One of the best women's cycling teams ever assembled will survive to sprint another day.
Confirmation came late Monday that two new sponsors -- California-based bike manufacturer Specialized and Vancouver, B.C.-headquartered women's apparel company lululemon athletica -- will back the former HTC-Highroad team in 2012.
Canada's Clara Hughes, a multiple Olympic medalist in cycling and speedskating, will be the most notable addition to the roster. U.S. time trial champion Evelyn Stevens and former world time trial world champ Amber Neben are staying put. Newly crowned world road champion Judith Arndt of Germany and American Amanda Miller are departing, while German veteran Ina-Yoko Teutenberg will remain with the team.
It's a critical lead-out for women's road cycling heading into London 2012.
The news that HTC-Highroad was folding its tent after failing to secure new sponsorship was jarring for cycling as a whole given the team's consistent excellence. But while most of the male riders and staff were assured of finding new jobs (and have), the women, with far fewer options, saw the pavement cracking under them at the worst possible time.
Performing well on the Olympic stage is more important for the women than for the men, who under truth serum would surely admit they attach greater prestige to the Grand Tours, the world championships and selected one-day classics. Amid the elite women's sparse, under-funded and under-the-radar racing schedule, the Summer Games provides competition and marketing exposure that even the most casual fan can glom onto.
Seven or eight riders on the soon-to-be rebranded team are clear contenders to represent their respective countries in London. And while they can rely on their national federations for some support and racing opportunities, competing with trade teams lifts them to and keeps them at a higher level.
Kristy Scrymgeour, the personable Australian and former rider who served as press officer for the HTC men's and women's teams (and their previous incarnations as T-Mobile, Highroad and Columbia) under the ownership of wireless entrepreneur Bob Stapleton, will manage the team's business operations through a new company, Velocio Sports. Stapleton, an avid women's cycling advocate, won't have any formal role but Scrymgeour said he will continue to contribute in both tangible and intangible ways.
Specialized has an interest in continuing to be a strong presence in the women's peloton because of its women's product line (a rider in HTC garb is featured prominently on that section of the company's website) and looks to reap the benefits of the Olympic limelight. Lululemon, best known in the fitness world for its yoga apparel, had already waded into cycling by providing casual clothing for the BMC and Saxo Bank men's teams and will supply racing apparel for the new team.
The fact that the new Specialized-lululemon squad won't be affiliated with a men's team will mean tighter fiscal restraints. Scrymgeour said she couldn't disclose the team's total budget, but confirmed that all 13 riders (one slot is yet to be filled) will be paid. If that sounds like a no-brainer, think again -- many of the women racing in the U.S. and Europe aren't salaried at all or make so little that they have to hold other jobs or dig into their own pockets for expenses.
The women's game is an afterthought at best for the sport's governing body, the UCI, which has shown no interest in exploring two avenues that could help grow it -- mandating or offering incentives for top teams to field women's programs, or instituting a minimum wage for female riders. (Cervelo co-founder Gerard Vroomen, whose women's team joined the Garmin train this season, is conducting a lively discussion of the minimum wage issue on his web site.)
So for the time being, it's up to the women to sell their sport without a lot of corporate or institutional support. Many of these riders have the kind of compelling, self-made stories that will appeal to the Olympic audience. This new team will give a baker's dozen of them a better chance.