Thursday, July 26, 2007

It All Comes Down to Money

The Predictor-Lotto pro cycling team is planning to sue Alexandre Vinokourov and his Astana team for $10 million for lost publicity. Vino received the lion's share of media attention after winning the Stage 13 time trial while benefiting from an illegal homologous blood transfusion. Cadel Evans of Predictor-Lotto finished second, so if Vino hadn't cheated, Evans would have been the winner and his photo instead of Vino's would have graced the cover of every European newspaper the next day.

Like NASCAR, pro cycling wouldn't exist without sponsors. The reason companies sponsor cycling teams is to get their names on television and in the newspapers. That's why you see riders with little chance of winning take off on long breakaways that are almost inevitably swallowed by the peloton (the main group of riders) before the finish -- because they and their jerseys and the sponsors on those jerseys get a lot of television exposure that way.

Sponsors expect a reasonable return on their investment (title sponsorships for Pro Tour teams cost between $8 and $15 million per year, as I recall). When someone uses fraudulent means to win a race, he is effectively taking that return away from the second place team. I don't recall seeing a suit like this in the six years that I've followed the sport, but it does not surprise me. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.

My guess is that the Astana team will not be held responsible if they can prove they were unaware of Vino's illegal activities. Vinokourov, however, could be on the hook for a lot of money, especially for someone who is unemployed and suspended for at least two years (plus all Tour cyclists signed an anti-doping pledge before the race stating they would relinquish an entire year's salary if caught doping). Just fighting to clear one's name is expensive -- look at what Tyler Hamilton and Floyd Landis paid to lawyers and assorted experts while defending themselves. Lawsuits from negatively impacted competitors on top of that could bankrupt anyone in the peloton.

This could be devastating for Vinokourov, yet the threat of such drastic measures could be the impetus to finally clean up the sport. At this point, however, I'm not holding my breath.

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