Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Your Name Here

About sponsorship, and some stuff about racing, too

This year’s Tour de France doping scandals look to be costing the support of at least two sponsors, Barloworld and Saunier Duval. Saunier Duval hasn’t announced a final decision, but after the Tour, Claudio Corti’s Barloworld squad will drop its title sponsor from its jersey at the company’s request. That’s bad news, but the team’s future is assured through 2009, as the South African company will fulfill its financial obligations to the team. That situation puts the team in a similar position to the Columbia squad, which lost title sponsor T-Mobile following the slew of doping confessions by the team’s former riders, including Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel, and Jan Ullrich’s connection to the Operacion Puerto affair. Still running on T-Mobile funds, the revamped team operated under its management company’s name (High Road) until the Columbia clothing company signed on just before the Tour.

It’s hard to blame sponsors for jumping ship after they’ve been associated with things most people don’t like to think much about, like syringes and bags of bodily fluids and systemic cheating. And back then, I believe Adidas joined T-Mobile and several other sponsors in bidding adieu to the team. But you know who rode it out? Giant. The squad’s bike sponsor stuck with Bob Stapleton’s squad and its promises of a brighter future, and they have to be rejoicing over that decision now. After a widely-reported new product launch just prior to the Tour de France, the now-Columbia team has ridden Giant products to four highly visible stage wins by young Mark Cavendish, and enjoyed some additional TV time with Kim Kirchen in yellow for four days, and in green for awhile as well. Through their support of the team, Giant also garnered some coverage through the Tour debut of their aesthetically questionable but functionally beautiful new TT bike. And nary a mention of the team goes by without a reference to its stringent internal dope testing system. After a few pretty mediocre Tours during the final years of its long tenure, you have to wonder if T-Mobile wishes they’d stuck with it for at least another year.

Of course, the decision to stay in the game made far more sense for Giant than it did for the non-endemic sponsors. After all, Giant makes racing bikes, and if you’re looking to sell some of those, the Tour de France is still the place to be. More so than if you’re hustling mobile phone service, anyway, although the in-car camera segments on Versus make it hard to tell which is tested more rigorously at the Tour – mobile phones or bicycles. But I digress. I stopped having any sentimental feelings about sponsorship agreements long ago, but I do think it’s good to see a sponsor who stuck it out through the dark times get some payback. With any luck, some of Barloworld's cosponsors will have a hard look at the potential costs and benefits of their sponsorship before simply pulling the plug.

Speaking of bike sponsorships and the Tour de France, has anyone noticed things are decidedly more somber at local Trek dealerships than in years past? With their ProTour flagship Astana sitting this one out, and longtime Discovery cosponsor Nike planning to complete its pullout from cycling after the Olympics, the level of showroom decoration is way down this year. No strings of yellow flags; no yellow, polka dot, and green jerseys hung from the rafters; no giant vinyl photo banners in the windows. What really shows is how much of that LBS “Tour Buzz” was created by shrewd, complimentary Tour-time programs by U.S. Postal/Discovery sponsors.

All the wrenches are still glued to Versus, of course, but I have to wonder how long it will be before there’s another combination of rider and brand capable of generating that sort of marketing onslaught again. Trek obviously has the money and dealer network muscle to pull it off should the opportunity present itself again, as does Giant. Specialized and Cannondale could both give it a good run as well. A Ridley or a Felt? Maybe not so much. But the ruckus that Trek was able to create at the retail level during the Armstrong reign showed quite a few things: what a reliable quantity Armstrong really was, the absolute preeminence of the Tour for American audiences, the growth in recognition of the sport in the U.S., and the sheer marketing force Trek and their associates could generate when they put their minds to it.

Something About Racing

I know it’s hard to believe, but the Tour isn’t just about business deals and doping. There’s also a bunch of guys riding bikes, and it’s a helluva race this year, eh? After one short time trial, the Pyrenees, and the first day of the Alps, the top 6 riders were separated by less than a minute. That’s pretty tight at this stage, but the interest of this year’s race goes past the standard, “hey, close race” factor due to the makeup of that front six. It’s split half-and-half between GC riders that fall decidedly on the climber end of the spectrum in CSC pair Frank Schleck (leading) and Carlos Sastre (6th) and Gerolsteiner’s Bernhard Kohl (2nd), and riders whose best hopes come in the final time trial – Silence Lotto’s Cadel Evans (3rd), Garmin-Chipotle’s Christian Vande Velde (5th), and Rabobank’s Denis Menchov (4th). So in addition to wondering if the climbers will be able to gain time in the remaining two mountain stages, we’ll also be wondering if whatever advantage they can eke out will be enough to stave off the time trial crowd in the end. And, barring a total meltdown by any of the contenders, there’s no way we’ll know what “enough time” is until that final TT. Considering that we had a first week that saw the overall contenders battling from Stage 1, that’s a pretty good job of drawing out the suspense. Part of it has to do with ASO's course design, and part is due to the open field with no clear dominant rider, but it’s all come together in just the right way to produce one of the most competitive Tours in a long time.

Obviously, there are a lot of questions to be resolved at this point, and indeed some are likely getting resolved on the road as I write this. But one that stands out is whether any of the contenders will actually win a stage on the way to the overall victory. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) won Stage 1 back when he was considered a contender, but a couple of bad days in the mountains put an end to that title, so I’m not counting it. Right now, the best chances for an overall winner to come away with a stage win look to be Frank Schleck pulling a second win at L’Alpe D’Huez, or Evans or Menchov coming up big in the final long time trial, but those are far from givens. And that’s great. Aside from the European betting outlets, who doesn’t like a crazy crapshoot Tour?

Confessions of an American

We talked a bit about nationalism as it relates to cycling awhile back, and we’ve also taken more than a few cracks at Cadel Evans’ proposed Tour strategy. It’s now become extremely evident that American Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Chipotle) is a follower of the exact same boring-as-hell strategy. And I’m loving it. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

I think there are a few reasons I don’t feel the compulsion to rag on Vande Velde like I do on Evans. The first feels a lot like nationalism, but on reviewing my own feelings, I’m not sure that’s the right word. It’s not that Vande Velde was born inside the same borders as I was, or that he was likely forced to race office park crits as a junior like I was, or that he knows what a Quarter Pounder with cheese is or understands why the Simpsons is a funny show. It’s more that he’s familiar – we’ve known him for a long time through national coverage, so it’s nice to see a familiar face, one you've had a close look at for years, do well. Or maybe it is because he’s American – humans are famously inadequate at assessing their own biases, so why should I be any different?

Nationalism aside, it’s also easier to put up with Vande Velde’s adoption of the follow-wheels-and-TT strategy because he’s such a surprise contender. Underdogs are meant to hang on through all sorts of abuse before using their particular strength to triumph at the very end – just watch any 1980’s movie about nerds or misfit cops or high school students and you’ll see how the story goes. So Vande Velde and his management are just using their upstart role properly, although ridiculous levels of suffering seem more likely to ensue than comic hilarity in their case.

I guess my acceptance and tacit endorsement of Vande Velde’s strategy is rooted in the fact that nobody expects him and his team to go on the attack and make the GC battle exciting – that’s what four star favorites like Evans are supposed to do. Vande Velde is making the race exciting just by the fact that he's up there at all, challenging for the win and providing one more horse to bet on, and for an upstart, that's great. But we come in expecting all that of the favorites, so they need to do a little something extra to get people talking. And not fulfilling that expectation is part of why I pick on Evans, even though he’s just doing what he has to do to win. I also think that my and other's perceptions of Evans were soured by the pre-race hype, which can burn fans out on the perceived favorite before the race even starts. And, well, the constant whining doesn't help.

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As I read today's post on Evans vs. Vande Velde, I kept thinking that what soured me on Evans has been the air of inevitability that he has broadcast. Then I got to the final line and yep, he's a freaking whiner. Can someone buy Chopper a plane ticket to France so he can slap some HTFU into Cadel?
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