Cycling

Cycling sponsors stick with Tour de France for now

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PARIS (AP)

At the end of each stage of the Tour de France, one rider steps to the top of the podium to don the leader's yellow jersey - and gives a French bank some global publicity.

Lance Armstrong did it dozens of times in his heyday, winning the Tour seven straight times from 1999-2005. Before that, five-time champion Miguel Indurain of Spain did it. And this year, Bradley Wiggins of Britain did it, too.

After more than two decades of sponsoring the most prestigious cycling race, French financial institution LCL is staying the course despite a world-wide sullying of the event since Armstrong was stripped of his titles on Monday.

While Armstrong was dropped by several sponsors, LCL and some other companies that back the Tour de France are sticking with it.

''We don't sponsor a team or an individual, we sponsor a sporting event that each year attracts great public enthusiasm,'' LCL spokesman Pierre Baillot said Tuesday. ''The wider public knows how to draw a distinction'' between the jersey and the wearer.

Not everyone may agree. Dutch bank Rabobank bailed out as a team sponsor last week, and rumors abound that another prominent team sponsor may follow suit. In the past, teams including T-Mobile in Germany and Liberty Seguros in Spain have ended their sponsorships following doping scandals.

LCL, which used to be known as Credit Lyonnais, started its relationship with the Tour in 1987 and has a contract through 2018. And Baillot noted that crowds along the Tour's route haven't diminished despite other doping scandals, making it an opportunity to promote its brand ''in the biggest free sporting event in the world.''

Rabobank became the first team sponsor to decide it had had enough in the wake of what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency called ''one of the most sordid chapters in sports history.''

The president of cycling's governing body has sought to cut off speculation about sponsors fleeing the sport. Pat McQuaid said Tuesday in a radio interview that he's ''already taken a call'' about a possible replacement for Rabobank and insisted that ''there is no financial crisis in cycling.''

At the same time, Tour organizers must hope that headlines about Armstrong's powerhouse sponsors Nike, Trek and Oakley abandoning their long associations with the Texan don't give other sponsors any ideas.

Sponsors pay up to $5 million annually to have their brands associated with the Tour. Vittel bottled water, the Carrefour grocery chain and Skoda automobiles are ubiquitous along the roads of France in July.

Skoda, the Czech car maker owned by Germany's Volkswagen AG, is another big sponsor that stands by the French race.

The company has been one of the Tour's main sponsors for nearly a decade, putting its name on the white jersey awarded to best young rider as well as providing a fleet of 110 cars for the caravan that precedes the racers each day.

''Nine years into our successful cooperation, we are convinced that the relationship between the Tour de France and Skoda Auto has raised the brand's visibility and public awareness,'' Skoda spokesman Evzen Krauskopf said in an email.

Other sponsors, like polka dot King of the Mountains jersey sponsor Carrefour, and Vittel, the bottled water whose red-and-white logo nearly wallpapers the race's last miles each day, didn't respond to requests for comment.

Before Rabobank, French bank Caisse d'Epargne quit the sport in 2010. It didn't openly blame doping, but team leader Alejandro Valverde was caught up in the Operation Puerto doping investigation and banned for two years in 2010.

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Greg Keller can be reached at http://twitter.com/Greg-Keller

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