Tales from the peloton, April 25, 2005
Sparks flew in the 2006 Tour de Georgia as the race came down to a showdown on Brasstown Bald mountain between two American riders on ProTour teams, Floyd Landis and Tom Danielson. The presence of several ProTour teams in Georgia, and at the Tour of California in February is an indication that top European-based teams are taking US cycling increasingly seriously. Kirsten Robbins finds out why.
The Tour de Georgia has just completed its fourth annual event with a successful ending, according to race officials. The race attracted many top ProTour teams in the world that come here to compete for the podiums against the best domestic squads. But what is attracting these European teams to take American cycling seriously?
Director Sportif of Phonak-I Shares, René Savary, comments on the reason for the participation of the ProTour teams. "Cycling has always been well known here in America. But in this moment it is growing stronger here. There are so many fans out here to watch the races and it really reminds me of racing in Europe."
The growth in interest of cycling in America is one of the main reasons American sponsors are taking their steps into the sport. "The media will make the sport more popular now," said Savary. "The future is now growing for the sport here and all it needs is time. The sponsors know this and the cycling teams know this. There are many companies here that want to be apart of this sport now. It is a good moment to for the European teams to try to be apart of this market. The U.S. is so much bigger in sponsorship and media now."
Many teams like Phonak already have existing sponsors from the U.S. "Georgia is important for our team because our sponsors like I Shares are here and they want to see us race here too," said Savary. "Every race is important to us. We come to the U.S. races to win we need to show our sponsors here that we are really able to win here too."
One reason CSC is here is because the team's sponsor is an American company, even though the team is based in Denmark. "Although it is a nice race and the riders like to come here, we really have to follow where the sponsors want to go," said CSC directeur sportif Tristan Hoffman. "We have to follow the market. CSC is a sponsor that is all over the world and now they see the importance of the U.S. because there is a growth in the market here. That is a good reason why we are here too."
It's not just the team's title sponsor that bring's CSC to Georgia either. "Cervelo is a Canadian company and they are our bike sponsor," said Hoffman. "They sell a lot of bikes in the U.S. and so it is very important for us to come to the Tour de Georgia to race for them and increase their sales. CSC uses the standard bike because they want to show that everybody can use it. They are easily adjustable for everyone. This important for the American public to know and we are here to show them that."
Discovery rider Jason McCartney knows first hand of the importance of sponsorship stemming form the U.S. "European teams are looking for American riders because a lot of American sponsors are coming into the sport like Phonak, Nike, AMG and Trek," said McCartney. "There are a lot of U.S. sponsors and there is big interest here so then they need American riders to keep the sponsors happy. Europeans are looking into the American market because of money. They are finding bigger avenues to find money. There is more growth in the sport here. But more importantly is that advertising is so huge here with the media in the industry."
Discovery directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel is aware of the importance of sponsorship coming from the American market. He feels that in order for sponsorship to improve, cycling teams need to tap into the American market by racing successful American races. "People are becoming more aware of cycling over here," says Bruyneel. "U.S. racing is becoming bigger and bigger. Mainly the big races like the Tour de Georgia have been great for us to race.
"The bigger cycling gets in America, the more sponsorship opens up for the sport here. That is a big reason the teams come here to race too," said Bruyneel.
Tour de Georgia Chief Commissaire Craig Lesser shares his thoughts on the outcome of the Tour de Georgia, which has a direct impact on the sponsorship by U.S. companies. "The emotional excitement of the fans has been a large success in this year's Tour de Georgia. I have never seen the crowds so huge up on Brasstown Bald and the fans out here today were so impressive."
When asked about the apparent drop in spectator numbers at this year's race compared to 2005 and 2004, Lesser replied, "We don't have the statistics on the race for this year yet but we feel that we have had a very successful race this year. You can't build tradition over one race. We are building the race to be the finest event in the U.S. and Ford has decided to stay on for the next three years."
Regardless of the forthcoming statistics from the race promoter, many people, from riders to directors, commented that the numbers for this year's race did not even come close to comparing with 2005. And even though that year could be regarded as an anomaly with the retirement announcement by Lance Armstrong, the comparison to the two years before that were also prevalent.
Nonetheless, for the immediate future, many ProTour teams will continue to tap the North American market for sponsorship dollars - and will still continue to include races in the U.S. on their season calendars. Savary adds that, "Cycling is an attractive sport because it is like a circus coming to the town for the people to see. The fans here in Georgia are important, they want to see the race. They wait all day to see the cyclist for five minutes. That is how you know the sport is popular."