June 23 , 2008

Cycling keeps pace

U.S. teams go to France with title sponsors despite sport’s drug woes


By Pete Williams


In the aftermath of the doping scandals that have plagued the sport of cycling in recent years, it seemed unlikely as recently as two weeks ago that a U.S.-based cycling team would enter the Tour de France in July with a title sponsor.

Now, not only will there be two U.S.-based teams for the first time in Tour history, but each will have a title sponsor.

High Road Sports announced last Monday a title sponsorship with Columbia Sportswear, the Portland-based manufacturer of outdoor apparel. Two days later, Slipstream Sports announced a three-year title sponsorship with Garmin International, the Olathe, Kan., manufacturer of global navigation devices.

Both deals are for three years, through the 2010 season, and each team will unveil new uniform “kits” in separate news conferences July 3, two days before the start of the Tour de France. Team High Road will be rebranded as Team Columbia, while Team Slipstream-Chipotle will become Team Garmin-Chipotle presented by H30.

The media likely will refer to the team as Team Garmin, though the longer official name reflects the second-tier financial commitment of Chipotle Mexican Grill and H30, a marketing and financial management firm.

Neither team’s owners nor title sponsors would reveal the terms of the agreement. A race team’s annual budget is typically between $11 million and $12 million, and teams seek to cover at least half of it through title sponsorship.

Jon Cassat, Garmin’s vice president of communications, said his company also was looking to expand its presence in Europe. Cassat said Slipstream’s commitment to cleaning up the sport of cycling was another factor.

“Their vocal stance on anti-doping and the measures that are in place and being category leaders in this crusade to clean up the sport is very important to us,” he said. “We mirror the team’s feeling that the best results come from personal commitment and hard work.”

Garmin has advertised in each of the last two Super Bowls, and Cassat said the cycling deal will not necessarily affect the company’s spending on Super Bowl XLIII.

Chipotle, the Denver-based chain of burrito restaurants, has operated for eight years under a “food with integrity” campaign stressing that its meat comes from animals that have never been given antibiotics or growth hormones. That the company would put its reputation on the line as a sponsor speaks volumes about the company’s belief that a team can be competitive and drug-free.

“Just as you don’t need to raise animals that we’re going to eat with a lot of chemicals, you don’t need to dope up to become a champion biker,” said Jim Adams, executive marketing director for Chipotle.

The words “champion biker” and “drug-free” have not been used together often in recent years. Floyd Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France victory over doping, despite his insistence to the contrary. Last year, three riders and two teams were withdrawn from the race following positive tests. Even Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion, has had to deflect persistent allegations.

Against this backdrop, it’s perhaps no wonder that until the Columbia and Garmin deals were announced last week, the two U.S. teams were financed not by major sponsors but largely by wealthy businessmen still bullish on cycling’s marketing potential.

High Road, based in San Luis Obispo, Calif., is a descendant of the once-prominent T-Mobile team, which lost its longtime sponsor in November when Deutsche Telekom, the parent company of T-Mobile, ended its 16-year association with cycling because of numerous doping allegations last year.

Stapleton, 50, became team owner and has overhauled the riders and staff. A California native, he was co-founder of VoiceStream Wireless, which Deutsche Telekom bought in 2001 in a deal valued at between $30 billion and $35 billion.

Team Columbia is made up of mostly European riders, and Boyle said that also appealed to Columbia as it hopes to make inroads in European markets. Though many assume “High Road” is a reference to the team’s strict anti-doping measures, the name actually dates to 2005, when Stapleton founded the company to manage a women’s team that is still racing.

Team Garmin, based in Boulder, Colo., was founded in 2003 by Jonathan Vaughters, who rode for two top teams over a decade-long career before retiring in 2003, fed up with trying to compete in a drug-infested sport.

Vaughters, 35, launched the team with $50,000 in savings, intending to field a drug-free U.S. junior and developmental team. In January 2005, he met Doug Ellis, a New York-based private investor and avid cycling fan. Ellis agreed to finance the team, renamed it Slipstream after an unsold screenplay he wrote about the sport, and set his eyes on the Tour de France. Though originally targeting 2010 as a breakthrough year, the demise of the U.S.-based Discovery Team, once home to Armstrong, and the general disarray of the sport prompted Vaughters and Ellis to accelerate their move into cycling’s big leagues.

More than half of Team Garmin’s 25 riders are Americans, though they train primarily in Girona, Spain. Chipotle has not revealed its contribution, with Adams saying only that “it’s significant, especially for us.” Certainly it is far beyond the $10,000 that Chipotle CEO, founder and avid cyclist Steve Ells initially committed three years ago, but then that was before the team seemed to have any chance of getting into the Tour de France.

The Garmin sponsorship will bring an end to the blue-and-orange Chipotle uniforms worn by the former Slipstream-Chipotle team this season, though team officials say the unique argyle pattern will be retained. Chipotle, which has 750 stores, has no immediate plans for European expansion, according to Adams, and in August will open its first store beyond the United States , in Toronto.

Both teams employ the Agency for Cycling Ethics to conduct blood and urine analysis. Collections are done randomly 26 times a year, roughly every other week but sometimes more frequently, to build baseline profiles for riders. National and international anti-doping agencies test for the presence of performance-enhancing drugs.

The ACE profiles are meant to provide early warning signs of possible steroid use or blood doping so teams can suspend or sanction riders in the absence of a positive test. Such testing costs $500,000 annually, but the U.S. team officials believe it is money well spent.

“The message I’ve gotten from sponsors loud and clear is that the image of your team is more important than the number of wins you achieve,” Vaughters said. “It’s possible to win clean, and the teams that can do that are going to be at the forefront of bringing the next generation of sponsors into the sport.”

Both Team Columbia and Team Garmin have performed well this season. Team Garmin won the overall team title at the Amgen Tour of California in February, with Tour de France veterans David Millar and Christian Vande Velde finishing second and third, respectively. The team also won time trials at the Tour de Georgia in April and the Giro d’Italia in May.

Team Columbia’s Kanstantin Sivtsov won the Tour de Georgia, with teammate Greg Henderson capturing the final stage. George Hincapie, the team captain, won a stage of the Tour of California.

“It’s going to help the sport having two teams for Americans to pull for,” said Chris Aronhalt, managing partner of Medalist Sports, which manages the Tour de Georgia and assists with the Tour of California. “There’s a lot of great young talent coming through the ranks.”