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Teams strike sponsor deals

June 29, 2008|From the Associated Press

Professional cycling began wobbling when Lance Armstrong retired, then took a tumble after a string of doping scandals. Now the sport appears to be back in the saddle, at least in the eyes of corporate America.

Two U.S.-based teams competing in this year's Tour de France successfully ended their prolonged searches for title sponsorships earlier this month.

The team formerly known as Slipstream-Chipotle has added title sponsorship from a GPS maker and now will race as Garmin-Chipotle when the Tour begins July 5. And the team formerly known as High Road signed an outdoor apparel company as its sponsor and will race as Team Columbia.

Add in a new deal for the high-profile Denmark-based team known as CSC -- Saxo Bank will co-sponsor the team this year, then take over as title sponsor in 2009 -- and there are signs that cycling's financial health is improving after doping scandals led to a slew of sponsor defections.

"Fundamentally, they have to believe that this thing has bottomed out and it's not going to get worse," said David M. Carter, professor of sports business at USC's Marshall School of Business. "You don't want to jump on a sinking ship."

Garmin-Chipotle, Columbia and CSC-Saxo Bank all have one thing in common that might explain their newfound commercial success: All three teams have implemented independent drug screening for their riders, beyond the testing required of all riders competing in races.

Veteran Garmin-Chipotle rider David Millar said it's no coincidence that the teams that are most aggressive about testing are finding success in the corporate world.

"It goes to show that it's necessary if you want to continue in cycling," said Millar, who has become an outspoken anti-doping advocate after admitting to the use of performance-enhancing drugs in 2004 and serving a two-year ban.

Jonathan Vaughters, Garmin-Chipotle's CEO and director sportif, said the team couldn't have survived in the long term without a sponsor.

"We could have made it through the Tour de France next year, 2009 -- but it would have been tough," Vaughters said.

Jon Cassat, Garmin's vice president of communications, said a "cloud of skepticism" still hangs over the sport but independent testing programs are a sign of progress.

"I think cycling looked at itself in the mirror and said, 'We're going to kill ourselves if we keep doing this,' " Cassat said. "And people like Jonathan Vaughters and Slipstream said we're going to ride hard -- and ride clean."

Although Slipstream is based in the U.S., Cassat said Garmin hopes to target European consumers with its sponsorship.

Garmin also hopes to market its GPS devices to cycling fans, creating on online community where recreational riders can download their favorite riding routes to share with other users -- or follow routes the team has used for its training rides.

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