Bike brands love telling stories about cooperation with their pro riders, of using the best riders in the world to develop products to match. There is, of course, a wide spectrum of truth to these claims; some brands do indeed work closely with athletes during the engineering process. Many, perhaps most, do not.
In the end, though, these claims are a little more than smoke and mirrors. Sponsorship is about one thing: visibility. Getting gear underneath a team at the top of the sport puts it in front of millions of potential buyers around the world. Visibility is why sponsors shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars, or far more, to get the pros on branded gear.
With few exceptions, sponsorship is part of a carefully crafted marketing plan. Sponsorship often involves not just providing product, but writing a rather large check to team management as well. All the data below should be viewed through that lens.
First, let’s take a look at a few of the general themes currently running through equipment sponsorship.
Consolidation. Shimano has been making a major push in this direction in recent years, utilizing its PRO component brand and its recently revamped wheel program to get teams on bikes built exclusively with Shimano products. Campagnolo has been doing the same with its wheels.
Shimano now has more teams on its wheels than any other brand — including wheel giants like Mavic. In fact, most of the wheels rolling through UCI WorldTour racing this year have a direct relationship to a component manufacturer. Combine Zipp (owned by SRAM) and Fulcrum (owned by Campagnolo) with the Campagnolo and Shimano branded hoops and you get 13 out of 18 teams. The only independent or semi-independent holdouts are Mavic, Corima, Vision and Bontrager.
Why are so many teams running equipment from just one or two major brands? Bargaining power may be a big part of it. Equipment sponsors don’t want competitors’ products on the same bike, so a large brand like Shimano or SRAM may offer a better deal on their drivetrains (which the team needs) in exchange for running the company’s wheels as well. Brands focused on just one component don’t have the cash or any of the less tangible bargaining chips to compete.
Consolidation is occurring in team cockpits as well, though to a lesser extent. Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Tinkoff-Saxo are both on Zipp cockpits and seatposts; in fact, both team’s bikes are essentially identical: Specialized frame, Zipp wheels, Zipp components, SRAM drivetrains. Shimano has four teams on its PRO cockpits, too.
Nonetheless, there is more diversity in handlebars and stems than anywhere else, with smaller brands sneaking in. Ritchey, 3T, Deda, FSA, and Fizik are all represented.
Big names, big budgets. But are they big enough?
With Giant taking over title sponsorship from Argos on the Giant-Shimano squad, there are now more title sponsorships held by bike brands than any time in recent memory. Giant joins Merida, Trek, BMC and Cannondale in this distinction. Many within the industry worry the trend is unsustainable — as large a company like Giant is, footing the bill for an entire WorldTour squad may be beyond the company’s budget over the long term. Look for these teams to continue to seek major, non-endemic sponsors.
Trek Factory Racing, formerly Radioshack-Leopard, is living up to its name, operating as a true factory squad. It may be the most uniform team ever, with everything but the team’s Shimano drivetrains branded with the logos of either Trek or Bontrager, a Trek brand. The team will ride Trek Madone frames and everything else will be Bontrager: cockpits, saddles, wheels, helmets, and clothing. Expect to see quite a few riders on Bontrager shoes as well.
A total of 14 different bike brands across the 18 teams in the WorldTour is an average figure, nearly identical to last year’s 15 brands across 19 teams. Being a frame sponsor of a ProTeam is extremely expensive, so only the biggest brands (see Specialized) are able to sponsor more than one squad.
There is only one newcomer to the WorldTour peloton this year, Colnago, thanks to Europcar’s move to the top echelon. There is also one disappearance in Felt, as Argos-Shimano becomes Giant-Shimano.
Pinarello’s double sponsorship of Sky and Movistar has ended, as the brand will focus on Sky for 2014. Movistar has moved to Canyon, a brand popular in Europe but difficult to source in North America (at least for now). Canyon becomes the second brand to double up, sponsoring both Movistar and Katusha, which it equipped last year as well.
The Dutch squads have done some bike swapping. Belkin, formerly Blanco and formerly on Giant bicycles, will ride Bianchi for 2014. Giant-Shimano will now be outfitted by Giant. Felt is said to be seeking a WorldTour squad, but there are only so many slots available. Felt is sponsoring a top women’s squad, Twenty16, for 2014.
Other than these changes, the frame brand landscape remains largely the same. Specialized has maintained its team tally at three, holding onto all the teams it sponsored last year: Astana, Tinkoff, and Omega Pharma. The company tends to partner with riders, following them around to whatever new team they join — and often paying part of that rider’s salary. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma), and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) are the three major targets at the moment.
As a small side note, 12 of the 18 ProTeams are now sponsored by bike brands that offer an aerodynamic road frame. Only Europcar, Sky, Ag2r-La Mondiale, Belkin, FDJ.fr, and Cannondale do not have an aero option, though the regular road frames used by Belkin, FDJ.fr, and Cannondale do have some aero design queues.
SRAM has halted its slow evaporation from the WorldTour, sticking with the same three teams (Cannondale, Tinkoff, Omega Pharma) for 2014. That is quite a drop from 2011, when SRAM had eight teams, or 2012, when it sponsored five.
Shimano leads the component brands once again, with 10 teams on its drivetrains. Of note, though, is that the company does not sponsor all 10 teams — Garmin, for example, bought all its Shimano components in 2013. We’ve yet to confirm whether it has done so again in 2014.
Campagnolo will sponsor five teams, up from four last year with the addition of Europcar.
With frames, wheels, and major components covered, there are few opportunities for other brands to slot themselves into the WorldTour. But when the stars align, it can be a major boon for a small- to medium-sized brand.
Perhaps the greatest coup of the 2014 sponsorship season comes from Stages, a relatively small company that will provide Sky with power meters for 2014. Given how notoriously fastidious Sky is with its equipment, particularly something as important to proper training as a power meter, the sponsorship should go a long way toward cementing Stages within a crowded market.
Of course, that’s not the only power meter news for 2014. Garmin has finally released its Vector power pedals, and its team will certainly ride them this season.