Rabobank, Lance Armstrong and the future of professional cycling

Hero to zero: Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal may cause domino effect in corporate support of cycling. EPA/Olivier Hoslet

Yesterday it was announced that the UCI (International Cycling Federation) will back the US Anti-Doping Agency’s (USADA) decision to ban Lance Armstrong for life and strip him of his seven Tour de France victories. He will also have to pay back the prize money he won.

Professional cycling is a sport spinning out of control. Last week, on the back of the release of the 1000-page USADA report, one of the sport’s longest serving and biggest sponsors – Dutch institution Rabobank – announced it would withdraw from the sport with immediate effect.

Senior Rabobank executive Bert Bruggink said the bank could not afford to be affiliated with a sport “sick to the core, and this includes some of its governing entities”. Many commentators and cycling insiders now fear that the Rabobank withdrawal will lead to a domino effect of sponsor departures from the sport.

This most European of sports …

Cycling in Europe is like cricket in Australia: it is practised everywhere. Where backyards and parks are abundant in Australia; European cities and countryside cater well for the millions of recreational and fanatic cyclists.

Cycling is part of the genetic make-up of Europe, which is why events such as the stages of the Tour de France are highly sought after live or media-delivered sport entertainment. For sponsors, cycling offers a platform to reach into the local and regional community fabric of potential customers.

An important question to ask is whether the cycling industry – including its sponsors such as Rabobank – and the public did not already know that doping use in cycling has been rampant for decades. Although the blood passport program that was introduced to clean up the sport has probably led to a “cleaner” peloton, the USADA case really is about dealing with recent history, and about making the strongest possible statement about a sport in need of cleansing.

To that end, it is unlikely that the UCI will award the now vacant Tour victories to one of the next best performers, simply because so many of them have also been caught doping.

Does Rabobank bear responsibility?

Following Rabobank’s decision, British rider and convicted doping user David Millar tweeted:

Dear Rabobank, you were part of the problem. How dare you walk away from the young clean guys who are part of the solution. Sickening.

Following this tweet, in an open letter to Rabobank in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant, he explained that he felt just when cycling was emerging from the dark days of widespread doping use, one of the sport’s institutions was pulling the pin on cleaning up the sport. He continued by acknowledging that:

Most of us knew … that to win the Tour de France and many other big races was impossible without doping for a certain period of time … that doping was rife and necessary to be the best.

Millar’s arguments are at best passionate pleas to save the fall into the abyss of a sport that he loves and depends on for a living.

Rabobank in their official statement noted that they “had little to no confidence that the sport was able to clean up its affairs”. In an act of utter sponsor decency they also announced they would honour existing contracts with riders and that the riders would continue to compete in 2013 as a “white label” team, without the Rabobank name, but paid for by the bank.

The recently founded female professional team can even count on four more years of white label Rabobank funds to keep them going. Rabobank executives further justified their decision by arguing that “a clean image is far too important for a bank” - especially during the post-GFC days.

Cleaning up cycling

So who is to lead the clean up act? The UCI was in a no-win situation – stand up for Lance Armstrong and openly confirm the view that the UCI had something to hide; or support the USADA report and tumble cycling into the biggest (financial) crisis the sport has ever witnessed and probably ever will.

When the UCI in the end announced that it would support the USADA verdict, they did not respond to any of the many negative UCI references made in the report.

Australian cyclist Michael Matthews of Team Rabobank, who recently announced they would withdraw sponsorship for the sport. AAP/Benjamin Macmahon

Previous UCI President Hein Verbruggen was said to have received a significant payment from Lance Armstrong to hide the results of a positive doping test. Even last week Verbruggen, now honorary UCI President, stated that there was little to no evidence against Lance Armstrong.

During his days as president, Verbruggen was the driving force behind the UCI assault on the massive American market for cycling. To conquer this market a man like Armstrong was essential. And he was of similar importance to his sponsors, in particular Nike, who are accused by Kathy LeMond, wife of US cyclist Greg LeMond, of knowing about his doping use and paying an international cycling official $500,000 to cover it up. Nike ended its sponsorship deal with Armstrong on October 18.

The greater good?

It is clear that when the proverbial matter hits the fan, those who will have more to lose than to win will vote with their feet. Sponsors such as Rabobank and Nike ultimately will think about their business first and make investment decisions accordingly. Like doped-up Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson, someone had to be sacrificed on the holy altar of doping-free sport to not only shock the world into awareness, but also to protect the greater good – the sport as a whole.

There is widespread belief in sporting circles that three out of the four runners in the Olympic 100m final in Seoul tested positive. Senior governors allegedly agreed they needed a fall guy and that the other athletes were needed to keep the competition going.

Lance Armstrong happened to be that guy for cycling. He was the spider in an intricate and widespread web of structured doping use – without which, according to David Millar, one could not win a major race in those days. He was the first amongst many (un)equals. He announced that after 15 years he will step down as chairman of his Livestrong charity, the foundation that fights against cancer, like Armstrong himself did successfully before bringing home seven Tour victories.

His non-existent victories will remain with cycling enthusiasts for decades to come. Those naive enough to think he was the only villain will judge him, those rational enough to realise that the performance indeed was superhuman, but that the means were illegal will assess his victories accordingly. Most of us cycling fans will simply be sad, because wouldn’t it have been fantastic that a human body was capable of doing what Lance Armstrong did?