Cycling is a sport full of strange sponsorships, as teams attempt to make money out of every bit of real estate on their jerseys, advertising everything from beer to Burger King in the case of Italian second tier team Eolo-Kometa.
The best at this is also one of the most successful teams, Soudal Quick-Step. Over its 20-year existence in its current incarnation, the Belgian squad has had a smorgasbord of interesting partners. However, there has always been one that I've been particularly fascinated by, thanks to the photos that the deal means every year.
At the team's December training camp, since at least 2015, the riders embark not just on a casual showing off of Latexco's pillows and mattresses, but in a full blown pillow fight in order to add a bit of fun into the situation. It was very exciting to see this tradition continue into 2023, as Quick-Step posted the annual mattress and pillow image on their Instagram this week.
Bad news, then, this Friday morning, as Cycling Weekly can reveal that Quick-Step's iconic pillow fight photoshoots are likely to be no more after this year, thanks to the sponsors, Latexco, being bought out.
"This year is a bit different, because Latexco got taken over by a bigger company, owned by Luc Tack," Katrien Dendievel, the company's PR director said. "Latexco will keep on sponsoring the team, because the contract was already signed before the takeover.
"I think they will continue the sponsorship, but it will continue under another name. It will no longer be Latexco because the group has so many companies. I think they want to use the sponsorship to promote another one of its brands.
"This year will be the last one we will see Latexco on the shirts, so it will probably be the last pillow fight they have."
In memoriam, the pillow photos; one of the best things about the mad world of cycling.
Everyone from Tom Boonen and Mark Cavendish to Remco Evenepoel and Julian Alaphilippe have taken part in the melee. It spans eras, with 2014 Cavendish battling with Niki Terpstra, and up to the present day, Alaphilippe and Fabio Jakobsen ganging up on Evenepoel. The pictures also serve the purpose of showing just how many world champions the team has had on its books - Michał Kwiatkowski, Alaphilippe, and Evenepoel just in this decade.
"The idea came from [photographer] Tim De Waele, he was the first one who took the pictures for the team," Dendievel explained. "We were thinking every year about how to make it funny, what we wanted to say with our pillows and mattresses.
"We wanted to say that you could get a lot of energy sleeping on them, we didn't just want people lying down. The idea of the pillow fight came up because of this. We repeat it every year, it's always the last thing we do on the shoot, and the riders are always very happy and excited to do it. It's tradition."
Cycling can seem somewhat homoerotic at times, and the pillow fights, or the riders sharing beds, just adds to that vibe. There's something pure and fun in the images, though, something that is so clearly missing in the standard, awkward pre-season photoshoots that riders have to go through.
What better way to show off your products, though, if you're a pillow company from Belgium, than sponsoring Belgium's best and biggest cycling team?
"We always get a good reaction, because we use the picture when someone is winning a race, and of course we have the luck of a good team, that does that a lot," Dendievel said.
It is often unclear what brands get out of being a cycling team's sponsors, but for Latexco, it has been a very useful endeavour, especially for raising its profile.
"I don't think we gain new customers sponsoring the team, I think we just get publicity," Dendievel told Cycling Weekly. "To make sure our brand is well known. It does have an impact though, especially when Tom Boonen was still on the team, and people came and asked for the mattress that he has.
"I think now with Remco [Evenepoel] it will have the same affect, it depends on the team of. course. Him being world champion that's the best publicity we can have."
As for the future, it remains to be seen what will replace the pillow fights as the best PR imagery in cycling, but these images will always have a special place in my heart.
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