A dispute over team names between a Northern California cycling club and the domestic elite team of US amateur criterium champion Dan Holloway has reached the courts in California.
The Alto Velo Racing Club of San Jose has filed suit against Rouleur Sports Group and Bobby Sweeting, claiming the Alto Velo p/b Seasucker domestic elite team, which is owned by Rouleur and sponsored by Sweeting’s Alto Velo wheel company, infringes on the club’s rights to the name.
The club is demanding that Sweeting stop using the name to promote his business, and that Rouleur stop using the name in title sponsorship of its team. The suit also seeks unspecified actual and punitive damages, as well as attorney fees.
According to the suit, which was filed on May 13 in California district court, the cycling club has used the Alto Velo name continuously since 1992 and incorporated as a California non-profit under the name "Alto Velo Racing Club" in 1995, establishing a common-law trademark on the name.
By contrast, Sweeting and his business partners at the Alto Velo bicycle component company only began using the name last year. They signed on as title sponsors of the former Athlete Octane team in the offseason and brought Seasucker on board as a presenting sponsor.
The suit claims that neither Rouleur or Sweeting attempted to obtain authorization from the cycling club to use the Alto Velo name, and when asked to stop, they refused.
"Alto Velo has demanded that Sweeting discontinue the use of the 'Alto Velo' name in connection with Sweeting’s promotion and sale of bicycle wheels and the operation of a bicycle racing team, but Sweeting has failed and refused to discontinue the use of the name 'Alto Velo,'" the suit claims.
"Alto Velo is informed and believes that Sweeting and Rouleur intend to continue to use the 'Alto Velo' name to promote and operate the Alto-Velo Seasucker Team in spite of the fact that Alto Velo has continuously operated as a cycling team using the 'Alto Velo' name for more than 20 years."
When contacted by telephone on Wednesday at his home in North Carolina, Sweeting, who rides professionally for Team SmartStop and is recovering from a nasty collarbone fracture he got in a crash at the Tour of California, told Cyclingnews that rebranding his company at this point is not an option because it would cost "hundreds of thousands" of dollars. Moreover, Sweeting said, he tried to reach a reasonable compromise with the club but was rebuffed.
Sweeting and business partner Shawn Gravois came up with the name Alto Velo as a way to express their mission to elevate cycling with innovative products. Following a quick search via Google Translate, Alto Velo was born.
"We obviously went online and Googled it straightaway," Sweeting said of the idea for their new name. "The club popped up, and we were like, 'Oh, it's a club in Northern California. We're a wheel manufacturer in Florida. No problem.' So we just moved forward."
A problem quickly surfaced, however, when Sweeting got an email from the club’s lawyer in December demanding that he stop using the Alto Velo name.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time you have to imagine that it would be OK," Sweeting said. "So when the cease-and-desist letter came in I was just shocked."
Sweeting said he contacted an officer from the club in hopes of reaching a solution, eventually offering, among other things, to put a prominent link to the club's website on the altovelo.com site and also offering a wholesale discount on his company's wheels to any club members.
"They basically just ignored it," he said.
Things escalated when an article on Cyclingnews in January announced that Sweeting's company would take over title sponsorship of Rouleur Sports Group's team.
"That article, on top of all of the team's success – Dan Holloway's now national champion and he's been killing it – and so every time the team wins a race, they get more and more frustrated," Sweeting said. "And then finally, maybe three weeks ago, they filed the lawsuit."
Jeffrey Fillerup of the San Francisco law firm McKenna Long and Aldridge filed the suit on the club's behalf. Fillerup is listed on the club's website as its "general counsel," and McKenna Long and Aldridge is listed as a "supporting" sponsor for the club.
In all, the suit accuses Rouleur Sports Group and Sweeting of trademark infringement, unfair competition, violations of the California business & professions code and cybersquatting in relation to the altovelo.com domain name.
"We're a small company with three employees, including myself," Sweeting said, adding that the retainer alone for an attorney to represent him in California could cost $10,000. "We're just trying to scrape everything together that we can that will allow us to continue with this pro team and this brand."
Sweeting pointed out, while noting the irony, that the Alto Velo Racing Club is sponsored by Sunpower and its members compete in USA Cycling events as the Sunpower Racing Team.
He believes that Rouleur Sports Group is named in the suit rather than Alto Velo itself because of jurisdictional issues. There's no jurisdiction to sue the wheel company in California, Sweeting said, because it hasn't sold any wheels there. He also believes the club would have a difficult time proving it has been damaged by sharing a name with a wheel company based in Florida.
"I think they're suing the team because they have to, because they're both racing teams," he said. "If we became a product sponsor next year, which could very well happen as the team grows and we get a different title sponsor, I would hope this issue goes away, that they wouldn't have a problem with it.
"But if we kick the can down the road with this lawsuit and bankrupt Rouleur Sports Group and bankrupt Alto Velo so the Sunpower Racing Team can exist in Northern California, what have we really accomplished? Is that what you want? Is that your end goal, to end this team and a start-up company with a cool new product? You want that to just go away? Is that worth it? I don't know."