American cycling team High Road, currently competing in the Tour of Switzerland, has signed a new sponsorship deal and will be known as "Team Columbia" from the Tour de France.
The California-based Pro Tour team whose key riders include American George Hincapie, Luxembourg's Kim Kirchen and Briton Mark Cavendish, has sealed a three-year sponsorship agreement with Columbia Sportswear Company, a global leader in outdoor apparel and footwear.
Team Columbia's Mark Cavendish and George Hincapie
The sponsorship contract "includes both the men's and women's professional cycling teams, which are top-ranked worldwide and have won over 70 races combined in 2008 - the most wins of any competing team," High Road and Columbia said in a joint statement.
"In addition, at least 15 riders from Team Columbia are expected to represent their countries in the upcoming Olympics."
Team Columbia owner/manager Bob Stapleton
High Road chief Bob Stapleton on Monday spoke of his delight at securing a sponsorship deal which will keep his team alive at least until the end of the 2010 season. Procycling's Daniel Friebe reports after the teleconference...
It was announced today that Seattle-based sportswear brand Columbia have agreed to take over as the main backer of Stapleton's California-based outfit from the Tour de France onwards. The team formerly known as High Road – plus its women's equivalent, also owned by Stapleton – will thus be known as Team Columbia.
Speaking in a teleconference on Monday afternoon, Stapleton called the deal a "very exciting step forward, not just for the team, but also for the sport itself."
The Columbia deal, the financial value of which has not been disclosed, was signed late last week, within hours of CSC boss Bjarne Riis also firming up a new sponsorship agreement with Danish bank Saxo Bank. Stapleton said that there is scope for further, subsidiary sponsors to lend their name to the team in the coming months.
"It's interesting, I didn't even intend to start looking for [main] sponsors until after Tour," the High Road supremo explained. "I first approached Columbia in 2005, with a view to supporting my women's team. I was always looking for someone whose brand was a good fit with the active, outdoor image that cycling can deliver, and I casually approached them again this year. They were one of two companies who were seriously interested in sponsoring us… It ended up coming together over a period of a couple of months. It's all happened so quickly: we only signed the deal at the end of last week, and I think we're manufacturing the kits tomorrow."
The Team Columbia kit will be unveiled in a press conference in Brest in the days leading up to the Tour de France. Stapleton said it will feature the orange colour prominent on Columbia's corporate logo, blue, white and yellow. The current High Road logo will also appear on the jersey.
Stapleton went on to describe how Columbia had been attracted by High Road's stringent anti-doping policy and the international nature of its roster. "A US passport will earn you no special consideration," he said when asked if the team's future recruitment policy will reflect its sponsor's US base. He added that Columbia were keen to use the team as a marketing vehicle in their drive to increase market share in Europe.
Mark Cavendish won two stages of the 2008 Giro d'Italia
Stapleton singled out the Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen and Britain's Mark Cavendish as flagbearers for his team's cosmopolitan ethos. He also indicated that Cavendish will almost certainly start the 2008 Tour de France, and confirmed that the Isle of Man sprinter is contracted to the team until the end of 2009.
On cycling's well-documented doping problems, and the question of whether they caused Columbia's bosses concern, Stapleton said:
"I have a lot of grey hair, but that didn't come from cycling – I haven't been in the sport long enough to know [how clean the sport is now]. What I do know is that we've gone from a situation where there were a few hundred tests a year, and whole teams and countries hardly being tested, to one where 2500 tests have already happened this year with a plan to do 8000. The playing field certainly seems to be levelling out. I think that the biological passport and blood profiling mark a big change in how doping is being evaluated…I see clear signs of progress. There's work still to be done, but there are definite steps forward."
Stapleton was asked finally – and rather bluntly – if, in light of his team's zero policy on drugs and his new sponsor's commitment in that vain, he would have fired Tom Boonen for after the QuickStep sprinter's recent positive test for cocaine.
Stapleton laughed, then commented, "The challenge there, as I see it, is his pattern of behaviour. I think Tom Boonen can do a lot of positive things for the sport, but [what's happened] needs to be seriously looked into, and there needs to be a way of getting past that. I repeat, I think Tom Boonen can do some really good things for the sport, but the pattern of behaviour needs to be looked into very comprehensively. I think that would be my only comment on that issue…"