Every headline I’ve seen about the sport in the last two years has made some mention of the vast doping problem that’s driving the sport into the ground. Case in point: last Thursday’s front page of CNN.com, which reports that mustachioed cyclist Floyd Landis lost his final arbitration hearing over testing positive for synthetic testosterone during the 2006 Tour de France.
Just a few years ago, pro cycling was in its heyday. Lance Armstrong was a sports-journalism darling. (These days he’s tabloid fodder; merely arm candy for Kate Hudson or one of the Olsen twins.) Sponsor money was pouring in, and professional teams were riding a crest of unprecedented popularity all the way to the bank. All pro cycling teams have sponsors, which bankroll everything from salaries to spandex.
But thanks to a series of doping scandals that have brought down nearly all of pro cycling’s heavyweights, sponsors are running for the hills. Big-name deserters include the US Postal Service/Discovery Channel (which sponsored Armstrong to seven consecutive Tour titles) and T-Mobile, which left after flagship rider Jan Ullrich of Germany, one of cycling’s biggest names, was caught doping. After this year, according to HBO’s "Real Sports," fully one-quarter of teams will be without top-billed sponsors.
But there is one team that has successfully broken away from the pack. Team Garmin-Chipotle, one of two American teams competing in this year’s Tour de France, which started on Saturday, is one of the few teams in recent years to successfully acquire big-time sponsorship. (Its full name is actually the absurdly long "Team Garmin-Chipotle presented by H30.") How’d they do it? Team Garmin-Chipotle’s athletes are 100% drug-free.
Team founder and CEO Jonathan Vaughters mandates that his riders get tested about once every two weeks—twenty times more often than is required by the Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body for pro cycling,. But drug testing in the age of BALCO has become increasingly difficult, with designer steroids and supplements that are completely untraceable mere days after use. That’s why Garmin-Chipotle’s doctors don’t search for individual drugs; rather, they search for changes in an athlete’s natural hormonal makeup. Team G-C has the most stringent anti-doping policy not just in pro cycling, but in all of professional sports. And it’s no coincidence that the team has flourished over the past three seasons, evolving into an international powerhouse that boasts some of the best riders in the world.
After six stages of the Tour, Team G-C is first in the team classification standings. Win or lose, Team Garmin-Chipotle is attracting plenty of media attention—this time, for all the right reasons.