By Gregor Brown
Rabobank announced today it will end sponsorship of its men's and women's professional teams on December 31, ending the longest-running Dutch team amid the Lance Armstrong doping scandal.
"Rabobank has come to this decision following publication of the report from the American doping authority USADA last week," read a press release. "This report speaks volumes."
It took over the sponsorship of the Novell team 15 years ago, starting with the 1996 season. The Dutch banking group sponsors teams at different levels of cycling teams, including its professional and Under-23 teams. Many current Dutch professionals, and some foreigners including American Tejay Van Garderen, started with its amateur team. The decision today only relates to the professional teams, however.
"Rabobank will continue its ties with amateur cycling as a sponsor, including the youth training and the cyclo-cross team."
Rabobank riders still under contract for next season will be able to ride in plain kit. "The professionals and the women will be put as 'white label' under a new foundation yet to be established, while the continentals and the crossers will be accommodated by the Dutch Cycling Federation. The careers of a generation of riders will this way be secured," said Rabobank.
Whether the 'white label' kit would carry any sponsors names was not stated.
The decision comes just over a week after the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) made public its Armstrong investigation files. It published its 202-page 'Reasoned Decision' on the internet and sent a 1,000-page tome to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI). The UCI must give the OK to strip Armstrong of his seven Tour de France wins or appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) by October 31.
Levi Leipheimer testified in the agency's case and told how he received EPO from Rabobank's doctor. "I continued to use EPO while with Rabobank in 2002, 2003 and 2004, and was also assisted in using it by the Rabobank team doctor 'Other-8' from whom I purchased EPO. During my time on Rabobank I was aware that 'Rider-14' was using EPO, and on several occasions we discussed his EPO use."
It became worse. The UCI officially requested yesterday that Spain open a disciplinary hearing against Rabobank rider Carlos Barredo "on the basis of the information provided by the blood profile in his biological passport."
Rabobank suffered from doping scandals in the past, from rising star Thomas Dekker testing positive for EPO to Michael Rasmussen being sent home while leading the Tour de France.
"It is with pain in our heart, but for the bank this is an inevitable decision. We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport. We are not confident that this will change for the better in the foreseeable future," said Bert Bruggink, member of the managing board.
"Cycling is a beautiful sport, which millions of Dutch people enjoy and a large number of those Dutch people are clients of Rabobank. But our decision stands: we are pulling out of professional cycling. It is painful. Not just for Rabobank, but especially for the enthusiasts and the cyclists who are not to blame in this."
Rabobank will explain further at 10:30 this morning in a press conference in Utrecht. Without Rabobank, Vacansoleil and Argos-Shimano remain the only professional Dutch teams.
The UCI issued a statement shortly after the Rabobank announcement. "In light of the difficult period, namely the high public interest in past doping issues and perhaps a more recent action taken by the UCI against a rider of the team, the UCI understands the context which has led to this decision being reached."
"Despite inevitable and sometimes painful consequences, the UCI reaffirms its commitment to the fight against doping and full transparency about potential anti-doping rule violations."
UCI president Pat McQuaid then went on to thank Rabobank for "the many years of successful partnership... which have been beneficial for all".
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