PARIS (AFP) –
The Lance Armstrong affair on Friday prompted a major sponsor to cut ties with cycling, in a warning shot to its embattled governing body, raising questions about whether the sport can ever restore its tainted image.
Rabobank, which has sponsored a professional cycling team for the last 17 years, claimed the sport had been irrevocably damaged by a succession of doping cases, not just the high-profile scandal involving seven-time Tour de France winner Armstrong.
The US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) last week placed the Texan at the heart of what it said was the biggest doping programme in sports history, which has heaped pressure on cycling’s governing body and seen Armstrong lose a string of high-profile backers.
Armstrong was on Friday due to make his first public appearance since the publication of the USADA dossier, at a celebrity charity fundraiser for the Livestrong foundation in his home town of Austin, Texas.
“We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport,” Rabobank board member Bert Bruggink said in a statement.
“We are not confident that this will change for the better in the foreseeable future,” he said, later telling a news conference that the damning USADA report into Armstrong was “the straw that broke the camel’s back”.
“What the USADA showed us is that international cycle racing is not only sick but also at the highest level within cycling, including a number of the relevant authorities, including checks on the use of doping,” he added.
Rabobank has been the standard-bearer for Dutch cycling and enjoyed success but it has also been mired in doping scandals, including one involving Danish rider Michael Rasmussen when he was wearing the leader’s yellow jersey on the 2007 Tour de France.
On Thursday, the team said it had suspended Spanish cyclist Carlos Barredo after it was announced that he was facing disciplinary action from the International Cycling Union (UCI) for allegedly breaking blood-doping rules.
The UCI for its part said it “understood the context” of Rabobank’s decision but the withdrawal is a clear warning that the sport could see further financial backing fall away unless it takes strong action to stamp out the scourge of doping.
British cyclist David Millar, who served a ban for drug offences but is now an outspoken opponent of doping, slammed Rabobank’s decision, which leaves its cyclists without a team sponsor next season.
“Dear Rabobank, you were part of the problem. How dare you walk away from your young clean guys who are part of the solution. Sickening,” he wrote on his Twitter account @millarmind.
The 1987 Tour de France winner Stephen Roche meanwhile urged caution, as cycling began a painful examination of its recent past — amid talk that its image may never recover — assessing that the sport had turned the page from widespread doping.
“Cycling has come along a lot since 1999 (when Armstrong won his first Tour). Maybe it got worse before getting better in the early 2000s but definitely in 2010, 2011, 2012… cycling has come on an awful lot,” the Irishman said.
The fall-out from the Armstrong affair has been felt the world over, with Cycling Australia (CA) announcing that its vice-president, Stephen Hodge, had resigned after admitting taking performance-enhancing drugs during his professional career.
His departure follows former Olympian Matt White, who was sacked this week from his job as part of CA’s men’s road racing programme and as sporting director of the Orica-GreenEDGE team, also after saying he doped during his career.
US rider Levi Leipheimer, who gave evidence against his former team-mate Armstrong, was also ditched by his current team, Omega Pharma-Quick Step.
The UCI announced in an email that it would respond to the USADA dossier in Geneva, Switzerland, on Monday.
Meanwhile, a report in Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper on Thursday claimed that a host of top riders and even whole teams were linked to the sports doctor who oversaw Armstrong’s doping programme, stoking fears of fresh controversy.
The report, based on a probe by Italian investigators, implicated former Giro d’Italia winner Michele Scarponi, although he denied any wrong-doing.