Mattioâ€™s one of several people we know who’s becoming fed-up with all the talk surrounding Team Luxâ€™s (lack of) title sponsor(s).Â Hereâ€™s his Point:
It’s Not About the Sponsor
Ladies and gentlemen, I understand: we’re getting close to winter. Where I live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the ground is covered with an icy layer of early snow, which ended our cyclocross season with a cold, wet, slippery State Championship race. It’s only natural that from the warm haven of our desks, when the sport seems to be in hibernation until March (the beginning of Belgium’s rainy season, which lasts until February), we grasp for whatever pieces of news we can get our hands on. We use it as part of the anticipation process. As the strangely secretive Team Luxembourg keeps us speculating about title sponsors (what will their riders be wearing and riding next season?), opinions fly back and forth about how sponsors will or won’t determine the landscape of this new team.
It is important, however, to not let the offseason blog-based news-frenzy eclipse what is the most important part of bike racing: bike racing. At the end of the day – and, as we’ll come to remember soon enough, at the end of the winter too – the important part of our sport is the riders. They race the races – not the sponsors, not the equipment. It is their beautiful and absurd act of self-immolationâ€”burning their bodies for fuelâ€”that draws us to the sport. They ride the races and they make us fall in love. They are the sport – not the sponsors and the backdoor professional industry politicking.
Examples of teams where rider accomplishments have far and away eclipsed sponsor prestige are plentiful. In the past two years, Dutch team Vacansoleil has racked up impressive results. Bobby Traksel and Bjorn Leukemans have had impressive results in the classics and Borut Bozic has taken stage wins in Spain, Belgium, and Britain. That Vacansoleil rents mobile homes and campground tents matters little – the team has a bunch of scrappy riders who get the job done.
In 2008, American teams Slipstream and High Road burst onto the scene in a dramatic fashion. Mark Cavendish told just about every other sprinter, “Don’t quit your day job, unless your day job is sprinting, in which case, quit your day job,” and Christian Vandevelde managed an impressive 4th place at the Tour de France. In this short period, title sponsors for these teams have come and gone despite their success – Slipstream’s name has included Chipotle and Transitions, and is now Garmin-Cervelo. Team High Road got its start funded from Bob Stapleton’s pockets after Deutsche Telekom collapsed, but even with a decidedly un-cycling name like Team High Road, managed enough results to build a superstar team. A strong showing at the Giro and Kim Kirchen’s win in the Fleche Wallonne, it seems, is attractive to potential sponsors.
Teams with significantly more firepower and sponsorship theater have garnered significantly fewer results. Team Sky – seeking, perhaps, to perfect the SuperTeam model – made headlines with big acquisitions, big plans, and flashy kits, but its presence in the headlines diminished once the racing season began. Sure, they lined up some slick, skinsuit-clad leadout trains during the Tour Down Under, but if you take away Juan Antonio Flecha’s impressive Classics results (winning Het Nieuwsblad and taking 3rd at both E3 Prijs and Paris-Roubaix), their season seems notable only for Edvald Boasson Hagan starting sprints from 400 meters out, and for Bradley Wiggins’ 40th and 24th in the Giro and the Tour, respectively – disappointing only in light of his surprising 4th place at the Tour in 2009.
Even the greatest riders in the history of our sport have left little impression on us about their sponsors. Eddy Merckx rode for Molteni and Faema in the prime of his career – they make sausages and espresso machines, respectively. When Greg Lemond and Laurent Fignon went head-to-head in the time trial to the Champs Elysees, do you not remember Fignon’s ponytail and Lemond’s glasses much more so than the French supermarket chain that sponsored Fignon’s team (Systeme-U) or the children’s clothing manufacturer that sponsored Lemond’s (Team Z)? Cycling is an international sport – sponsorships by regional companies, even in today’s e-connected and increasingly borderless world, fail to register.
Let this not be a lack of gratitude for the sponsors at the highest level of cycling. They make possible something that is our entertainment, our motivation, and our odd religion. I certainly hope that many consider sponsoring a professional cycling team to be a worthwhile investment; indeed, I hope that investment pays off. But we will remember the riders. When Kim Kirchen won the Fleche Wallonne in 2008, I don’t remember what words were printed on his jersey. I remember his lean, haggard face, his rain-soaked jersey, and the fact that near the top of the dreadful Mur de Huy – as he accelerated up that brutal wall, passed Cadel Evans, and opened a gap that would prove decisive – he shifted into the big chainring, turning over a monster gear on his way to victory.
Look for Whit and Jeremyâ€™s Counterpoint to follow tomorrow.