Dutch bank Rabobank is ending its long sponsorship of professional cycling, saying "the trust in the cycling world has gone" following publication of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's report detailing performance-enhancing drug use by seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.
The bank said Friday that it will halt 17 years of sponsoring men's and women's professional teams at the end of 2012.
"It is with a heavy heart, but it is an irreversible decision for our bank," said Bert Bruggink, a member of the bank's board of governors. "We are no longer convinced that the international professional cycling world is capable of creating a clean and honest sport."Bert Bruggink, the chief financial officer of Rabobank, said the Dutch lender had lost faith in the ability of cycling's governing body to clean up the sport. (Robin van Lonkhuijsen/Reuters)
The teams said in a statement they will try to find new sponsors.
The announcement signaled the end of the biggest professional cycling team in the bike-crazy Netherlands.
It came a day after the Rabobank team confirmed that the International Cycling Union had launched a doping case against one of its riders, Carlos Barredo.
The UCI said it understood Rabobank's decision "in light of the difficult period, namely the high public interest in past doping issues and perhaps a more recent action taken by the UCI against a rider of the team."
The scandal-tainted sport's governing body said in a statement it "reaffirms its commitment to the fight against doping and full transparency about potential anti-doping rule violations."
The Rabobank men's team includes Dutch rider Robert Gesink and Spanish colleague Luis Leon Sanchez, who won a stage in each of the last two Tours de France. The women's team is led by world and Olympic road race champion Marianne Vos.
Vos tweeted that the decision was "understandable in light of the current doping cases, but unfortunately this hurts many innocent (riders) in our sport."
The closest the Rabobank came to an overall Tour victory was halted by doping suspicions swirling around Michael Rasmussen, who was fired by the team while leading the 2007 Tour for lying about his whereabouts when he missed prerace doping tests.
Rasmussen was banned for two years, although he has maintained he raced clean and never tested positive.
Another past Rabobank rider, Levi Leipheimer, was fired Wednesday by the Omega Pharma-Quick Step cycling team after confessing to doping as part of the investigation that brought down Armstrong.
Leipheimer was Armstrong's teammate for five years during stints with the U.S. Postal Service, Astana and RadioShack teams before joining Quick Step this season.
A week ago, Armstrong's former manager, Johan Bruyneel — himself a former Rabobank rider — left the RadioShack-Nissan team after he was singled out as a central figure in the doping program. Unlike Armstrong, Bruyneel says he intends to contest the USADA charges.
Gesink said a new generation of clean riders was being punished for the sins of the past.
"It is extremely bitter that we are now paying for what happened in the past," Gesink told national daily De Volkskrant.
USADA banned Armstrong for life and said he should be stripped of his seven Tour titles because of his involvement in "the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen."
Rabobank said it would continue to sponsor amateur cycling, a youth development program and cyclocross.
"Cycling is a fantastic sport enjoyed by millions of people in the Netherlands," Bruggink said. "But our decision is irreversible: We are withdrawing from professional cycling. It is painful, not only for the Rabobank, but especially the fans and riders who are not to blame."