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Last Updated: Monday, 4 August, 2003, 12:41 GMT 13:41 UK
ONCE withdraw sponsorship
ONCE-Eroski team leader Joseba Beloki
Beloki has been a prominent team leader
ONCE, Spain's organisation for the blind, is to end 15 years of sponsoring professional cycling one year sooner than expected.

The organisation will withdraw its backing for the ONCE-Eroski team of Manolo Saiz at the end of 2003 rather than waiting for the end of the 2004 season, as was expected.

ONCE's sponsorship produced 431 victories, including two team triumphs in the Tour de France, four individual overall wins in the Tour of Spain and two world time trial championships.

Current team leader Joseba Beloki was in contention to challenge Lance Armstrong in the recent Tour de France until he crashed out spectacularly on stage nine.

Other big names to have ridden for the team include Swiss rider Alex Zulle and Frenchman Laurent Jalabert.

"It's the end of an era," admitted ONCE communications director Fernando Mendi.

"We've been providing sponsorship for 15 years and 98% of Spaniards recognise the ONCE brand."

The organisation will continue to support grassroots ventures in the run-up to the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, which Mendi said were "closer to the organisation's social aims."

Saiz will now have to seek other sponsors. Supermarket chain Eroski have said they would continue, but only in partnership with a larger backer and not as the main sponsor.

Beloki crashes out of Tour
14 Jul 03  |  Tour de France 2003

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