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ESPN

International Road
Why Tailwind pulled the plug
Armstrong: 'This isn't about a lack of a sponsor'
By Andrew Hood
VeloNews European correspondent
Filed: August 10, 2007

Even winning the Tour de France couldn't save Discovery Channel in its search to find a replacement title sponsor for beyond the 2007 season.

Less than two weeks after Alberto Contador won the team's eighth Tour in nine years, officials from Tailwind Sports officially threw in the towel in their hunt to procure a new sponsor. They blamed a laundry list of cycling's ills for their failure to convince a sponsor to pony up an estimated $15 million per year to underwrite the ProTour team's annual budget.

"We couldn't in good conscience ask someone to spend the sort of money that it would require to sponsor the team in the current situation," said Bill Stapleton, general manager of Tailwind Sports. "It's not an environment conducive in our opinion to make an investment."

Stapleton, Lance Armstrong, Discovery Channel team manager Johan Bruyneel and Bart Knaggs, a principal at Capital Sports and Entertainment, fielded questions from about a dozen journalists late Friday in a conference call to expand on the surprising decision to end efforts to find a new sponsor.

Armstrong - who won seven consecutive Tours before retiring in 2005 - insisted the under-riding issue wasn't that the management team they couldn't find a sponsor to pick up the team's budget.

"We had a firm commitment for three years. It wasn't signed and sealed, but we were 90 percent there," Armstrong said. "No. 1, this isn't about a lack of a sponsor. If that were the case we would say that in October, not in August. No. 2, it's not a statement. We're just deciding it's a good time to step aside."

In February, officials from cable giant Discovery Channel said they would not sponsor the team beyond this season. Despite public assurances that a replacement sponsor was imminent, the team was scrambling to try to find a new sponsor to carry on the team's decade-long legacy.

The controversial decision to signed tainted rider Ivan Basso and others implicated in the Operación Puerto doping investigation put a chill on some potential sponsors and efforts extended beyond America's corporate boardrooms to China and Japan.

The announcement that the team would abandon the sport came on the same day as Contador made a public declaration in Madrid to try to mend his battered image. The Spanish climber, who has come under fire since winning the Tour on July 29 for alleged links to the Operación Puerto doping ring, promised his Tour victory was clean.

The decision to pull the plug on a sponsor hunt officially closes the door on the Armstrong era in cycling that began when Armstrong joined the then-modest U.S. Postal Service team in 1998 after fending off cancer.

"It's an end of an era today. It's a sad day. We leave with our heads held high, how we managed to run the team and staff. We won eight of nine Tours," Armstrong said. "There's some sadness."

The departure of Discovery Channel will leave a big hole in the ProTour, leaving the sport without an American-sponsored team in the 20-squad league.

The ascendancy of Slipstream Sports next season with an expanded European racing schedule and the recruitment of such riders as Dave Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde, Tom Danielson, Magnus Backstedt and David Millar will help fill the void. The American team will be bucking for a wild-card bid to start the 2008 Tour.

The sponsor hunt came in the midst of complicated challenges facing the sport. Teams such as T-Mobile, Slipstream and CSC have introduced strict, internal anti-doping testing programs to assure to sponsors and fans their riders are racing clean.

Other teams haven't adopted the same strategy and there's been a bitter feud between the bigger European teams over which direction the future of the sport should take. Discovery Channel hastily withdrew from the AIGCP (association of pro teams) before the Tour over the growing rift.

Tailwind's decision to give up the hunt for sponsor comes on the heels of endorsements from European sponsors to stay with the sport. T-Mobile, Gerolsteiner and Milram have all reconfirmed their commitments to their respective contract agreements despite the battering the sport is taking in Germany.

Though Stapleton hinted the management team would consider a return to the sport at a future date, they said their decision doesn't come with a hidden agenda.

"We're not trying to send any message. We had to make an individual decision," Stapleton said. "We reached a different conclusion than other people. Maybe some of those based in Europe have different reasons for being in the sport."

When asked what could help save the sport's credibility, Armstrong said, "I don't want to pretend to have the answer. That's the $100 million question."

"Perhaps there's a Bernie Ecclestone (Formula 1 owner) who can come in and solve a lot of the sport's problems and perhaps even own the sport. If that might happen, that's something we might be a part of in the future," Armstrong said. "Right now, everything in cycling - the teams, the races, the organizers, the riders, the press, the fans - all of these things are at war. We need some semblance of balance."

Armstrong said growing rancor between the UCI and Tour de France owners ASO only made the decision to step outside the ring even easier.

"It's a sad for American cycling," Armstrong said. "The guys at ASO are talking about taking the Tour back to national teams like they did in the olden days. If something like that would happen, someone's $15 million investment is worth zero. Issues like that are too unknown. It's too risky to ask that kind of money. There are too many questions within the sport."

Armstrong became of the principal owners of the team while still racing, but admitted that with his busy schedule with the Lance Armstrong Foundation and other commitments made it difficult for him to stay in close contact with the program.

Bruyneel, who confirmed he would retire and not accept a role with another team, said the decision was made over the past week of discussions between the foursome. They denied there was any other reason for the surprise announcement.

"We just feel like we had to be fair and had to be honest about the situation," Bruyneel said. "Most of the riders will go away with the Discovery Channel stamp on their back and I'm pretty sure they are very wanted and popular on the market."

Finally, Armstrong defended the team's performances over the years.

"We're proud of our record. We had our fair share of controversies, but our record stands for itself. We won eight Tours, a Vuelta, a Giro and other races and not one positive test," Armstrong said. "I'm not sure if there are many other teams who can say that right now. Couple that with our ethical record, despite all the gossip and non-sense that goes on."

The team will conclude its full schedule of racing through the 2007 season before disbanding. A squad is currently competing at the Tour of Germany and another will participate in the Tour de l'Ain in France.

An all-star team of Contador, Levi Leipheimer, George Hincapie and Yaroslav Popovych will line up next month at the inaugural Tour of Missouri, which will be Bruyneel's final race as a director on American roads. The team's final race will likely be the Race of Champions in Abu Dhabi in November.