US-based electronics retailer RadioShack is set to pull the plug on its sponsorship of the team that bears its name, RadioShack-Leopard-Trek, according to French sports daily, L’Equipe. The newspaper adds that the ending of the company’s backing at the end of the current season could put the Luxembourg-based team’s future in doubt. According to one of the team's riders, staff have been working on securing a replacement backer for several weeks.
The news comes three months after Japan-based car maker Nissan, co-sponsor of the team last year, announced in late December that it was ending its association with the team with immediate effect, although it said it would continue to honour its financial obligations through to the end of 2013.
The official reasons cited by L’Equipe for the RadioShack’s reported decision are the retailer’s financial problems – during the second quarter of 2012 it lost $21 million, plus its intention to focus on the Asian market.
However, as with Nissan, it’s likely that the fallout from the Lance Armstrong scandal will also have had an effect. Armstrong, third in the 2009 Tour de France in his comeback year with Astana, was RadioShack’s star signing when the team was founded ahead of the 2010 season.
Also on the roster for that debut season was Levi Leipheimer, whose six-month ban for the testimony he provided to the United States Anti-Doping Agency that helped lead to Armstrong’s lifetime ban and his being stripped of the seven Tour de France titles he won between 1999 and 2005.
Ahead of the 2012 season, with Armstrong by then retired for good – and, moreover, by now the subject of a Federal Grand Jury investigation – the RadioShack and Leopard-Trek teams, both of which rode Trek bikes, announced they were merging.
With the team’s focus switching to Europe – it races under the former Leopard-Trek licence – and a less American flavour to its roster, RadioShack’s continued involvement did seem rather anomalous given out of more than 7,000 stores worldwide, just one is on the Continent, in Belgium.
Leopard-Trek, like RadioShack, had made its debut in 2010, built around Fränk and Andy Schleck and with Fabian Cancellara as its other big-name star. The team was founded by Luxembourg-based businessman Flavio Becca, and the merged outfit races under the licence held by its management company, Leopard SA.
News of the potential loss of RadioShack’s sponsorship is the latest in a series of stories that have seen the team hit the headlines for the wrong reasons.
Last summer, team manager Johan Bruyneel, who had managed the US team when it was founded and moved across following the merger, was sacked after publication of USADA’s dossier in the Armstrong case. He has chosen to fight the charges against himself through arbitration, but no date has yet been fixed for a hearing.
In July, Fränk Schleck tested positive for a banned diuretic during the Tour de France, and has subsequently been banned for a year. Brother Andy continues to struggle with his fitness and mental approach after missing most of last season through injury.
Elder brother Fränk will not return to racing prior to July, and will miss the Tour de France, and unless things turn round quickly for Andy, he will struggle to challenge in a race in which – a rare bright spot from last season – RadioShack-Leopard will be defending the leading team title it won in 2012.
While the team has yet to confirm or deny L'Equipe's story, at the start of today's Stage 2 of the Tour of Catalonia, rider Haimar Zubeldia said that it wasn't news and that RadioShacks withdrawal of sponsorship was expected.
Quoted on the Spanish website Biciciclismo, he said: "Team staff have been working for weeks to find a replacement main sponsor. Now that we've got a year to prove our worth, we won't be changing our plans because of this."
If that replacement isn't found, however - and assuming in any event that Becca remains committed to the project – this season could prove to be the team's swansong.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.