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In praise of sponsors

They’re the people who pay for the sport we love to watch. So let’s hear it for laminate flooring, face cream and satellite television

Trevor Ward
18 Jul 2017

Italian rider Fiorenzo Magni was a seriously hard man, who shook off accusations of being a Nazi sympathiser to win both the Giro and Tour of Flanders three times.

He was also known for rubbing a well-known brand of women’s face cream into the chamois pad of his shorts, and in 1954 this would lead to an event that changed the face of professional cycling forever.

Until that point, the sponsorship of professional teams had been restricted to cycling brands only (with the notable exception of a British team that in 1947 operated under the rules of the breakaway British League of Racing Cyclists rather than the UCI and was sponsored by pools company ITP).

But bike sales had suffered during the period of post-war prosperity that saw more people buying cars and mopeds. Brands such as Ganna, which supplied the bikes for Magni’s team, had less money to spend on sponsorship. 

So Magni contacted the German producers of the face cream he had applied so diligently to the opposite end of his anatomy and convinced them to give him 20 million Italian lire (£200,000 today). The next year, Magni won his third Giro with the name Nivea emblazoned across his jersey. 

‘Nivea always thanked me for my idea, even years later. This was the beginning of the salvation of cycling,’ Magni told Bill McGann, author of the two volume The Story Of The Giro d’Italia in 2006.

Unlikely partnerships

A precedent had been set that would lead to some unlikely partnerships during the following years. These days, the professional peloton is a colourful blur of billboards for industries ranging from pension funds (AG2R-La Mondiale) to cyber security (Dimension Data).

One of the most crucial things every pro rider has to remember is to zip up their jersey when crossing the finishing line in first place.

‘Fundamentally, my job is to display the sponsor’s logo as predominantly as possible, preferably crossing the line with my hands in the air,’ said Mark Cavendish on the eve of advertising a well-known satellite TV company during the 2012 Tour.

While few of us may have felt compelled to rush out and buy some laminated kitchen flooring (Quick-Step) or book a trip to the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan (Astana) after watching a stage of the Tour on TV, the advertisers are still getting the kind of exposure – an estimated global TV audience of 3.9 billion, according to organiser ASO – that Don Draper and his fellow Mad Men could only have dreamed of. 

By its very nature, professional road cycling wouldn’t exist without sponsors. Unlike in most other professional sports, WorldTour teams don’t have home stadiums to generate gate revenue or TV money to cover their running costs (which vary from £11 million a year for a ‘mid-table’ team to at least double that for the likes of Team Sky and Movistar). 

Though the landscape is slowly changing – the 10 teams that form unofficial ‘trade union’ Velon, for example, are able to sell the rights to their on-bike footage and other real-time metrics – for now it is very much the shower heads and kitchen appliances of Bora-Hansgrohe and the high-powered explosives of mining supplier Orica that are keeping our sport alive.

Eight years after Magni’s deal with Nivea, the floodgates to extra-sportif sponsorship were well and truly opened when Raphaël Géminiani – the formidable and charismatic French rider who was then managing a team including Jacques Anquetil – struck a deal with drinks company Saint Raphaël.

Some versions of the story say he abbreviated the team’s name to Rapha-Géminiani to cleverly sidestep UCI regulations, claiming it was simply a shortened form of his own name rather than a link to the drinks company. Either way, it’s where today’s Rapha clothing brand took its inspiration from.

Twenty years later, the colourful Géminiani brokered an even more audacious deal when a Parisian nightclub manager introduced him to the 70-year-old widow of a Greek millionaire who wanted to revive her flagging career as a cabaret singer and dancer. 

As recounted by Les Woodland, author of The Yellow Jersey Companion To The Tour de France, Géminiani persuaded Miriam De Kova to promote her talents by co-sponsoring his team, along with bike manufacturer Lejeune.

Bright pink jerseys

The result was a team led by 1966 Tour winner Lucien Aimar wearing bright pink jerseys lining up for the start of the 1973 Tour. Three weeks later, five of the team’s riders occupied the last five places in the GC. Nothing was ever heard of Team De Kova-Lejeune again.

A business called Sauna Diana got a better return for its money when it sponsored a Dutch amateur team in the 1980s. The husband and wife owners of the company were big cycling fans. 

In 1990, their sons raced alongside Aussie star Phil Anderson at TVM, and Sauna Diana were only too happy to supply the team bus, a double decker vehicle adorned with a naked woman on the side.

During that year’s Giro – decades before Team Sky’s ‘Death Star’ bus was turning heads – journalist Rupert Guinness witnessed Anderson being approached by an Italian reporter and asked in broken English: ‘Phil… Phil… is it true that Sauna Diana is a “House of Love”?’

Though the lotteries, sealant manufacturers and construction companies of today’s pro peloton may lack the novelty or glamour of brothels and cabaret singers, without them and their like the state of professional cycling would be a lot more precarious. 

And while Fiorenzo Magni and Raphaël Géminiani are rightly lauded for their achievements on the bike, the impact they made on the sport continues to be felt well beyond the races they won.

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