Commentary

Garmin-Cervelo merger good for cycling

Updated: September 2, 2010, 10:52 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

The new Garmin-Cervelo partnership announced last week tipped toward the positive end of the good news-bad news spectrum as far as the cycling industry was concerned -- a team folding into another team rather than folding altogether.

Speculation immediately after the fact understandably focused on how many of Cervelo's stars would migrate to the U.S.-owned Pro Tour outfit and what kind of musical saddles game would ensue with Garmin's roster. The puzzle is filling in rapidly. Seven Cervelo riders, including Thor Hushovd, the amiable Norwegian sprinter and classics contender who has won nine Tour de France stages, have cast their lots with Garmin, whose roster will expand to the maximum allowable 30.

Somewhat lost in the reshuffling was the fact that the deal also ensured the financial health of the world's top-ranked women's team. Cervelo took that baton this season from another American team, HTC-Columbia, which had dominated the distaff side of the sport for a couple of years.

Women's teams have had to scrap for sponsorship in the best of times, not to mention in today's volatile economy, and 2011 will be an important season leading into the following year's Summer Olympics, the biggest platform for their best athletes. Fortunately for them, the CEO of this Canadian-headquartered bike company is one of their most avid fans.

"It's quite embarrassing that most big bike companies don't support a women's team," Cervelo chief Gerard Vroomen said by telephone from the Eurobike trade show in Germany. "They'll gladly sell bikes to women, but the sport itself seems quite difficult for them.

"First of all, women's racing is really fun. And it's a matter of respect. If I had my way, the UCI [cycling's international governing body] would order Pro Tour teams to have women's teams, and order Pro Tour races to hold a women's race. Problem solved. It really could be done at little cost with a couple of tweaks."

Including women under the umbrella of a men's team may seem like a patriarchal business model at first glance, but Cervelo co-founder Vroomen, whose company began sponsoring a women's team in 2007, is convinced it's necessary to grow the sport.

Kristy Scrymgeour, a former competitive rider from Australia who manages the HTC-Columbia women's team, said the structure is a key addition to the support provided by national teams. "Linked to a men's team, the resources are already in place," she said, noting that many women pros on smaller teams still ride for puny salaries or none at all. "It's cost-effective, and for your sponsors, you're covering the other half of the population."

Accomplished American rider Kristin Armstrong also agrees. The Idaho resident rode for Cervelo in 2008, the year she won an Olympic gold medal in the time trial in Beijing, and retired last season after winning her second time trial world championship.

"Whatever technology [2008 Tour de France winner and current Cervelo leader] Carlos Sastre was given -- a new helmet or a time trial bike -- I got too," said Armstrong, who is expecting her first child next week.

"What can women do for men's teams?" she asked rhetorically. "We do a great job of marketing for our sponsors."

Vroomen confirmed that, saying women in general "are much more natural at engaging with fans off the bike. They get to the sport later, they're college- or university-educated, they're well-rounded people who have to think about real life."

Like HTC-Columbia, whose women's program originated under the old T-Mobile-sponsored management structure, Cervelo gives the women equal billing with the men on its team website and has held joint training camps, equipment testing days and team presentations.

After that, the men's and women's paths often diverge, especially in Europe. Notable exceptions are the Tour of Flanders and Fleche-Wallonne in Belgium, where women's World Cup series events are held on the same day as the men's prestigious classic races, and several established U.S. events such as the one-day race in Philadelphia, the four-day Redlands Classic and the Tour of the Gila.

Women's elite stage races are shorter -- the average daily distance is capped at roughly 60 miles, with a stage maximum of 90 miles -- and feature smaller fields. Ninety-four riders finished the 2010 women's Tour of Italy (Giro Donne), a 10-day race held in early July and won by Mara Abbott of the U.S..

Many women pros compete in both the road and track disciplines, although more specialization seems likely going forward with the expansion of the women's Olympic track cycling program from three to five events.

Cervelo is carrying 14 women on its roster this season, including 2008 Olympic time trial silver medalist Emma Pooley of Great Britain and past or current national champions from Germany, the Netherlands and Australia. Armstrong is the last American to have raced for the team. Changes in that lineup are yet to be determined, but the women's team will continue to have its own dedicated staff.

On Garmin's end, absorbing the women's team means an organization that employed 30 people in 2007 will grow to over 100 next year to support the men, the women and the existing under-23 team. Manager Jonathan Vaughters said he considers this new component to be a great windfall, especially so close to another Olympics. "We inherited one of the best teams in the world," he said.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.