In 2013, there will be three WorldTour teams with their bike brand as a title sponsor of the team: BMC, Cannondale and Lampre-Merida. Last year, Colnago sponsored a pro-conti team and Giant briefly flirted with the idea of become the title sponsor of what is now the Blanco team, whilst Radioshack techically had Trek in their name but couldn’t use it for legal reasons. Meanwhile, in the women’s teams, there’s Specialized-Lulemon, MCipollini-Giordana and the like. It seems to be quite a change from the ‘traditional’ sponsorship model of trying to attract a couple of businesses from outside cycling, but, of course, it is nothing of the sort.
For years, since the very beginning of cycle racing in fact, bicycle manufacturers had dominated the sport. The early rivalries in the Tour de France were between Peugeout and Alycon – names that have essentially disappeared from cycling in modern times, but in 1903 onwards, using the Tour as a goldmine for publicity was big business. These manufacturers thus hired as many potential winners as possible. Financial strength thus went some way to deciding some early races, as in the 1907 Tour, when Alycon pulled out because they felt it was daft to be sepnding 40,000 francs on what was a low chance of victory, allowing Peugeot to storm to victory.
So annoyed was Henri Desgrange, and so determined was he to achieve his Nietzsche-esque vision of one man winning the Tour as a lone survivor of the route, that he first made ‘sealed’ bicycles where by riders could not change machine and had to repair their own machines, until in the 1930s Desgrange brought in a yellow coloured L’Auto daubed bike that everyone had to ride to ensure a level playing field, so obsessed was he with ensuring that the best man, not the best technology, won the race. This essentially killed off the manufacturer’s teams for a while, although they began to re-emerge in the 60’s and 70’s.
In more recent times though, it was actually Bianchi who first kicked off the trend.In 2003, they took over the ailing Team Coast, which basically had no money, but did have Jan Ullrich. This was quite a coup, but not as big a coup as they almost pulled off when Ullrich almost snatched the Tour from Lance Armstrong in the time trials. Unfortunately, the most well known image of Bianchi is probably of Ullrich on the ground, his jersey stained with a mixture of oil and water, having crashed in the final time trial, rather than his imperious performance in the time trial that he won. Further misfortune was when Ullrich decided to move back to his home team, which was being rebranded as T-Mobile rather than Telekom, and so Bianchi were left with a load of climbing domestiques and no one to support.
It was only at the end of 2008 that Bike brands returned to the peloton with the Cervelo Test Team. They were only Pro-Continental, but having signed the reigning Tour de France champion in Carlos Sastre, cobbled classics star Thor Hushovd and the there-or-thereabout Heinrich Haussler, they were pretty much guarenteed race entries, especially after some team attacks into crosswinds at the Tour of Qatar when they began racing in 2009. The team was founded, as its name suggested, on the basis of testing new products, and the team arguably led to the introduction of two very prevalent trends in racing today – the aerodynamic jersey, which Castelli produced for them, with a claimed 25watt saving over a regular, flappy jersey, and the aero road bike, which Cervelo pioneered into the market through their Soloist models (Admittedly, Frank Schleck had won on Alpe d’Huez on a Soloist in 2006, but it took the test team for the bikes to really catch on). The team found success and popularity thanks to their terminator red and black kit, as well as managing 2nd in Milan Sanremo, 3rd at Paris-Roubaix (both in close circumstances – Haussler lost Sanremo by 11cm, and Hushovd fell off whilst alone with Boonen) before getting 4th with Sastre at the Giro (plus two stage wins) and then winning two stages anf the green jersey with Hushovd and Haussler at the Tour in new and extremely Euro white kit.
However, 2010 showed the problems bike brands have with funding a team. Early on, their jersey, already changed back to black, suddenly gained another sponsor, Tata, and the team began to be plagued by rumours about funding whilst the owners talked of the desire for a title sponsor. By the Vuelta, the team had folded – albeit after another stage win at the Tour, and the team merged into that of Garmin, which obviously went well given that all the key riders have since left Garmin. Even winning the worlds through Hushovd didn’t help. Cervelo crumbled because its size wouldn’t allow it to fund a team, although it has now been bought by a Dutch manufacturer. It’s old site always had a slot called ‘test team 2.0 – coming soon.’ Whether this will ever happen is up to them.
Nowdays then, we have BMC and Cannondale, two teams that have grown into a sponsorship role rather then swiftly funding a new venture. BMC have grown from an almost local team to an international Behemoth with four past or present World Champions and a Tour de France winner, whilst Cannondale upped their sponsorship when Liquigas left. As much as they claim to be a new team, they’re not – they’re a continuation of Liquigas. Both looked well placed to keep going for a while, although it is hard to see other manufacturers joining them – BMC are bankrolled by billionaire Andy Rihs, whilst Liquigas showed their budget isn’t as great as it was when they didn’t buy anyone using Nibali’s 2 million Euro salary. This suggests bike companies aren’t too able to fund such ventures. Specialised are the only team who maybe could, as they already sponsor three teams, as well as Trek, who technically sponsor Radioshack, but outside of maybe Giant, it doesn’t look probable. The dreams of a Colnago team teaming up with De Rosa and Bianchi to drop Specialised and Merida are just that it seems…