cycling’s uphill struggle

Posted on August 10, 2007

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If the most successful and disciplined team in professional cycling’s history is disbanding due to a failure to find sponsors to underwrite them, is there hope for the lesser teams? More crucially, is there hope for professional cycling?

After the farce of the recent Tour de France, it’s no surprise that cycling’s top team, Discovery, is feeling the backlash and its existence is snuffed out by spooked sponsors.

Lance Armstrong, who headed Discovery to an unprecedented seven Tour de France victories and also co-owns it, may consider it “going out on top” for the team to bow out now. While he does have a point (two of its riders pulled off a one-three finish at this year’s Tour de France, Spain’s Alberto Contador and the US’ Levi Leipheimer respectively), the cloud under which the team has operated has darkened its dazzling record.

Contador was under suspicion for his involvement in the massive Spanish sting operation — Operacion Puerto — to foil doping in the sport. He was denied a chance to compete in the 2006 Tour de France for his alleged links to the scandal, the International Herald Tribune pointed out.

A more controversial, and ultimately foolish, move by the Discovery Team was signing on Italian rider Ivan Basso. This, despite his strong links to the Spanish scandal and his suspension by Italian authorities after confessing to having “considered” taking performance-enhancing drugs. Though Discovery eventually dropped Basso, its reputation went downhill from there.

What a shame, as Discovery, aka, the Blue Train, had staked out its place as cycling’s top team and found success with its sophisticated training methods, hard work and discipline. During Armstrong’s reign, no one could fault, or match, Discovery’s knack for hiring the best cyclists, working on the latest training techniques and invoking iron discipline to back up their superb match strategies.

Armstrong himself constantly had to face accusations of using banned substances, although he had rigorously voiced claims of never having doped and none of his tests for imbibing illegal drugs had proven positive.

After his retirement from the sport, there were big shoes to fill for the sport’s remaining competitors. It didn’t help that Floyd Landis, the American cyclist who won the following Tour de France after Armstrong’s departure, is still stuck in a battle to clear his name after tests showed that he doped to win the 2006 race.

In this age of advertising and image, perhaps the lack of a new bona fide star to replace Armstrong’s captivating personal story and an aversion to being associated with controversy are keeping sponsors away, ultimately doing Discovery in.

The team’s riders are out of a job but the best ones are likely to be snapped up by other teams. George Hincapie, one of the most consistent riders in the team, is reportedly being picked up by a team sponsored by Slipstream.

But that’s counting on the hope that Discovery’s shutdown doesn’t prompt an avalanche effect and induce other sponsors to also pull out in droves. Sadly, It would not be too much of a surprise, if that happens.

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Posted in: cycling, sports