Blanco Pro Cycling’s search for a sponsor to ensure its survival beyond the end of 2013 is ongoing but team director Richard Plugge is hopeful that the squad’s strong opening to the season has stoked the interest of potential backers.
The Dutch squad was left without a title sponsor in October when Rabobank withdrew after 17 years in the professional peloton, citing cycling’s doping problem and in particular the ongoing fall-out from doping cases involving the Rabobank team between 1996 and 2007.
Plugge said that Tom Jelte Slagter’s overall victory at the Tour Down Under in January has helped to illustrate to possible backers the potential of both the Blanco team and cycling itself as a marketing investment.
“We knew what Tom Jelte could do from the Giro last year but it was a surprise that he won the Tour Down Under,” Plugge told Cyclingnews. “It was a really good surprise because it was something we needed in our search for sponsors. We’re talking with companies all over the world, and we could see that their interest in cycling got bigger because of his win in Australia.”
On taking over the reins as team director in late 2012, Plugge was careful to point out that a deal with a new sponsor would not be brokered in the opening months of the season, and he reiterated that point on Friday.
“We’re talking with a lot of companies who are interested in our team, but it’s still only talks,” he said. “It can be a ‘no’ one day and a ‘yes’ another day. So like I said in December, there will be no news on that one until at least the Amstel Gold Race.”
Luis Leon Sanchez
For all the positive vibrations coming from activities on the road, however, Blanco’s early months have not been entirely without their problems, although Plugge said that the steady stream of revelations regarding the doping programmes in place at the old Rabobank set-up have not affected morale.
“The things that are coming up now are things that happened before 2008, before Harold Knebel became manager, so these aren’t things that involve us and impact on our team,” he said
In early February, however, the team took action against current rider Luis Leon Sanchez, suspending him from racing pending an internal investigation into allegations that he was a client of blood doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes at the time of the Operacion Puerto investigation in 2006.
Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad published the allegation in January, linking Sanchez to the Puerto codename “Huerto.” The Spaniard, who joined Rabobank in 2011, was duly suspended by Blanco in early February.
“We are still investigating it and we want to do it very thoroughly,” Plugge said, when asked about the status of the internal investigation. “We have contact with him every couple of days by email because my Spanish is not so good and his English is not so good. But we have contact and we are working on it, and we’ll try to find as much as possible to have good security that there is nothing happening around him anymore. He was mentioned in papers in Holland and Spain, so we have to be very careful about it.”
While the allegations concerning Sanchez have been published in the press, he has not been named in the Operacion Puerto trial itself, which is currently ongoing in Madrid. “He’s not mentioned in the whole case, so that’s not really the problem, but he was mentioned in the newspapers, and there were links that he might have been in this Operacion Puerto case, and that’s why we’re looking at it,” said Plugge, whose Blanco team is looking for firsthand documentation from Spain.
“Sometimes people in Spain are not available right now because the Operacion Puerto case is going on at the moment,” he said.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.