Why Specialized switched teams and will instead focus on Boels-Dolmans

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It’s a move that took some by surprise; after three years of backing Kristy Scrymgeour’s successful team, a period where the squad took three world team time trial titles plus many other victories, both Specialized and lululemon confirmed several weeks ago that they would end their title sponsorship at the end of the 2014 season.

The two American companies will instead transfer their full focus to the Boels-Dolmans team, a squad which includes past Specialized-lululemon rider Ellen Van Dijk, as well as the 2012 Olympic road race runner-up Lizzie Armitstead.

Those companies are not alone in their transfer. Also making the move is Evelyn Stevens, one of the biggest names on Scrymgeour’s squad.

Scrymgeour is yet to make fully clear her team’s plans for 2015, but it raised slightly over $100,000 in crowd funding this year and that will be used in part to cover the team’s budget. She has also said that the team will have new title sponsors. Those details plus confirmation of the line-up are expected to be revealed soon.

As regards Specialized and lululemon, the shift in focus of sponsors from one squad to another is not unprecedented in the sport. In the mid-2000s in men’s cycling, Davitamon moved from co-sponsoring the QuickStep team to working with Lotto.

That team later became Omega Pharma-Lotto; those two went on to end their partnership, with the latter forming a rival squad, now known as Lotto-Belisol.

RadioShack and Nissan transferred their backing from the American team they were financing to the Leopard outfit, which also took on riders and staff from the folding team. This winter Cannondale is transferring its backing to the current Garmin-Sharp/Slipstream setup. In both of cases, the previously-backed teams were stopping.

This is not the case with the women’s teams, with both set to field top class line-ups in 2015.

Specialized has until now not spoken in depth about the shift, but women’s product development manager Erin Sprague talked to CyclingTips about the reason behind the new strategy of both that company and lululemon.

“We have worked with Kristy’s team for three years,” she said, outlining the company’s involvement in recent seasons. “When we started, it was basically the old HTC Highroad team, which was about to come to an end.

“Our founder Mike Sinyard said that this team can’t fold, that we can create the fastest team in the women’s peloton. That we have to elevate women’s racing.”

Specialized had previously been on board as the backers of the men’s and women’s HTC Highroad teams, but the more direct involvement of the company in its successor has helped to further develop things for the women’s squad.

“Three years ago women’s cycling wasn’t what it is now. I think Specialized and lululemon and Kristy and Velocio [Scrymgeour’s holding company – ed.] and the other partners really changed the game in the women’s peloton,” said Sprague. “That’s a huge credit to everyone who worked on that team.

“The design that the kit had, how dominant they were, it kind of caused everyone to sit up and say, ‘wait a minute, there are opportunities here to do more.’ Other sponsors, other teams, other cycling brands elevated their sponsorship in response. So, from that perspective I think the team was something that was really important.”

Parting of ways

Sprague choose not to get into the details of how the relationship with the current team drew to a close. However CyclingTips understands that both Specialized and lululemon had not intended to be title sponsors for as long as they were. Their financial input over the three years therefore ended up being larger than originally envisaged.

While Sprague would not comment on this, she spoke about the attraction of moving full focus to the Boels-Dolmans setup. She said that she, Sinyard and others were drawn to the approach, successes and ambitions of the team, and also stated that they felt that the backing would be a perfect fit for Specialized’s goals of building a higher profile in the European market.

“We looked around and asked, ‘what is the future of women’s cycling?’” she explained. “We are always looking at what is the next fastest team and where is all the excitement and energy going. We saw riders like Lizzie Armitstead and Ellen van Dijk, who had left the [Specialized lululemon] team.
“Last year we sponsored Boels-Dolmans as a Europe-focused team; it was a little more local in the Dutch and European markets. The team really outperformed our expectations. When we met with its management, we were impressed by the depth of their commitment, the strength of their program and the professionalism of their operations.

“We talked to them and they said ‘we are all in on women’s cycling’. They have other sponsorships too in the sport.

“We looked at all that and said ‘if we are serious at being at the forefront of women’s cycling, this is the group that’s pulling in the investment to make it happen.

“We also just love a new story, a growth story- it creates excitement and energy in the sport.”

Investment amounts and modified approach:

As mentioned, it is understood that Specialized and lululemon both ended up putting more into Scrymgeour’s team over the three year period than was originally envisaged. In addition to providing equipment to the team, Specialized also paid cash to cover salaries and other costs.

While the company is stepping back from title sponsorship under the new agreement, and will therefore contribute less to Boels-Dolmans than it did to Specialized lululemon, Sprague insisted that Specialized’s overall commitment of resources to women’s cycling is increasing rather than decreasing.

In addition to providing backing to Boels-Dolmans plus ASO’s La Course race – Specialized was the sponsor of the latter this year – she said that the company has also upped its investment in other areas, including its own staff and engineering resources.

“If you look at it in dollar amounts, it’s a little bit less for the pro team because Boels-Dolmans already have the title sponsorship,” she said. “We are putting in a little bit of cash, but it’s a really, really well-funded team.

“We were able to take that money that had gone into this one team [Specialized lululemon] and are going to bring it to more of a grassroots level like local teams and a lot of our different global markets.

“The overall money that is going to women’s cycling has gone up, but it has just been spread around.”

As for lululemon, it has also moved across to the Boels-Dolmans team and will be part of the setup in 2015. It is a company involved in the yoga industry and while it has a less direct link to cycling, was happy to maintain its presence in the sport.

Under the ongoing partnership, Sprague said that both Specialized and lululemon will continue to produce co-branded products, drawing on the latter’s design and technical input.

Lululemon wasn’t available to comment on the Boels-Dolmans move. However CyclingTips has learned that one reason for the change was that it had concerns about the Scrymgeour’s Velocio brand of clothing, which is gaining strength and becoming a strong brand in itself.

It remains to be seen what look Scrymgeour’s team will have in 2015. It had a highly distinctive style during the past three seasons, with black and white patterns and discreet logos setting it apart from many other teams.
This appearance is something that Sprague feels was a big success in terms of visibility. “We loved that,” she said. “It was actually lululemon that made that decision [about the subtle logos]. They said, this is our experience – less is more. At first we were all sceptical but we said, you know what, let’s try it, and they were totally right.

“We got so much more buzz on that kit than plastering our logo.”

‘We want the fastest team’

Asked how long Specialized plans to work with Boels-Dolmans, Sprague didn’t give specifics. However it appears it will be more than one season.

“We have a longer term commitment with them and we are really excited,” she stated. “When we look at the investment and how passionate the management is about women’s cycling, we really haven’t seen that in a corporate sponsor before.

“We are planning to be very focused in Europe in the next year, so I think that what they can do, especially there, is great.”

She said that the company, the other backers and partners and the squad itself would work hard to increase the impact on the sport.

“We want the fastest team,” Sprague stated. “We think that if women’s cycling and men’s cycling want to be treated equally, a top brand is going to look at what is going to be the fastest team and the best team. We feel this one is going to be it for the next year. They really have a roster of pretty incredible riders.

“Evelyn Stevens also moved over to the team from Specialized lululemon. Then with Ellen van Dijk, the Dutch time trial champion, and Lizzie Armitstead, the women’s Olympics silver medallist, there are the three of them.

“They all have three different talents and types of racing they are good at. We are super excited about that and we are super excited about hopefully winning the team time trial world championships.”

Scrymgeour will also have the same goal. In addition to Lisa Brennauer’s TT win and road race silver in this year’s worlds, her squad has taken gold in the team time trial discipline in the past three seasons. She and her riders will fight tooth and nail next autumn to try to retain the title in American soil. It should make for a dramatic and gripping showdown, and help to further raise the overall standard of this burgeoning wing of the sport.

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