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
The other shoe has finally dropped. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) has, finally, upheld Alejandro Valverde’s Italian suspension, imposed by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), finding that, not only does CONI have jurisdiction to impose the ban on the Spanish rider for races taking place in Italy, but further, that the evidence used by CONI to ban Valverde, may well be enough to expand the ban worldwide. The origin of the ban is a connection made between a bag of blood seized by Spanish police as part of the Operación Puerto investigation and a sample given for an Italian race, confirming, according to CONI, that Valverde participated in the doping program run by Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes AND that traces of EPO could be connected to Valverde’s DNA.
This decision alters the pro cycling landscape in a number of curious ways. First, it calls into question Valverde’s results from 2006, and the beginning of the Operación Puero scandal, up to his second place finish in the just completed Paris-Nice race. If, and this is a great big if, the UCI chooses to vacate Valverde’s results, then Samuel Sanchez suddenly becomes the winner of the 2009 Vuelta a España and Ivan Basso, himself a Puerto alum, climbs up onto the podium. Should the UCI back out all those results, the peloton will be full of new winners.
Beyond the rider’s individual results, the CAS decision demonstrates several things: First, the wheels of justice turn very, very, very, very slowly in cycling. We are years from the Puerto revelations, and though this process was slowed considerably by complications with the Spanish justice system, the fact remains that the national organizations overseeing the anti-doping efforts in Europe are NOT all together on procedures and protocols.
Second, it shouldn’t escape our notice that the Spanish police were actually the instigators of this entire episode, raiding Fuentes’ lab on a pretext not related to blood doping, which was not illegal in Spain at the time. Alejandro Valverde has never tested positive for banned substances in an in-competition screening. If it’s true that the Caisse d’Epargne rider made a practice of doping, then the testing the UCI is doing has not been effective in catching him, despite a string of wins that saw him end 2009 as the top-ranked pro rider.
Third, Caisse d’Epargne has already planned to end their sponsorship of the cycling team at the end of the 2010 season. If it’s most salable asset is banned from competition for two years, finding a new sponsor for a team that contains a wealth of Spanish cycling talent might be even more difficult. in light of recent sponsorship withdrawals by entities like Saxo Bank and Milram (though this is still up in the air) Valverde’s ongoing troubles signal yet another major blow against the sport in public perception.
Insiders will tell you that cycling is the most transparent sport, due to the high level of testing and prosecution of doped athletes. Outsiders will see just another big name rider convicted of cheating.
Now that CAS has exhausted Valverde’s appeals, we can look forward to the slowly unfolding drama of the UCI moving to expand the Italian ban to worldwide competition with the rider rushing around Europe trying to squeeze in as many races as possible before the hammer falls.