Kiwirider posted some interesting questions to me as a response to the Frei blog. Since the questions were long (and the answers too) I’m turning it into a blog. I have summarized his questions, for the full questions you can check here. For the final installment of “a bit of Frei and Gerry”, subscribe to this blog as I will discuss the email exchange between Frei and myself next week.
1) Have I put pressure on riders to perform, directly or indirectly?
Whether I have ever indirectly put pressure on a rider, that’s obviously difficult to answer as it depends on how indirectly you want to go. No doubt in some team we have sponsored in 15 years, somebody has told somebody else “you should win this race”. As far as I can remember, we only once signed a team to a contract that had some performance bonuses. They were pretty unrealistic ones anyway so it didn’t really matter, but still I didn’t particularly like it so I haven’t done it since.
Regardless, you’re influence as a sponsor – no matter how large – is limited in most teams. You can decide to sponsor or not to sponsor and that’s about it. With regard to sponsoring or not sponsoring, we obviously decided to sponsor Riis’ team. Not a man associated with clean cycling back as a rider, but at that time I saw his team as a way to make amends. For example, at the same time we joined the team, Rasmussen was sent packing. The team didn’t trust him and they even warned Rabobank about him. That move gave me confidence at the time.
With the Basso case, I started to have some the doubts, but the team also started a program that eventually formed the basis for the biological passport. So what’s the overall judgment at that time, positive or negative? The “revelation” in 2007 that Riis has used EPO was probably the least shocking news ever, and aside from the poor way it was communicated it didn’t affect my thoughts. It actually fit well with my reasoning for why the team existed to begin with. In 2008, our comfort level decreased for several reasons, but even at that point it was difficult to make a clear decision. However, when the decision was taken, and every possible option was in front of us, it was quite easy to go for the TestTeam idea.
As for whether I applied pressure as a team owner of the TestTeam, you will find that I constantly reinforced I didn’t care about winning, in face-to-face meetings with riders & staff as well as in the media. Sometimes to the annoyance of the riders actually. But this was not just some act, I truly don’t care particularly about the winning. Of course if given the choice between first and second, I’ll choose first. But at the basis, the goal was to create the environment where riders could perform to their maximum ability, and if you achieve that, it’s not so relevant if there are a few faster riders out there or not.
Would I have made any of those decisions differently in retrospect? A rather pointless question as you can’t see all these decisions as isolated. Without the six years of experience at Team CSC, we wouldn’t have been able to come up with the TestTeam. It’s the history on which we build the future.
2) The delta between minimum wage and the stars in cycling is large, an incentive to cheat. Can you as a sponsor reduce the delta?
To be honest, I don’t even think that as a team you can affect that. It’s supply and demand, and with the exception of teams like BMC, no team is sitting on extra cash wondering what to do with it. So they need to pay market rate for their star riders or face oblivion, and then the money left hopefully covers the entry level salaries. Even if more money would flow to the teams, more than likely it would go disproportionally to the stars. Because the simple fact is that there are more riders who can fill those entry-level slots than there are positions available.
The only way I can really see it can be changed is if the minimum wage changes. If all teams are forced to pay their entry-level riders more, then it will come off the top salaries. That gets us back into the whole free-market discussion from a few months ago.
3) Riders spend their formative years racing instead of picking up skills for their life after cycling. What have you done about this?
The lack of understanding about how the real world works among cyclists (and management actually) is shocking. I once asked a group of 30 riders “Why does a sponsor pay you?” and couldn’t get an answer. The “why would they stop paying you?” didn’t yield much better results although one did say “doping”.
So you have to start with very basic things. We did this with the TestTeam, at least we started to discuss questions such as the above. The problem with cycling is that riders and teams think that sponsors pay for “winning”. They don’t. Again, everybody will prefer winning over losing, but that’s not why sponsors come or go. They leave because they are treated poorly by the teams, and because of doping. I like to use the example of Gerolsteiner. For years they won next to nothing, yet the sponsor happily stayed. Once they started winning, the sponsor was gone. Indeed, doping. Anyway, that’s for another time.
At the TestTeam we stated 3 equal goals: Racing, Product Development and Fan Access. Of course at the start the riders only focused on the first, but I think that when you talk to some of our CTT-alumni now, they will tell you they learned more from goals 2 and 3, especially for their after-cycling career. Of course that doesn’t apply to everybody, probably not even to the majority of the riders who were on CTT, but it was a start (I was very pleasantly surprised when I ran into Theo Bos last month and he told me he wanted to meet up to brainstorm about a business idea he had. Made me a happy man to see he is thinking about that. He was also one of the riders who really “got it” when it came to product development and fan access).
Is it enough? No, it’s just a start. Can you influence this as a team sponsor? Not really (see above). But as a team owner or manager? Definitely. However, it’s tough if the team owner or manager has never lived in the “real world” himself.
4) As a North-American, I must be aware of the naive view on doping by various media yet my company advertises there. How do I reconcile this?
First, I am Dutch. While we owned Manhattan for a while, I wouldn’t classify the Dutch as North American. Second, I don’t have a company anymore, at least not one that advertises anywhere. Third, I think the media landscape is changing. Ten years ago virtually everybody was naive, and the media reflected that. Now there are outlets who are far more critical, and some that aren’t.
I am not sure which media in particular Kiwirider is referring to, but I would assume the TV stations which are indeed particularly uncritical. I am not a fan of advertising on OLN or whoever is the broadcaster of the Tour de France in North America nowadays, though not so much for anti-doping reasons as from a complete uselessness point of view. You make a good point though of aligning media buys with editorial stance, although within reason. We don’t want to flip it around either, where the media direction is dictated by the advertisers. But you’re absolutely right, more consideration could be given there.
5) Are bike companies funding research into doping and preventative measures?
Again, I don’t have a company anymore, other than the small mountain bike start-up but that one is not active in pro sports at all. I’d be very interested though in particularly which research you have in mind.
I agree with Kiwirider’s general assessment that anti-doping measures shouldn’t just (or even predominantly) be about chasing the athlete, that’s already way to late in the game. Start with education, work with the legitimate providers of oft-used drugs, coordinate with law-enforcement to chase higher up in the networks, change the process after positive doping tests to get to fast and credible resolutions, etc, etc. And for me the start of everything is the proper team environment and policies.