AMSTERDAM Dutch lender Rabobank said it would stop sponsoring professional cycling teams at the end of this year, because it had lost faith in the ability of cycling's governing body to clean up the sport following the Lance Armstrong doping scandal.
Rabobank's decision to end its long association with the sport follows publication of a report by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) last week which the Dutch bank said "spoke volumes" about the extent of the drug problem facing the sport.
"We are no longer convinced that the international professional world of cycling can make this a clean and fair sport. We are not confident that this will change for the better in the foreseeable future," Bert Bruggink, Rabobank board member, said in a statement.
"We are pulling out of professional cycling. It is painful. Not just for Rabobank, but especially for the enthusiasts and the cyclists who are not to blame in this," he added.
Armstrong is set to lose his record seven Tour de France titles after USADA said the American took part in and organised an elaborate, sophisticated doping scheme on his way to his unrivalled success.
The 41-year-old cancer survivor has always denied taking banned substances but has decided not to challenge the USADA charges. Nike on Wednesday ended its sponsorship of Armstrong, who also announced he was stepping down as chairman of the cancer support charity he founded.
In a nation obsessed with both amateur and professional cycling, Rabobank is the biggest sponsor in Dutch professional cycling with total sponsorship worth 15 million euros ($19.64 million) a year.
American rider Levi Leipheimer, who rode for Rabobank between 2002 and 2004, was sacked this week by the Quick-Step Cycling Team after admitting to the USADA investigation that he took banned substances.
Leipheimer, 38, was one of 11 former team mates to testify against Armstrong.
Leipheimer, who took part in 10 Tour de France competitions and finished in the top 10 four times, told the USADA he took EPO and testosterone with the help of the U.S. Postal Service doctor.
"I continued to use EPO while with Rabobank in 2002, 2003, 2004 and was also assisted in using it by the Rabobank team doctor."
Leipheimer testified to the USADA that in 2005 Armstrong and the entire U.S. Postal Service team received blood transfusions after a stage in the Tour de France.
He also testified that other members of the Rabobank team used banned substances.
Another sponsor, SKINS, which is a partner of the Rabobank team, said on Thursday it would reconsider its association with the sport if its UCI governing body failed to act on doping.
British team Sky, sponsored by pay TV company BSkyB, said this week it would sack team members unless they signed a document saying they had never doped.
The Rabobank cycling team, which has taken part in every single Tour de France since 1984 said in a statement it regretted but understood the bank's decision.
"We've been cycling for 17 years now with the name Rabobank proudly on our shirts and it hurts that going forward we'll have to do without that name," it said.
(Reporting by Sara Webb and Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam, additional reporting by Keith Weir in London; Editing by Louise Ireland)