Saturday, July 28, 2007

Just tell me when it's over...

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.

Thanks,

Tim Jackson
Chief Kool-Aid Dispenser

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Posted by Tim Jackson at 9:29 PM

11 Comments

  1. Anonymous Clint Gordon-Carroll posted at 1:04 PM  
    I appreciate your point of view in this post. I am not in the cycling industry, but I am a "wet behind the ears" enthusiast, but don't let that stop you from reading on.

    I believe manufacturers cycling equipment and team sponsors are the key to creating a cohesive between riders and the UCI & WADA. It's time you guys stepped in to help create a federation that provides fair playing field against doping, but offers a high-standard of due process for the athletes.

    A significant investment of your industries time and money will go a long way to securing the future of the sport.

    As a consumer and an enthusiast I'm expecting you (the industry folks) to have the clear-head and be the voice of reason in the sport.

    Thanks,
    Clint GC
  2. Anonymous Valeria Maltoni posted at 7:24 PM  
    Tim:

    This dilemma is one I think we wrestle with everywhere there is high competition associated with very high stakes.

    When I was much younger I dated a star of the Italian triathlon who then proceeded to become European champion and compete all over the world. He was in the semi finals for the Olympic games in Sydney and did not make it.

    I followed his progress from afar and at one point I remember seeing an interview where he was talking about doping.

    We face the same dilemma in school with cheating, at work with taking credit for someone else's job, in publishing when we scrape the work of another without proper credit... in a perfect world, we would all do the honorable thing.

    When the stakes are so high in terms of $$$, fame and support, it becomes irresistible to go for some artificial help.

    Maybe Clint is onto something with the creation of a "high-standard of due process for the athletes" by the industry as a whole.
  3. Anonymous Lewis Green posted at 7:36 AM  
    Tim,

    This is the first year in decades that I have drifted away from the Tour. Watching it and reading about it just isn't fun.
  4. Blogger Jamie posted at 9:41 AM  
    I think that if anyone thought that the UCI's code that the riders had to sign would be the end of it, they were deluding themselves. There were always going to be folks who said "oh, they're not serious" and would still attempt to dope. And it bit them in the ass.

    I take the standpoint that this TDF was a complete success. They showed that the world of cycling is serious about getting rid of the dopers, and they kicked out high profile names without looking back. And the racing didn't suffer at all for the problems - it was a great tour!
  5. Anonymous Anonymous posted at 9:45 AM  
    Why not test ALL riders at the start end finish of EVERY stage.

    Surely the cheats would struggle under that regime?
  6. Blogger Carlton posted at 12:40 PM  
    This year's TdF was a watershed. Even the dimmest of riders will now know it's plain idiotic to dope.

    It used to be the case that a rider doped because "everybody else did". That is no longer true. We're now scraping the bottom of the barrel, getting ride of the bad guys.

    However, it must be realised that the more testing that gets done, the more "guilty" athletes that get caught, the more liklihood that some of those fingered will be innocent. The UCI and WADA have ratios for these sort of false positives.

    Before the lynch mob gets to do its hanging, make sure any accused athletes is allowed due process.

    Or at least what passes for due process in anti-doping.
  7. Blogger Peter Sullivan posted at 6:53 PM  
    "This year's TdF was a watershed. Even the dimmest of riders will now know it's plain idiotic to dope."...What???!!! At the risk of sounding arrogant - Who is the idiot?! All right there is some tongue-n-cheek there but seriously, there are a few too many posters here that are still rolling, having fallen off the turnip truck. Before there was EPO, there was blood doping and before that there was amphetamines/speed and before that there was alcohol and next on the horizon is gene doping....get ready. These riders don't think its idiotic in the slightest to do it...the means of concealing the traces of doping are far more developed than you obviously realize...the only reason "some" are starting to get caught is because that testing mechanism is just beginning to catch up. As long as we hominids remain caught in the midst of this very flawed and very imperfect evolutionary trajectory, then there will be doping...and it will likely be far more entrenched than anyone outside of the peloton is aware or anyone inside of it is willing to admit. I don't pass judgment on any rider that does actually dope....and that is not a naive or morally conflicted statement...no one here has even the slightest scintilla of understanding about the immense pressure of being immersed in that culture, stressing the body to those extremes and having to perform on that scale...notwithstanding the trappings of wealth and fame that accompanies success in the European racing scene. What I do have a problem with is the weaselly little b*tches like Tyler and Floyd who don't step up like men when they get caught! You might as well add Lance to that list...the only difference between him and the latter two is that he will die rich. Dave Millar is the example of a solid bloke...in all his infallibility, he took a path that only a very slim minority of us would have the ability or good fortune to be able to circumnavigate....but when it came time stepping up when nabbed for doing it - he did. The sport of cycling is the most beautiful, grueling demonstration of athletic prowess on earth as far as I am concerned. If anyone out there can no longer watch or read about it then so be it...if you can't commit to the underlying sport, regardless of the actions of its very human participants then good riddance....the sanctimony belongs elsewhere....baseball beckons...there can never be too many chunky dudes just standing around in a field..... Cheers - Peter Sullivan, Boston MA
  8. Anonymous Sean Howard posted at 7:32 AM  
    I am not a heavy duty cyclist, so I can only imagine what it takes to compete in such an insanely grueling competition. And I guess I can understand why, under all that pressure, so many athletes try to push their limits with drugs.

    The world of bodybuilding and other sports also had their run-ins. But they soldiered on. I hope cycling is able to do the same!!
  9. Blogger Guitar Ted posted at 5:28 AM  
    Tim,

    I'd like to take a different stance here. You mentioned the "Lance Effect", and the resulting swing upwards in sales that it induced. This should be the first warning flag.

    Let me explain; the marketing gurus were wise to jump on that bandwagon, and I don't blame them, but I think a lot of us were standing around thinking, "What's next?", because we all knew it couldn't last. What is wrong is how we sell cycling, not the antics of some European cycling agencies and Pro Tour riders.

    We need to seel "The Ride". It's the reason we in the industry love cycling. We need to quantify that and bottle that passion and sell it to the non-cycling public in a form they can consume. We don't need another "hero" to inspire us. We need to be inspired by the act of cycling, what it means to our health, and what it means to our planet.

    Sell health to the unhealthy, sell excitement to the bored, and sell practicality and savings to those that need a justification. Cyclings success can't rest on the next American Pro Tour rider, the next "Big Thing", or rely on gas prices to rise to the stratosphere.

    Sure, those things would help out, but that still doesn't hit the mark when it comes to why you and I ride and love cycling. If we can effectively communicate that from top to bottom in this industry, then folks might be prompted to buy all sorts of bicycles and gear.

    If we can effectively show what cycling does in our lives, and live as good examples, the people watch us will be influenced. Are we promoting cycling by what we do? I think adding in more things like utilitarian cycling, commuting, and the like will only help to spread the word even more.

    In short, we need to be the "heroes" of American cycling, and cycling world wide. We need to let others know they can be too.
  10. Anonymous j.d. kimple posted at 6:09 AM  
    When Bjarne Riis admitted to his doping a little light bulb went off. When Tyler Hamilton went to CSC, that's when he really started to take off as a team leader. Bobby Julich found renewed form under Bjarne. Then of course, Ivan Basso found his rise to tour-leading form with CSC.

    Maybe I'm cynical, and I sure do hope i am wrong, but it just seems too coincidental.
  11. Anonymous Levi posted at 9:23 AM  
    I'm waiting for the next "Lance effect," something like the "Green effect."

    Hopefully the country's sentiment will change and bike commuting and such will take off (lofty goal, I know...)

    But it goes along with Guitar Ted's point of selling the ride. If people want to be like Lance, they might buy some stuff.

    But if people want to ride, they'll keep riding. And keep buying.

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