Global Economics

A Watershed for Professional Cycling?


The sport's struggles—on full display during this year's Tour de France—drive home the need for across-the-board reform

Considering how the Tour de France limped into Paris—after three weeks of injuries, doping scandals, and threatened sponsor defections—the mood on the T-Mobile cycling team Sunday was surprisingly relaxed. Team leader Michael Rogers, forced to drop out of the race July 15 after a harrowing crash that injured his shoulder, slouched in a folding chair and watched the final kilometers of the race on a giant TV screen set up a near a VIP area. "This is much better than racing," Rogers, 27, quipped in his Australian accent, as the riders neared Paris and the finish line. "I might do this next year."

In fact, Rogers is the kind of young rider that team sponsors are counting on to ensure there is a Tour next year. Doping scandals threw the 2007 edition of professional cycling's premier event into chaos, eliminating several top riders, prompting two teams to drop out, and seriously undermining the sport's credibility. The use of performance-enhancing drugs is a growing issue in other pro sports, and the 2007 Tour shows just how bad it can get.

At the same time, the cycling scandals could prove to be a watershed. The crisis demonstrates how crucial it is for all sports to become more professional in their approach to financial management and marketing, as well as doping controls. "It's adapt or die," says Bob Stapleton, the U.S. telecommunications entrepreneur who now manages the T-Mobile cycling team.

Riding to Reform

The need for reform is urgent: Corporate sponsors are getting restive. German sports apparel maker Adidas (ADSG), a co-sponsor of the T-Mobile team, is just one of numerous companies considering getting out of cycling because of doping-related scandals. "We are interested in protecting the brand," says Adidas spokesman Jan Runau. Volkswagen's (VOWG) Audi unit, another T-Mobile co-sponsor, is also considering pulling out, according to German press reports. An Audi spokesperson declined to comment.

For some backers, the Tour was a disaster. The team sponsored by French consumer finance company Cofidis, a unit of Germany's Otto Group, withdrew after one of its riders tested positive for drugs. The Netherlands' Rabobank, a longtime cycling sponsor, suffered when its top rider—and race leader—Michael Rasmussen was ejected after cycling officials accused him of avoiding drug tests. Rasmussen denied wrongdoing.

Cycling's New Regime

Despite all the bad news, Stapleton, cofounder of the wireless company now known as T-Mobile USA, is surprisingly optimistic about the future of the team—and the sport. Another major apparel maker approached the T-Mobile team almost immediately after press reports about Adidas' likely withdrawal, says Stapleton, who won't disclose the company's name. And he is optimistic that his main sponsor, the wireless unit of Deutsche Telekom (DT), will ultimately renew its support of the team.

Moreover, the unending series of doping-related scandals will finally force cycling sponsors and teams to back T-Mobile's rigorous antidoping stance, Stapleton maintains. "That's the good news," he says. "The sport uniformly recognizes the need for change."

But is it too late to save cycling? Stapleton doesn't think so, provided pro cycling undergoes a massive makeover. Step one, he says, is to implement a drug-testing regime that is consistent across nations and applies equally to all pro cyclists. Cycling could also become more TV-friendly, for example, by mounting miniature cameras on the bikes, to put viewers in the middle of the action and appeal to a broader audience. And the season should be rearranged to build toward the major events. "If you just have people watching [the Tour de France] in July, that's not much of a sport," Stapleton says.

Cycling may also need a new governance structure. Stapleton raises the possibility of bypassing the Union Cycliste Internationale, organizers of cycling's pro tour, and giving more control over the entire cycling season to Amaury Sport Organization, which runs the Tour de France. "The ASO does a pretty good job," he says. "If you take things out of their toolkit and apply it to the whole calendar, that's a sport."

Stapleton's Way

As a seasoned and successful entrepreneur, Stapleton brings much-needed business experience to a sport managed largely by ex-riders with varying levels of management skill. But Stapleton admits he underestimated how challenging it would be to reform the T-Mobile team, not to mention the whole sport.

He took over last year after accusations of drug use forced the departure of star rider Jan Ullrich. With the help of team doctors, Stapleton devised an antidoping regime that's tougher than the rules require and introduced state-of-the-art training techniques to give T-Mobile riders a legal advantage. For example, after races riders soak in inflatable pools that cool down their bodies and help them recover faster.

But then, in May, the team doctors confessed that they had supplied riders with performance-enhancing drugs during the 1990s. Sporting Director Rolf Aldag confessed that he, too, had used blood-boosting EPO while riding for Deutsche Telekom in the 1990s. (The doctors left the team, but Stapleton kept Aldag on as sporting director.)

Lows and Highs

In what was probably the low point of the season, T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz was severely injured while cycling away from the finish area of an Alpine Tour de France stage on the same July day that teammate Rogers crashed. Stapleton describes the shock of seeing Sinkewitz's torn and bloody riding outfit on the hospital floor, followed a short while later by an even bigger shock: The 26-year-old German failed a drug test administered before the tour. "I didn't fully understand the deep history of the team," Stapleton says. "If I had, I would have made more sweeping changes."

But there have also been high points, notably a Tour de France stage win by 24-year-old Linus Gerdemann. That's a big achievement for a young rider. The ultimate solution to the drug problem in pro sports will come from young athletes who prove there are better ways to win. "Some of the things the athletes take, the science says there's no benefit," says Stapleton. "If they believe they can win clean, that changes the whole psychology."

With Gail Edmondson in Frankfurt


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