I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person in the cycling industry who is kind of looking forward to this year’s Tour de France being over. The marquee event in the world of cycling has become the proving ground for new products and a bicycle industry marketing circus. Even companies who have no product in the event benefit from the overflow of attention given to the sport and by extension the industry itself. It’s been a great ride, in many ways, for the US cycling industry as well.
It began in earnest with Lance Armstrong’s first Tour win in 1999 and propelled Trek into the stratosphere as he reached the historic win number 7 on their bikes. But, the rest of the industry also benefited from what was frequently called “the Lance effect”. Road sales in the US alone climbed to heights never seen before and retailers rejoiced in selling more expensive and profitable road bikes. Consumers, who wanted to be like Lance, flocked to shops and paid good money for newer, lighter bikes. The industry, as a whole, was propelled and propped up by road sales.
Last year’s Tour was won by sentimental favorite Floyd Landis, giving the US an eighth consecutive Tour win in spectacular fashion. But the joy was short-lived as the news broke of Floyd failing a drug test. At this time, we all still wait to hear of the results of his arbitration hearings. In the time since the news broke, several other doping scandals have broken as well. The list is too long to go through in detail, but a pair of the highlights is the news that Ivan Basso (riding for the Trek sponsored Discovery Channel team) confessed to involvement in the Operation Puerto doping scandal and then several members of the old Telekom team (now T-Mobile and sponsored by Giant) confessed to a major doping system within the team for several years- including Bjarne Riis, who won the Tour in 1996 and now owns/ directs the CSC team that Basso rode with when his name was first linked to the Puerto case and he was not allowed to race in last year’s Tour.
Fast forward to the year’s Tour… as painful as that is. The riders were “forced” by the UCI to sign an anti-doping pledge before being allowed to compete in the world’s most spectacular cycling event. We were to be treated to a totally clean Tour. Heck, the riders had all pledged they wouldn’t use any doping techniques. Barely a week into the race, which had been a great race, T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz crashes out of the race, but while in the hospital news breaks that he had failed an out of competition drug test during a team camp before the race. Roughly a week later, pre-race favorite Alexander Vinokourov crashes badly and soldiers bravely on. After a few very painful days of gritting his teeth and riding through the pain, Vino pulls off a dramatic and emotional time trial win to salvage his Tour. Sadly, three days later, during the second rest day of the event and after Vino pulls off a second win, it is learned that he failed a drug test for blood doping after his dramatic stage 13 time trial win. The second test of the B sample confirmed the first test and the entire Astana team pulls out of the race in disgrace. As if this news were not enough, on stage 16, Italian rider Cristian Moreni of Cofidis (a team that suffered doping drama before in 2004 with David Millar and other riders) is pulled from the race after failing a drug test and the entire Cofidis team abandons the race with him. Later that same day, unbelievably, the yellow jersey wearing Michael Rasmussen is pulled from the race and fired by his team for lying to them about his whereabouts in the month of June when he missed doping tests by his national federation. This wasn’t his first missed test and the act of lying to his team and then being revealed to have been in Italy, rather than in Mexico as he said he was, was too much for the team sponsors to accept under the current climate. So, just days before the end of the race, the yellow jersey is out of the race in humiliation after sneaking out the back door of the team hotel.
One, two, three and then four separate scandals in one Tour. It’s clearly enough to make sponsors rethink their association with a sport that already suffers from a bad public image when it comes to doping. Many rumors have been circulating that T-Moblie and Adidas will be leaving the German T-Mobile team. Word on the local US street is that potential sponsors who were planning to enter into pro team support have already pulled the plugs on any plans that were coming together. Is a mass exodus now going to take place? Will the sport of professional cycling, as we currently know it, vanish? Will US teams suffer as much as the higher profile European teams? Will Johan Bruyneel magically find a replacement for the exiting Discovery Channel? Will the sport of professional road cycling simply whither up and blow away? It’s a very scary time for the sport. But look past the sport, will the industry take another hit as well? This year, for the first time in several years, road bike sales actually fell below the previous year’s numbers. Will this latest string of bad news deflate sales even further? Here in the US, where Lance is still the king of road cycling even in retirement, the lack of a dominant US rider has certainly created less attention with US fans.
Many of us in this industry, myself included, are huge fans of the sport as well as members of the community of manufacturers, distributors and retailers. This constant bad press leaves us defending our beloved sport to our friends, families and the folks who ultimately pay us. It’s becoming harder and harder each year to sell the top management on race team or event sponsorships. It’s becoming very difficult indeed. The question does become, just how much of this is the public, the sponsors and the bike industry going to be able to stomach before the sport implodes upon itself… for good?
The reality, as painful as it is, is that progress is being made. Cycling has arguably the toughest drug testing regime of any sport. Certainly more than sports in the US like baseball, football, basketball and hockey. It’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel or the silver lining to this all, but it is clear that a change in the sport is coming. Riders and teams are both seeing the need to combat doping- many now recognize that their livelihoods are in serious jeopardy of going away and that actual jail time is becoming a real threat. Doping is becoming less and less attractive and the dopers are being treated as pariahs. The desire to change is there- no matter how bad things look right now (which is really, really bad).
So as this year’s Tour comes to an end, I now find myself happy to see it conclude, just not for the usual reasons. I still love our sport and this industry. I’ll look forward to seeing the rest of the season conclude and I’ll probably be excited when next year’s Tour rolls around. The next few months and the next season could be pivotal- the fate of the sport and industry could be in the balance.
What are your thoughts? My fellow industry members- do we walk away or do we stand and fight? Is professional road cycling, especially on the European stage, no longer worth the expense and agony? Can our industry survive another year like this? I’d really like to know your thoughts on this.
Chief Kool-Aid Dispenser