Regular readers will know that we're not enamored with the traditional professional cycling sponsorship model over here. At its core, that model is for cycling manufacturers to provide racers with equipment at no cost (or even to pay riders to use the equipment at no cost) in order to demonstrate to the cycling enthusiast that said equipment must certainly be more than adequate for applications of lesser strain that grand tours or cobbled classics. My primary objection to this model to date has been that it adds expense. Giving away some product doesn't by itself make your frame or wheelset cost $1K more than it should, but all the ads that accompany the sponsorship have to be paid for somehow. Pick up a Bicycling or VeloNews and see how many ads by companies that sponsor professional cyclists feature the cyclists or the teams somehow. On the one hand, you could argue that these brands would be running these ads anyway, so the inclusion of the sponsored athletes carries no incremental expense. But a more likely scenario is that these brands realized their ads performed better (ie, they were more able to sell their products with $1k extra margin built in) if the many ads they run in the magazines and online featured the sport's top athletes. Either way, you have two correlations to note: 1) the brands that sponsor pro cycling teams seem to have a larger advertising presence than those who don't, 2) the brands that sponsor pro cycling teams sell their products at higher price points than those who do not. In this case, the causality between the two is less relevant than the correlation.
But you'll be relieved to know that today's perspective has nothing to do with advertising. Instead, I've found an aspect to pro cycling team sponsorship that smacks of something even more distasteful than added and unnecessary expense. I see evidence of duplicity.
Going back to the core objective of pro cycling sponsorship, you recall that the primary objective is to go to great lengths (and expense, but never mind that now) to demonstrate to you - the well-heeled cycling enthusiast - that by riding the same gear as the pros, you can reap the same technological benefits they enjoy. But it turns out, you can't actually buy the same gear as the pros - at least not in some cases. In a recent VeloNews article, everybody's favorite new columnist Nick Legan toured the Zipp factory and introduced us to a guy named Nic James. Zipp touts that all their wheels are built by hand, which we agree is a meaningful point of differentiation. Nic James used to oversee the wheelbuilding process across all of Zipp, but now is deployed exclusively to personally build all the wheels used by Zipp's sponsored athletes and teams. He's the best they've got at Zipp at this task which is central to the company's value proposition. So while you can climb mountains on the same 202s that Alberto will race on in 2011 (if he's allowed), yours are built by someone who is not as skilled as Nic. Does that mean there is any difference in performance? Zipp obviously thinks so, or they wouldn't reserve Nic for the pro hoops.
Maybe that's too subtle. So keep reading the same article and you'll get to the part about the Zipp 101 alloy clinchers. "Sorry, you can’t have these. Custom, team-only 101 training wheels are laced two-cross front and three-cross rear." The team-issue 101s also have traditional J-bend spokes instead of the straight-pull laced to the 101s you can buy. So while you can buy the same Zipp 101s that are proven to be durable enough for the pros train to on, yours actually have different hubs, different spokes and a different lacing pattern. Other than that, they're identical.
Moving on, here's one of my favorites - the SRAM Red Front derailleur. For the past couple of years, articles on pro racers' bikes would casually mention that the Red F/D was modified to include a steel cage instead of the standard titanium. Now, in this article on what would have been the Pegasus 2011 Team Edition Scott bike, this modified Red Front Derailleur (whose modification to a steel derailleur makes it much closer to a Rival front derailleur) is simply called the "team edition steel cage Red front derailleur." It's a modification that became so ubiquitous that it's now standard issue to the pros. And like the Zipp 101s, you can't buy it.
Don't even get me started on frames. What - you want me to get started on frames? OK, I'll begrudgingly oblige, using this example from Team Garmin and Felt from last year (this year's transgressions are not yet apparent, but I'm watching for them). The article from CyclingNews.com reads, "Felt's consumer catalogue lists two variants for its F1 carbon road racer flagship: the sub-900g F1 SL and the 300g-heavier, but much stiffer, F1 Sprint. For Garmin-Transitions sprinter Tyler Farrar and the rest of the squad, though, there's just the one 'Team Edition' model that blends aspects of both into a single frame." So as a consumer, you have to choose if you want to sacrifice stiffness for lightweight, or lightweight for stiffness. No doubt whichever choice you make, you're still getting an exceptional bike. But it's not the same one used by the pros who may have influenced your perception of Felt in the first place. That bike you just can't get.
I know some of you are thinking right now, "NASCAR." I know I am. I think about NASCAR all the time. You can argue that cycling is like NASCAR, and that even the most die-hard Carl Edwards fan who goes out and buys a Ford Fusion of his own certainly doesn't expect it to have 1400hp and do 225mph like the #99 AFLAC car. The point of the Ford sponsorship is more about brand affinity than it is about proof-of-performance.
But cycling is different, because we believe (and in fact are told by the brands themselves) that we can buy the same equipment as the pros. We don't watch Cancellara win at Roubaix and think, "Boy those Zipp dudes have wheels dialed. I'd like some of that same expertise in the 303s I'm getting." No, we think, "Cancellara crushed on the cobbles in 303s. I'm getting the exact same wheels." It's a tacit understanding that consumers can buy what the pros use in this sport. Exploiting and then abusing that contract is tantamout to lacing race wheels with wooden nipples.