringing younger riders up the ranks.

    But even more important, Pro Continental Teams are not guaranteed entry into the tier 1 races, so they must rely on wild card status and invitations; the more teams that qualify for this status, the less opportunities you’ll have to race. The sponsors may or may not demand a full calendar of tier 1 races, but you’ll have a harder time signing riders without the gurantees. I was amazed that BMC were able to sign who they did based upon the non-guaranteed race calendar. Cervelo broke new ground; BMC followed suit, but I doubt other teams will be able to do it as well.

  14. David A

    What if Riis had died of a heart attack in his sleep while on EPO like alot of the early “Test experiments” did, Would that have been better for the sport? I dont think so. Remember what Eddy Planckaert said in his confession, “I used caffine and EPO, and just flew on it”. If you could survive you flew, if you could not you died. The stakes were high to say the least, win a classic or a Grand Tour or die from an EPO induced heart attack. At the end of the day we will forgive them, knowing that they walked through the fire and survived even if somewhat burned and tarnished. Is it right, no it isnt, but pro cycling reminds of the film The Wrestler more than Breaking Away.

  15. cthulhu

    Well, for sure Boonen is as much used for marketing in Belgium as Lance in the US. There he can be used to sell anything. Damn, I know quite a few gals who can hang for hours at his lips, “Oh, I don’t understand a word he is saying, but isn’t he just cuuuute~!”

    But back to topic. I don’t think it is a downfall of continental cycling, it’s just thanks to globalised marketing the rest of the world is catching up. Also a bit with the help of the press. My impression there is that the oversea press is a lot more carefree about doping problems in the peleton while the continental one, especially in Germany and France, is overemphasising that point. That has is influence in sponsorship as well in the youth and the (missing) new blood.

    oh and @ todd k.
    I concur the Riis is the posterchild of the epo era, but I say he, or more specific his TdF win, is the end of that development, he is the point where hard work was actually bringing you the wins again because by then everybody had it. Before him it was more or less an exclusive product only the most carefree or most willing had, see big mike, tony rominger, gewiss ballan team (riis was one of them) and others that suddenly appeared at the beginning of the 90s.

  16. SinglespeedJarv

    @cthulhu to say that Riis’ 1996 TdF win was the time where training became more important tha doping then how do you explain every single doping case since then? If anything his Mr. 60% tag and the introduction of the 50%hct “health check” meant that doping became even more important as teams recognised that in order to be successful they needed to organise their teams doping.

  17. cthulhu

    @Jarv: I didn’t say doping wasn’t important, I even implied it was elemental(at least I think I have), but that is exactly my point. And because it was(and still is) elemental all had to jump on the bandwagon. By then everybody has caught up and had it organised, the “medical support” was level again at that point so that the training and talent and racing skills were the deciding factors again.
    That doesn’t make the use of doping less bad or more justified.

  18. SinglespeedJarv

    @cthulhu but the point is that someone with a natural hct of 43%, who boosts their value up to 50% will benefit far more (by a huge magnitude) than someone with a natural value of 47%. If they were both clean you would expect the person with natural ability would be the better rider. It does not mean that they would be equal riders if they both had an artificial hct of 50%, that training would be the deciding factor.

    Anyway, this is going way off-topic so I’ll leave it there.

  19. cthulhu

    OK one final statement from me on this (off-)topic.

    I didn’t include genetic endowments in my listing and that is exactly the point why, because these differences are blurred or even swept away. Also, if both had artificially a hct of 50% of course the one who trains more is the fitter rider, not necessarily the better one or the one who will win, since that as we all know isn’t necessary the best or the fittest, cleverness and luck are quite some important factors aswell. But one can surely make up to some degree lacking skill with more fitness. And we all agree that fitness is a mandatory for success in cycling, do we?
    I personally think Rolf Järmann, a swiss ex-pro, who first anonymously, a few months later openly admittad using epo long before Riis and Zabel did it in fancy press conferences, describes it very well. I will try to translate a few quotes out of his confession since I could only find it in German, which is a very interesting read.

    “Thanks to the addition of EPO training became much harder and extensive. Before there have been natural differences in performances, but these were now blurred. EPO put all pros onto the same level, to make a difference was only possible through training. I knew there was other stuff in use, too. But cyclists do not need those. In my opinion there is only one thing that helps: EPO. That alone is enough to win races. One could say it, on a gut level, like this: EPO makes you 10% faster, all the other things together adds an additional half percent.[...]But the difference between top form with and without EPO was enormous. With a medicore form even EPO doesn’t help much, but if you are in form, you can go incredible fast.”

  20. randomactsofcycling

    So, sponsorship in cycling – a business decision? Only if you make bikes. Bianchi and De Rosa have been living off the exploits of the the ’70s for decades and I am sure Canyon must still be in love with Cadel Evans. Cervelo are the only ones that have really done this properly.
    Unfortunately, in cycling there is no Home Ground advantage, no Club-House and you still can’t buy a jersey with your favourite rider’s name and number on it (on a side note I am still amazed we haven’t seen squad numbers and names on cycling jerseys. Even for the sake of the Commentators, it would be great).
    Sponsors want to develop a rapport with a particular target market. Therefore they need their customers and potential customers to associate with ‘their team’. Think about your favourite sports team – I bet you can recall their shirt sponsor. Remember the famous Liverpool Football team of the 1980-90s? Candy. Arsenal? JVC. Man U? It’s not now but it was Sharp.
    The way forward is the way of Saxo and Columbia – hire international riders and target key races that are important for your sponsors. Not the way of Milram or Caisse where you hire ‘home’ riders. What you then need of course is a Manager that is capable of keeping all these athletes motivated and working together. That means more than just Boot Camp at the beginning of the season. Riis is a smart guy and he appears to handle his athletes well. Teams with a consistency in the Management always have consistent success.
    The Doping thing is largely irrelevant I think. It is a convenient excuse for a sponsor to jump ship in difficult financial times though.
    Amongst my non-cycling friends it never even rates a mention. Admittedly I don’t live in the European hotbed of cycling but surely a sponsor wants to appeal to an audience outside the quite small cycling community?

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