Tailwind Sports has announced the end of the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team today, confirming rumours that cropped up when the team failed to announce a new sponsor after winning the Tour de France. The team was given notice that the Discovery Channel would not renew its sponsorship back in February, leading to a long and intensive search for a replacement sponsor.
Despite having won eight Tours de France, the team will fold at the end of this season, leaving 27 riders looking for new jobs, including 2007 Tour winner Alberto Contador, third place finisher Levi Leipheimer, and eighth place finisher Yaroslav Popovych. American George Hincapie is rumoured to have already signed with T-Mobile for the upcoming year, a team whose sponsor was uncertain to continue in the sport until rigorous talks led to a renewal of commitment from the sponsor with plenty of conditions.
General Manager Bill Stapleton admitted in the organisation's press release that the search for a new sponsor had gone nowhere. "We were in talks with a number of companies about the opportunity and were confident a new sponsor was imminent. We have chosen, however, to end those discussions."
The team was said to have been close to signing a deal in March, but no announcement followed the news. As the season wore on, Bruyneel had gone as far as China to search for a replacement sponsor, but by June, the team had still failed to ink a deal. The team was rumoured to be asking $45 million for three years - a difficult sell in the current climate of doping scandals in the sport.
That the team which won eight Tours can not find a sponsor bodes poorly for the sport in general. "Tailwind has had an amazing ten years of success with U.S. Postal and more recently Discovery Channel as its title sponsor. This is arguably the most successful sports franchise in the history of sport," stated Stapleton. "This was a difficult decision, not made any easier by our recent Tour de France success."
Directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel built the team from a fledgling squad of Americans to a Tour powerhouse starting in 1999. With Lance Armstrong, the team went on to win seven Tours. While the squad struggled in the wake of Armstrong's retirement in 2005, it found its footing once again in this year's Tour and came out with it's best performance ever with two men on the podium. "When I came to direct this team in 1999 I never would have imagined that we could achieve this level of success. It was an amazing time in my life and the lives of all the staff and riders associated with this team," commented Bruyneel.
While successful, the team was not without its share of controversy. Lance Armstrong was hounded by doping allegations throughout his career as Tour champion, and the signing of Italian Ivan Basso to the squad last fall created a firestorm of criticism from the other ProTour teams who viewed the move as a violation of the ProTour code of ethics. Basso was implicated in Operación Puerto, but was cleared by the Italian Federation when the Spanish judge in charge of the investigation shelved the case. Basso was free to race when the Discovery Channel signed him, but the scandal continued to haunt the Giro d'Italia winner, and he was finally suspended by the team and subsequently admitted to his involvement with the blood doping clinic.
Bruyneel's future in the sport is now in question, with Rabobank being the only ProTour team in search of a directeur sportif. "I'm going to miss the staff, riders and the excitement of the races, but not all the in fighting between the teams. This Team has become my family and it is very sad to think that we will not be together next season. 2007 has been our most successful season ever and I expect the remainder of the season to continue on that same path."
Seven-time Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong, a co-owner of the team, took a more optimistic view. "I do not think you have seen the last of this organisation in the sport, but clearly things need to improve on many levels, with a more unified front, before you would see us venture back into cycling," Armstrong added. The Discovery Channel Pro Cycling Team will continue to race its full calendar of Pro Tour races including the final grand tour of the season, the Tour of Spain, as well as the upcoming Tour of Missouri.
The dissolution of the Discovery Channel team leaves one ProTour license up for grabs, leading to speculation that Team Slipstream could be the next American ProTour team. Manager Jonathan Vaughters told Cyclingnews that he wasn't sure his team would be able to take on three Grand Tours. "The ProTour requires that teams race the Giro, the Tour and the Vuelta - and that's a huge undertaking," said Vaughters. His team has already signed ProTour riders David Zabriskie, David Millar, Christian Vande Velde, Magnus Backstedt, Julian Dean and Christophe Laurent.