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Wednesday's launch of the inaugural Tour of California, which will take place next February, was overshadowed by the announcement that the race will be backed by the EPO-producing company Amgen. Heavily rumoured for some weeks, the sponsorship deal creates a Catch 22-type situation where what is aiming to be one of the sport's biggest events is backed by a company that makes products that cyclists have been using illegally since the 1990s.
A good part of the race launch in San Francisco was given over to Amgen and the rather bizarre partnership that has been created with a high-profile cycling event. As the company admitted in its press release yesterday, the move has raised eyebrows. "In the context of ongoing doping scandals, this seems like a come-hither offer to would-be dopers," said Peter Laurie of Public Citizen, a watchdog group. It hasn't taken long either for the World Anti-Doping Agency to question the deal. "What kind of message does this send to athletes?" the Montreal-based organisation said in a statement.
Amgen, though, can point to previous backing of cycling events and a long-term commitment to fighting against a variety of diseases. "Amgen discovers and develops vital medicines that over the years have helped millions of patients fight cancer, kidney disease and other serious illnesses," said Kevin Sharer, Amgen's chairman and CEO. "We are associating our name with this premier cycling event to underscore the value of a healthy lifestyle, promote medical breakthroughs made possible through biotechnology and emphasise the proper use of our medicines."
Amgen scientist Steve Elliott, inventor of blood-boosting product Aranesp, said the sponsorship gave Amgen a platform it could use to speak out against blood doping and to educate people on proper uses of the company's drugs. Elliott noted that he worked on behalf of Amgen with the Olympic anti-doping lab at UCLA to develop a test to detect Aranesp, one of Amgen's anaemia drugs. "We believe misuse of our medicines is not only inappropriate but unsafe, and we want to help stamp it out," Elliott said.
Elliott added: "Doping is dangerous and unhealthy. This sponsorship provides us with an opportunity to combat the inappropriate use of our vital medicines and to educate athletes, both amateurs and professionals, of the potential dangers of misusing drugs of any kind."
Don Catlin, head of the Olympic lab at UCLA, praised Amgen for supporting cycling, despite the controversy such a move would cause. "I believe they are trying to show the world they really care about cycling," Catlin said.
Amgen also announced the Breakaway from Cancer initiative, a complementary component to the race sponsorship. Through the Breakaway from Cancer effort, Amgen will partner with The Wellness Community and Discovery Channel professional cycling team member and 10-time Tour de France veteran George Hincapie to raise awareness and funds to support valuable services and programmes that help cancer patients and caregivers.
"Like so many families, mine has experienced the incredible and painful challenges of rallying around a loved one fighting cancer," said Hincapie, who recently lost a family member to cancer. "And just as in cycling, where it takes a great support team to help an individual breakaway from the pack, it takes a strong support network to help a cancer patient face the many hurdles throughout treatment. I'm proud to partner with Amgen and The Wellness Community on the Breakaway from Cancer effort."
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