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ESPN

International Road
Discovery gives up sponsor hunt
Armstrong: 'Things need to improve before you would see us venture back into cycling'
By Charles Pelkey
editor, VeloNews.com
Filed: August 10, 2007

Despite one of the sport's most impressive win records, the U.S.-based Discovery Channel team has failed in efforts to secure a new title sponsor and will cease operations at the end of the season.

Tour winner Alberto Contador was fending off doping allegations in Madrid, as Discovery was folding up its tent in Austin.

photo: Agence France Presse - 2007

Tailwind Sports, the parent company of the team, announced Friday that the program will end with the 2007 cycling season. Tailwind officials were apparently unable to parlay a series of eight Tour de France victories over nine years into a satisfactory sponsorship arrangement.

"Tailwind has had an amazing 10 years of success with U.S. Postal and more recently Discovery Channel as its title sponsor. This is arguably the most successful sports franchise in the history of sport," general manager Bill Stapleton was quoted as saying in a release issued Friday morning.

"This was a difficult decision, not made any easier by our recent Tour de France success," Stapleton added. "We were in talks with a number of companies about the opportunity and were confident a new sponsor was imminent. We have chosen, however, to end those discussions."

Tailwind spokesman PJ Rabice told VeloNews Friday morning that the decision was not based on "a failure to find a new sponsor."

Rabice declined to elaborate, but promised additional information later in the day.

A hunt in a difficult environment
Tailwind had been looking for a sponsor since February when a management shakeup at Discovery Channel ended with the television network announcing plans to end its support of the team. The firing of company CEO Billy Campbell, a strong advocate of the sponsorship, signaled the end of corporate support for the team and the announcement followed within days of the changes at company headquarters.

"This would not have happened if Billy Campbell was still there," Stapleton said in February. "This is about their change in management."

Stapleton and team director Johan Bruyneel had reportedly been close to signing sponsors on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, in a year punctuated by doping scandals, many potential sponsors might have been scared away by the risk of becoming mired in controversy.

One of the team's biggest strategic errors came late last year when Stapleton and Bruyneel signed 2006 Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso to a contract, despite the fact that he was still under investigation in the on-going Operación Puerto case. Basso later left the team, admitted to some involvement in the matter and was suspended from the sport for two years. Discovery's Campbell was also a big supporter of the Basso signing.

Indeed, Puerto suspicions have dogged the team ever since and, as Tailwind was issuing the announcement from Texas, Bruyneel and 2007 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador were meeting with reporters in Madrid in an effort to fend off allegations that the Spanish rider, too, had been involved in the Puerto case.

Bruyneel, who signed on as director with the team in 1999, said the decision to close shop was not easy.

"When I came to direct this team in 1999 I never would have imagined that we could achieve this level of success. It was an amazing time in my life and the lives of all the staff and riders associated with this team," Bruyneel said in a statement released by Tailwind.

"I'm going to miss the staff, riders and the excitement of the races, but not all the infighting between the teams. This team has become my family and it is very sad to think that we will not be together next season. 2007 has been our most successful season ever and I expect the remainder of the season to continue on that same path."

A long history
The Tailwind program dates back to 1989, when the company ran the Sunkyong amateur team. In 1992, with the support of financier Thomas Weisel, the team made the transition to the professional ranks with Subaru-Montgomery.

In 1996, just as the old Motorola program faded out of existence, the U.S. Postal Service began a nine-year sponsorship run that moved Tailwind's little Subaru team up to Division 1 status (the predecessor to the current ProTour rank) and included six of Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de France wins.

Armstrong's seventh and final Tour victory came in 2005, when the team began operating under the Discovery Channel title. The team is also credit with Roberto Heras's 2003 overall victory at the Vuelta a España and Paolo Savoldelli's 2005 Giro d'Italia win.

Armstrong said Friday that the disbanding of an otherwise-successful ProTour team might be indicative of systemic problems in the sport.

"I do not think you have seen the last of this organization in the sport, but clearly things need to improve on many levels, with a more unified front, before you would see us venture back into cycling," Armstrong said in the team's release.

History, however, may be repeating itself in that as Discovery's fortunes fade, another U.S. team - operated by Slipstream Sports - is poised to step up its program in Europe.

Winding down
The Discovery team will continue to participate in the remaining events in this year's ProTour calendar and a selection of domestic events, including the upcoming Tour of Missouri.

Bruyneel confirmed Friday that he plans to leave cycling entirely at the end of the year.

"I've achieved everything that I could in the sport," the 43-year-old Bruyneel told AFP in Madrid. "I've always said that I wanted to stop on top and I think it's the right time."

Hincapie visits with T-Mobile manager Bob Stapleton at this year's Tour of California.

photo: Casey B. Gibson

The team's riders, who represent a considerable talent pool, will certainly be the subject of serious offers from other teams. American Levi Leipheimer, who began his European career as a member of the old Postal team, moved to Rabobank, Gerolsteiner and then back to Discovery, is likely to land on his feet. Contador, however, will need to quickly address the Puerto allegations if he hopes to secure a solid contract.

At least one rider - U.S. national road champion George Hincapie - has already found a new team for 2008. Hincapie is said to have signed a deal with the T-Mobile team, run by American telecommunications entrepreneur Bob Stapleton (no relation to Bill). In contrast, the T-Mobile team got good news this week, when its title sponsor, Deutsche Telekom, reaffirmed its support through 2010.