PARIS - The Lance Armstrong affair cost elite cycling a major sponsor on Friday, ratcheting up the pressure on the International Cycling Union as it prepares a response to the charges against the American.
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, and the devastating report on Armstrong by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) was the last straw.
USADA last week placed the Texan at the heart of what it said was the biggest doping programme in sports history.
Corporate sponsors including Nike have cut ties with Armstrong, who also stepped down as chairman of Livestrong, the cancer charity he founded.
On Friday, Armstrong was to make his first public appearance since the publication of the USADA dossier, at a celebrity charity fundraiser for Livestrong in his home town of Austin, Texas.
Meanwhile, the UCI said on Friday that it would respond to USADA’s report on Monday in Geneva.
The body has to decide whether to endorse or reject USADA’s move to ban Armstrong for life and strip him of his Tour titles, a sanction that currently only has force in the United States.
Rejecting the dossier would likely see the case end up at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Although questions have been raised as to jurisdiction, USADA made it clear when it formally banned Armstrong in August that the agency believes that under the World Anti-Doping Code the UCI must support its findings.
Rabobank decided not to wait for the UCI.
“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.
“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 UCI for allegedly breaking blood-doping rules.
The UCI said it “understood the context” of Rabobank’s decision but the withdrawal was a warning that the sport could see further financial backing fall away unless it tackles the doping issue.
Some warned, however, that it was unfair to punish current cyclists for the transgressions of the past.
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 suggested the days of widespread doping were past.
“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.
Maybe so, but the fall-out from the Armstrong affair has been felt the world over.
Cycling Australia (CA) announced that its vice-president, Stephen Hodge, had resigned after admitting doping as a professional rider. His departure follows that of former Olympian Matt White, who was sacked this week from his job with CA 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.
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.