Cycling must change or shut up shop as the sponsors leave

Money is, they say, the root of all evil.

Walking away: Rabobank’s chief described professional cycling as sick and incapable of repair

It is also a key motivator, and professional cycling, a sport seemingly incapable of change, must read the writing painted on its wall this morning in large orange and blue letters, ironically by a bank (a member of an industry not entirely synonymous with rectitude), or shut up shop altogether.

Rabobank’s withdrawal from cycling after 17 years is the clearest indicator yet that the sport faces meltdown unless serious change is implemented now. No sponsors means no teams; no teams means no racing. No racing means no sport.

Professional sport is an entertainment industry, funded by the largesse of sponsors seeking to enhance their own reputation by association with endeavor based on courage, skill, and supreme physical ability, qualities not immediately apparent in, say, banking.

The benefits of association with professional cycling are clearly diminished by every failed doping control, with every repetition of hollow denial, and with each return to the peloton of a rider found guilty of cheating.

Corporations seeking to justify an annual investment of several million Euros to shareholders told to expect diminished returns in the frigid financial climate will need little excuse to saddle the horse of moral indignation and gallop away from professional cycling.

In fairness, this is unlikely to have been the case with Rabobank, a sponsor that has seen its name associated with that of Michael Rasmussen, Thomas Dekker, and, in what might have been the decisive case, of Carlos Barredo, who yesterday was suspended by the team pending the outcome of an investigation by the UCI into alleged blood irregularities (Barredo ‘tweeted’ his thanks for the team’s support this morning, clearly unaware that he was no longer its greatest problem).

Reaction among the peloton has varied. David Millar branded the bank’s decision ‘disgusting’ on Twitter, labelling them part of the problem and abandoning its young, clean riders. His analysis is undermined, however, by Rabobank’s continued commitment to the Dutch cycling federation and to its youth development programme.

Other riders pointed the finger elsewhere. World road race champion, Phillipe Gilbert, tweeted, “Thanks to the dopers!” after describing Rabobank’s departure as “a very sad day for our sport”.

Marianne Vos, Olympic and world road race champion, leader of Rabobank’s professional women’s team, and arguably the rider with most to lose (she reportedly countered Rabobank’s assertion that she will continue to enjoy the bank’s support with the simple analysis that she cannot win alone), described the decision as unfortunate but understandable, and magnanimously pledged to rebuild the team through “pure sport with passion”.

Eurosport’s José Been, who attended a Rabobank press conference this morning, reported that the bank’s CFO Bert Bruggink, had described cycling and its associated organisations as “sick and beyond repair”, an analysis in the first case indisputable and in the latter likely to be viewed as accurate by all but the sport’s staunchest supporters. “We are shocked by the report and its extent in all of cycling,” he said of the US Anti-Doping Agency’s 1000-page ‘reasoned decision’ into its action against disgraced former Tour de France champion, Lance Armstrong.

What next? Ownership of the team will be transferred to an independent organization, which Rabobank will fund for the first and final time next year. The bank’s name will not appear on the riders’ jerseys. The contracts of Rabobank riders that extend beyond 2013 are expected to be honoured.

The concern for anyone who follows professional cycling is that Rabobank’s action will open the floodgates for dissatisfied sponsors, and those seeking a chance to trim their balance sheets, to walk away from the sport. It is only a year since the merger of RadioShack and Leopard-Trek, the demise of HTC-Highroad, and the reshuffle that resulted in the creation of Omega Pharma-QuickStep and Lotto-Belisol.

Much has been written about Lance Armstrong’s refusal to admit to the charges leveled by USADA. The simple truth is that he can’t afford to. SCA head what might be an increasing queue of investors in his now tarnished story wanting their money back. Behind the romance of cycling lies hard economic truth. Cycling must reform or shut up shop as the sponsors leave.


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