Rabobank drops cycling sponsorship

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- Dutch bank Rabobank is ending its long sponsorship of professional cycling, saying "the trust in the cycling world has gone" following the publication of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's report on Lance Armstrong.

The bank said Friday it will halt sponsorship of its men's and women's professional teams at the end of 2012 after 17 years.

"It is with a heavy heart, but it is an irreversible decision for our bank," Bert Bruggink of the board of governors said. "We are no longer convinced that the international professional cycling world is capable of creating a clean and honest sport."

Bruggink said the bank was shocked by the detailed allegations of doping in the report.

"For us, it was the straw that broke the camel's back," he said.

The teams said in a statement they will try to find new sponsors.

Dutch broadcaster RTL Z reported that bicycle maker Giant -- which already provides the Rabobank team's bikes -- is considering sponsoring the team.

"We're seriously considering becoming the Rabo team's head sponsor," Giant said. "Another option would be to give the team material support or, for example, a co-sponsorship with another partner."

The announcement Friday signaled the end of Rabobank's sponsoring of the biggest professional cycling team in the bike-crazy Netherlands, but the team manager said the bank would continue to support its riders as they seek a new sponsor.

"We hope and expect the UCI will work with us to let the team to keep its license," Harold Knebel told national broadcaster NOS. "We hope the team can stay together."

The decision 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 pre-race 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.

Also, in 2009, the team said Russian rider Denis Menchov and two of his Rabobank teammates -- Joost Posthuma and Pieter Weening -- were questioned by the Austrian federal criminal police office about their alleged involvement in a blood doping affair but added: "They are not involved in a doping scandal."

The Gazzetta dello Sport reported Friday that Menchov, one of Rabobank's most successful riders ever, also is under investigation for doping under the supervision of Armstrong's banned Italian sports doctor, Michele Ferrari.

Menchov raced with the Rabobank team from 2005-2010 and won the Giro d'Italia in 2009. He also won the Spanish Vuelta in 2005 and 2007.

Ferrari and Menchov deny wrongdoing.

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."

The USADA report sent shockwaves through the sport of cycling. On Wednesday, Armstrong was dumped by Nike, Anheuser-Busch and other sponsors and he gave up the top spot at Livestrong, his cancer-fighting charity.

Rabobank said it would keep its sponsorship of 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."