ATHENS, Ga.-Why is Athens Bandag Inc. sponsoring a professional bicycle racing team? That's a question the Athens Bandag/Domino's Pizza racing team often is asked by spectators and reporters, said team member David Crowe.
The answer, he said, is that Athens Bandag Sales Manager Bill Riecke and Vice President Troy Porterfield III are avid racing fans.
``It's my own personal love, and I thought it would be a different way of marketing,'' said Mr. Riecke, who travels with the eight-member team.
Athens Bandag provides the team with money for traveling expenses, entry fees and bicycles-which can cost between $2,000 and $3,000 each. Most importantly, though, they provide them with clothing displaying the Athens Bandag name, according to Mr. Riecke.
``It's a moving billboard for us,'' he said. ``You see these guys running around every day. That's their clothing. They wear that everywhere they ride.''
``This is definitely something different for a tire company to do,'' he said. ``People ask, `What's a Bandag?' It gives us an opportunity to answer, whereas if you see a sign or newspaper, it can't talk back to you.''
The team competes in about 60 races a year, mostly on the eastern seaboard, said Mr. Crowe, who also owns his own law firm. But, he said, they will sometimes venture out to California, budget permitting.
``At these big pro races we go to, we'll get a lot of media coverage before we actually go to the race,'' he said. ``. . . (T)hey always ask, `How did Athens Bandag become involved?' ''
One of the largest, if not the largest, night race is held in downtown Athens, according to Mr. Riecke, drawing as many as 40,000 spectators.
On Memorial Day, 22,000 spectators looked on as team member Steve Sevener won the 1995 Moline, Ill., Criterium, a race that took place only 30 miles from Bandag Inc. headquarters in Muscatine, Iowa, he said.
A spokesman for Bandag said they were surprised to see a photograph in ``almost a local newspaper'' of a man wearing a jersey bearing the Bandag name.
``We would not have known him from Adam except that we saw this `Athens Bandag' and realized it was one of our dealers,'' he said.
The team, which was assembled five years ago at a ``grassroots'' level, has become a powerhouse in the sport, ranking in the top five in the U.S. out of ``hundreds and hundreds of teams,'' said Mr. Crowe.
``I'd put our guys up against anybody,'' said Mr. Riecke.
He said that a woman from Hickory, N.C., who talked to some of the riders after a race, later stopped by the store on her way through the area and bought tires at Athens Bandag.
``That says a lot,'' he said, adding that business also has increased from students at the University of Georgia, also in Athens.
Next year, the team will garner even more media coverage ``because the Olympics are going to be right here in our backyard,'' said Mr. Crowe. They will compete in a race in Atlanta a month before the 1996 Summer Olympics ``that will basically be a forerunner to the Olympic road race,'' he said.
Many countries will send their Olympic riders to compete in that race so they can adjust to Georgia's summer humidity and familiarize themselves with the course, he said.
Troy Porterfield Jr., owner and president of Athens Bandag, said he hopes all the media coverage won't inspire too much imitation of the company's unusual sponsorship.
``I would like to keep it kind of unique,'' he said. ``I don't care to spread it all that much.''