PARIS (AP) — Cycling got a pre-Tour de France boost with the arrival on Monday of a new American team sponsor who vowed "zero tolerance" for doping.
Los Angeles-based consumer technology firm Belkin stepped into the void left by Rabobank, the Dutch lender that ended 17 years of cycling sponsorship last October, saying it was no longer convinced that the doping-tainted sport can become "clean and honest."
This year, while it hunted for a new title sponsor, the Netherlands-based team competed as Blanco, the Spanish word for "white" — a name chosen to demonstrate that the team was making a fresh start. The now renamed Belkin Pro Cycling Team will make its racing debut at the Tour that starts Saturday on the French island of Corsica.
Belkin sells routers, cables, chargers and other electronic gadgets and accessories. It signed as title sponsor through 2015. The firm's founder and CEO, Chet Pipkin, wouldn't give a dollar figure but said the firm's sponsorship is "a huge investment for us, the biggest one we have ever made in the marketing arena."
Rabobank's withdrawal of 15 million euros ($20 million) per year of sponsorship for the team was one of the repercussions of cycling's ongoing battle against doping and the fall of Lance Armstrong. After the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency unmasked Armstrong as a serial doper, the bank said "the trust in the cycling world has gone."
Auto manufacturer Nissan also disassociated its name from another team that used to employ Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong's mentor identified by USADA and his ex-teammates as one of the organizers of systematic doping on their U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel squads.
The HTC-Highroad team folded at the end of 2011. Owner Bob Stapleton told cycling reporters that the investigations into Armstrong and into Alberto Contador, the Spanish rider stripped of his victory at the 2010 Tour for failing doping controls, featured in all his discussions with potential sponsors.
Speaking in a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Pipkin said he wouldn't comment on how clean or dirty the sport is now. "I'm not close enough to it to know myself," he said. "But it is very critical to the Belkin brand that things be honest and transparent and open and we certainly see that in this team."
He said he did not watch when Armstrong confessed to talk-show host Oprah Winfrey this January that he doped for all seven of his Tour wins from 1999-2005. Those titles have been stripped from Armstrong and not reattributed.
"We wouldn't get too focused on things that have happened in the past, the past is the past," Pipkin said. Asked how he would respond if ever told doping is necessary for success in cycling, he said: "The only way that we would do anything in business or sport or anything else is in an open, honest, visible and transparent way. So we will not have anything to do with that whatsoever."
"We have zero tolerance for anything outside the honest boundaries," Pipkin said. As Belkin, the team will remain part of the Movement for Credible Cycling or MPCC, a grouping of teams whose members hold themselves to even stricter anti-doping measures than otherwise required by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) code.
Meanwhile, Brian Cookson, who is challenging Pat McQuaid for leadership of the sport's governing body, pledged to overhaul its anti-doping system if elected president of the International Cycling Union (UCI) in September.
Cookson, the president of British Cycling, said in his election manifesto announced in Paris that he would establish in his first year as president "a completely independent anti-doping unit," managed and governed outside of the UCI, which would be responsible for "all aspects" of the sport's program against drugs cheats.
"Doping has robbed our sport of its credibility too many times and continues to do so despite the improvements that have been introduced," Cookson wrote. "The reality is that the UCI is not trusted, our anti-doping is not seen to be independent and we do not have the trust of WADA and other key agencies."