Team Slipstream-Chipotle's announcement Wednesday that the global positioning system device manufacturer Garmin International had signed on as a title sponsor less than three weeks before the Tour de France completed a trifecta few might have thought possible in professional cycling a year or even six months ago.
High Road, the other American-owned, U.S.-licensed team in the 2008 Tour peloton, unveiled an agreement with Portland, Ore.-based sportswear maker Columbia this week. Earlier this month, Team CSC, whose sponsorship contract with that California information technology company ends after this season, announced that a Danish online bank, Saxo, had enlisted as a co-sponsor and will take over in 2009. It's a logical fit for the Denmark-based squad owned by Bjarne Riis, the only rider from that country ever to win the Tour.
The confluence of these three multiyear deals, consummated as both the U.S. and European economies are suffering and companies are being extra mindful of marketing expenditures, underscores a few things.
Cycling, with its broad international reach, still delivers a lot of bang for the promotional buck or Euro. The Tour, despite the fact its organizers and cycling's international governing body are still clawing at each other's throats and throwing the sport's infrastructure into limbo, is still Le Tour -- one of the biggest, snazziest, most dramatic moving billboards a globally oriented company can rent for three weeks in July.
But there's obviously something else at work, given that so many companies have been burned by doping scandals and fled, screaming, in recent years. All three of these teams committed early and completely to strong anti-doping programs and policies, and that's no coincidence. Riding clean is clearly good business now, or more bluntly put, the only way to continue to do business.
"More than anything, this reiterates that we're doing the right thing," said Slipstream leader David Millar, whose doping confession four years ago and subsequent outspokenness were symbolic turning points in the ongoing effort to restore the sport's credibility. "That a brand this well-respected has decided to join forces with us is indicative of the fact that we represent something positive."
No dollar amounts were released for the deals, as per usual. But a well-educated guess would put the Garmin and Columbia infusions in the mid-to-high seven-figure range, half or a little more of what it takes to run an elite team these days.
The halcyon days of title sponsorships that footed something closer to the entire bill are probably over for a while, if not permanently. The new business model is more layered, with several tiers of sponsors and a couple of companies on top. "I have the flexibility to add other partners over time," High Road owner Bob Stapleton said.
High Road will be reborn as Team Columbia, while Slipstream-Chipotle will morph into Garmin-Chipotle, keeping the argyle motif on its jerseys for continuity.
These sponsorships aren't sentimental decisions, or whimsical investments made by high-rolling bike geeks. Both U.S. companies who have elected to cast their lots with cycling have substantial business in Europe and Asia -- much of it in traditional cycling nations such as France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Great Britain -- and want to increase their brand awareness.
"Cycling gives us a chance to attract new people in North America to a sport we view as in resurgence, and is also a chance for us to reach hundreds of millions of people in Europe," said Garmin vice president for communications Jon Cassat.
Olathe, Kan.-based Garmin is not a total newcomer to sports or to cycling, having been on board as a lower-tier "official partner" in the Slipstream universe, and the company is mindful that doping and political infighting are not about to vanish.
"But the standards this team lives by are near and dear to our corporate culture," Cassat said. "Slipstream has an open, vocal commitment to riding clean. The sport has been living under a black cloud, and this is an opportunity to make a difference. Cycling should be attracting a great fan base. We think our timing is quite good."
Garmin makes products intended for fitness enthusiasts as well as strictly navigational devices, and has come up with a direct technological tie-in for road racing -- a handlebar-friendly device that displays maps, hill gradients and profiles, speed and other practical information. The company hopes it will be a sell to amateur and recreational riders. For Slipstream's purposes, the unit is being designed to receive wireless information from the Saris PowerTaps that collect power and wattage data from the rear wheel hub, and heart rate data from a rider's monitor, pinpointing quantitative efforts not only in time but in space.
Columbia, for its part, has done research that shows recreational cyclists are apt to be involved in the kinds of outdoor activities that form its core constituency. The company isn't getting into the cycling-wear business per se. "There are plenty of great players there already," CEO Tim Boyle said this week. Instead, High Road riders like U.S. veteran George Hincapie and young British sprinter Mark Cavendish will be sporting the company's apparel for après-cycling -- anything off the bike, in effect -- and Columbia is counting on a big overlap between Tour fans and the active-lifestyle crowd.
"This is the biggest deal we've ever done," Boyle said. "We typically don't get involved in promotional activities. We pay for ads on TV or magazines."
Slipstream and High Road had been staying afloat up to now -- and steaming ahead at full speed, for that matter -- thanks to a pair of wealthy individuals who believed in the cause.
High Road's Stapleton, a pioneer in the wireless communications business, and Slipstream's Doug Ellis, a private investor in New York, have philosophies and deep pockets in common. But their tasks in attracting outside support were necessarily very different because of their teams' respective histories.
Slipstream was founded as a small-budget junior and developmental program by its director, Jonathan Vaughters, in 2003. The organization began independent blood and urine profiling, a doping deterrent, before the 2007 season and has grown up scandal-free, logging increasingly impressive results by nurturing homegrown talent and, for this season, acquiring several proven performers on the European circuit. American riders make up about half the roster this year.
"This deal probably would not have happened if we hadn't had that [anti-doping] component in our team," Ellis said.
Stapleton's challenge was more complex because his organization was the successor to German teams that had been backed for more than a decade by communications giants Deutsche Telekom and T-Mobile. The latter bailed out last year after a spate of embarrassing doping scandals and revelations from the past. (Team CSC owner Riis, who competed for Telekom, was one of the former riders who confessed to doping last year, although CSC said that was not the deal breaker for it in deciding to end its support.) After one attempt at independent testing ended in public relations disaster, High Road contracted with the same outfit -- the Agency for Cycling Ethics -- as Slipstream.
With that backdrop in mind, Columbia's Boyle said Stapleton's personal relationship with one of the company's board members -- they were acquaintances from Stapleton's Voicestream Wireless days -- was key in building trust and confidence that this sponsorship won't come back to haunt Columbia. It doesn't hurt that High Road has been extremely successful on the road this season.
"Bob's got the ethics of this team well in hand," Boyle said. "Yes, there are always risks, but we think they're minimized."
And that's the nitty-gritty of things. Cycling is by no means a sure bet, but enough progress has been made that companies are willing to take a considered, calculated gamble.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. E-mail her at email@example.com.