Opinion: The importance of respecting sponsors

Linda Villumsen's non-Wilier

Since it was noticed that the gold medal-winning ride of Linda Villumsen at the UCI Road World Championship elite women's time trial was not on her trade team Wilier, there have been wildly varying opinions on whether or not her UnitedHealthcare team should have reprimanded her - or contemplated firing her - before her victory on an un-branded-but-obviously-a-Trek bike.

In a sport where sponsorship funds the teams, rather than ticket sales and TV rights, keeping sponsors happy is of the utmost importance - even more so on the women's side. A team of women, no matter how talented they are, are a hard sell for sponsors when they are not on prime time television and garner far less media attention than the men.

Professional cyclists, men and women, are first and foremost marketing tools for their sponsors, and secondly athletes who happen to be fast on a bike. They are put through sometimes tedious and often downright embarrassing lengths to promote their sponsors' products (including spooning with your teammates on your sponsor's mattress... ahem, Etixx). If sports drink that gives your team money might taste disgusting, you clandestinely fill the bottles with something else. You might think your helmet makes you look like Swiss Miss, but you carry on wearing it because you do your job.

The real conflicts come in when the equipment the team provides a rider inhibits their ability to perform to their best. It is clear that Villumsen's decision to ride her blacked-out Trek and not the Wilier was the right one for her personal goals - her bike was a huge factor in a race won by less than three seconds - but the damage done to her team goes beyond criticism in the social media and a few news stories.

If a sponsor's product isn't going to be on TV, the next best way to get a return on their investment in the riders is to use photos of them racing in printed ad campaigns. Imagine what was going down at Wilier headquarters when Lisa Brennauer came across in third and Villumsen became world champion. All of those photos of her victorious ride? Useless.

One could argue that Wilier should have stepped up and provided Villumsen with a frame that allowed her to achieve her optimal position on the bike. Women her size around the world can attest - most bike companies neglect small riders, and by all accounts the smallest Wilier is more than two centimetres higher in the head tube than the comparable Trek. But Trek has led the way in the industry in women's-specific design, Wilier has not yet followed. On their website they have made no attempt to market to women, they sell men's apparel but not women's, and have no women's range.

Of course riders having issues with their equipment is nothing new, and often times teams will re-paint the frames to look like their own. Richard Virenque famously rode Litespeeds while his team was sponsored by Peugeot. Why Villumsen's team didn't simply have her Trek painted up to masquerade as a Willer we don't know. Perhaps Villumsen didn't plan ahead, didn't feel comfortable asking, or maybe the frame shape was so obviously not the Wilier that no amount of paint would fool anyone.

Sadly, it took an audacious act of courage on her part to face her team, put her foot down, and decide, team be damned, she would ride her Trek and win the World Championship. No woman makes enough money to sacrifice a chance at rainbow bands in favour of her sponsor. And while Tom Boonen might be able to command Specialized to make a bike to fit his specifications, Linda Villumsen before the rainbow bands was no Tom Boonen.

Now, rather than asking who was right and who was wrong, maybe what we should be asking is will Wilier invest in women cyclists now that they are sponsoring the World Champion, and perhaps create a bike for her to win the Olympic Games on? 

Correction: after the publication of this article, a Wilier distributor contacted Cyclingnews with a link to their women's apparel line, which is not available on the USA version of the website.

The Cyclingnews podcast from day 3 of the Worlds featured analysis of the women's time trial along with an interview with Villumsen. Listen below and subscribe here.

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