Blazin' Saddles

Rabobank move into bull market

Blazin' Saddles

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Like a US Postal rider's blood, the plot thickens as the fallout from the Lance Armstrong doping scandal continues. The latest stage of this tragicomic soap opera saw Rabobank pull out of its sponsorship of the men's professional cycling team.

Having informed its riders just 30 minutes in advance, a statement was released by the Dutch lender Rabobank saying that the decision was "inevitable" following the damning USADA report (in which former Rabobank doctor Geert Leinders featured heavily as well as former rider Levi Leipheimer, who admitted to taking EPO during his three years at the team) and following the current doping proceedings launched against Carlos Barredo.

Bert Bruggink, Rabobank's chief financial officer, did not mince his words when saying that the bank was "no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport".

To stick the knife in (and make Pat McQuaid and Hein Vergruggen choke on their gold-rimmed bowls of breakfast corn flakes), Bruggink described "cycling and its associate organisations" as "sick beyond repair".

It's a kick in the teeth for the current crop of riders at Rabobank -- or, as Robert Gesink put, "a slap in the face".

While many fans would admit that, doping aside, the sight of seeing Gesink or Bauke Mollema crash once again in the opening week of a Grand Tour may have been grounds alone to see Rabobank pull the plug, that does little to hail what is nevertheless quite an exciting ensemble of talent at the team.

As Gesink stressed, Rabobank is "full of young guys doing things the right way". Gone are the Leipheimers, Rasmussens and Dekkers (Thomas, that is, not Erik, the team manager) of this world, those riders who saw Rabobank's credit rating plummet way before the global financial crisis set in.

"Now this generation gets s*** from a different generation from before who did wrong things (and) we're losing one of the biggest sponsors in cycling ever," summarised Gesink.

The team won't fold, however. Rabobank will exist next year, but under a "white label" — that's to say, Rabobank will become Raboblank, their jerseys no longer bearing the name of the entity that will nevertheless continue to honour its financial obligations and pay for the entire set up throughout 2013.

Saddles wonders what will happen should Gesink or Mollema finally come good and nail a big win — could we be in a situation where the main sponsor's name returns onto a blank jersey in the third week of a major race?

The trickle down is pretty noxious: the women's team will also lose their sponsorship, despite the excellence of World and Olympic champion Marianne Vos, although at the moment, Rabobank will continue its ties with the amateur team, youth training and cyclocross.

Bruggink confirmed that Rabobank is still keen to support Vos's Olympic ambitions for 2016, despite pulling the plug on the women's team. In a bold and worthy statement, Vos said: "If Rabobank wants to support me they'll have to support the team. I can't do it alone."

Spare a thought for some of Rabobank's new recruits — the likes of Jack Bobridge and Lars Petter Nordhaug. Bobridge could well be on the phone to try patch up things with GreenEdge. Nordhaug, meanwhile, may not have been the only former Sky rider to have joined Rabobank — after all, there was talk earlier in the year of Mark Cavendish being reunited with lead-out man Mark Renshaw at the Dutch team.

Had Cavendish joined, it would have been impossible to envisage Rabobank dropping its sponsorship. As it is, Cav leaves Sky for Omega Pharma-QuickStep before having to sign Dave Brailsford's zero-tolerance ultimatum.

Both of those teams have suffered from the fallout of the Armstrong affair: QuickStep, the former team of Spaniard Barredo, were forced to sack Leipheimer this week, while Sky have had the embarrassment of hiring Dr Leinders further compounded by Michael Barry's doping admission, coach Bobby Julich's name popping up in numerous testimonies, and DS Sean Yates's face (not name) dragged through the dirt after he appeared in a picture alongside the infamous "motoman" in Exhibit A of Frankie Andreu's affidavit.

Brailsford forcing his riders to sign a document saying they never doped is certainly more of a PR exercise than a believable moral stand — and it would be interesting to be a fly in the wall when it comes to the turn of Yates and Australian rider Mick Rogers, who once described Michele Ferrari as "the best coach in the world" and was named by Leipheimer as one of many former T-Mobile riders to take part in the controversial doctor's famed altitude training camps.

The problem with a PR-led zero-tolerance approach is that it's a massive disincentive for others to come forward and provide information — unless they, like Barry or George Hincapie, are retiring or removing themselves from the sport.

No one likes getting the sack — especially if it means sitting out of employment for a minimum six months and then being gossiped about by co-employees at the water cooler should we ever find another enterprise willing to forget our baggage and pay us for our diminished duties.

Look at GreenEdge DS Matt White and Cycling Australia vice president (and former ONCE and Festina rider) Stephen Hodge: both doing sterling work but both forced to fall on their swords and resign posts after either being implicated in the Armstrong scandal or choosing to reveal their own doping past.

And yet, and yet... outside the inscrutable Anglo-Saxon world of cycling, you have the likes of Alexander Vinokourov and Viatscheslav Ekimov taking over at Astana and Katusha.

The doping culture in the pro peloton has been so widespread in recent years, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone above the age of 30 who could comfortably and sincerely sign the kind of document Sky are thrusting in front of their riders and staff.

The sad thing is that the whole of the current Rabobank team — with the exception of Barredo, in all likelihood — could probably have provided firm assurances of a doping-free past, certainly the riders of Gesink's generation. And they are precisely the ones now being screwed around.

As David Millar tweeted moments after the shock announcement: "Dear Rabobank, you were part of the problem. How dare you walk away from your young clean guys who are part of the solution."

Still, in the words of Maximus Decimus Meridus, commander of the armies of the north, father to a doped-up son and husband to a wife whose mother is hooked on growth hormones and steroids (etc and so forth): "Are you not entertained?".

The show will go on. We'll speculate about who will step in and fill the void left by Rabobank. Some will pertinently raise the case of HTC-Highroad, the most successful cycling team in recent years, which itself rose from the ashes of T-Mobile after the severing of another long-running sponsorship deal. Others will make a quip about now being about the right time for Renshaw to cut his losses on being a main sprinter and quickstep his way back to old pal Cavendish.

In short, cycling will continue.

We've had one huge step forward with the opening of Lance's Pandora's Box — and these subsequent steps back are inevitable.

Yes, it's a shame that Rabobank didn't feel they could hold on — but can you blame them after having their good name dragged through the dirt?

But like any relationship, you need two willing parties. If Rabobank felt they no longer had the love or commitment to show their riders, then surely, in the long run, those riders (many of whom are clearly worthy of love and commitment) are better off without being part of a marriage that would sour in time.

This is Year Zero of modern cycling. Everyone needs to be in it together from the outset — any passengers can leave the vehicle now. Rabobank didn't have the fight and have closed their account. Good riddance.

Saddles just hopes they continue sponsoring that fun online Fantasy Tour game, that's all.

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