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California and the West

Critics Balk at Amgen Cycle Race Sponsorship

November 03, 2005|Denise Gellene and Thomas Bonk | Times Staff Writers

Amgen Inc. on Wednesday signed on as title sponsor of the 750-mile Tour of California, one of the biggest cycling races in the United States.

The Thousand Oaks-based biotechnology giant said it hoped to use its sponsorship to draw attention to legitimate uses of its anemia drugs, which are sometimes abused by competitive cyclists seeking to enhance their performances.

Amgen's anemia drugs, synthetic versions of a hormone called erythropoietin, are meant for people with kidney disease or cancer, but are used by athletes to load more oxygen into their blood. The practice, known as blood doping, is banned in cycling and other sports.

Although Amgen has sponsored cycling races in the past, the company's involvement in the high-profile event raised eyebrows.

"In the context of ongoing doping scandals, this seems like a come-hither offer to would-be dopers," said Peter Laurie of Public Citizen, a watchdog group.

The World Anti-Doping Agency questioned Amgen's sponsorship. "What kind of message does this send to athletes?" the Montreal-based organization said in a statement.

Amgen scientist Steve Elliott acknowledged that the sponsorship seemed ironic. But he said the sponsorship gave Amgen a platform it could use to speak out against blood doping and to educate people on proper uses of the company's drugs. Elliott noted that he worked on behalf of Amgen with the Olympic anti-doping lab at UCLA to develop a test to detect Aranesp, one of Amgen's anemia drugs.

"We believe misuse of our medicines is not only inappropriate but unsafe, and we want to help stamp it out," Elliott said.

Don Catlin, head of the Olympic lab at UCLA, praised Amgen for supporting cycling, despite the controversy such a move would cause.

"I believe they are trying to show the world they really care about cycling," Catlin said.

The race, which aims to rival the Tour de France, will take place in February. It will generally follow the coast, beginning in San Francisco near the bay and winding up near the Pacific Ocean at Redondo Beach.

A field of 16 professional cycling teams, each with eight riders, will compete in the inaugural event, which is the brainchild of AEG, the entertainment and development unit of Anschutz Corp. AEG is best known for its ownership of Staples Center and the Kings professional ice hockey team.

"We're building the second-best cycling event in the world," said Tim Leiweke, president and chief executive of AEG, which is investing $35 million over five years into the race.

The amount that Amgen paid for its three-year sponsorship wasn't disclosed.

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