All I can tell you is that I don’t think there has been a single discussion with a potential sponsor where one or the other (Alberto Contador from the 2010 Tour de France and the federal investigation into doping at the US Postal Service team ) wasn’t talked about. It’s been a factor in everyone’s view of cycling in the last year.
So said Bob Stapleton yesterday following the announcement that his HTC-Highroad team is to disband following a failed search for a new sponsor. It was an announcement that no one wanted to hear, but if truth be told there was an air of inevitability around it when, at last, it did come.
So is Stapleton right? Is it now impossible to find corporate sponsorship for a professional cycling team with Bert’s beef and the investigation stemming from Lanids’ allegations polluting the proceedings? Possibly. But putting the demise of HTC-Highroad squarely at the door of doping is, I believe, somewhat disingenuous. I find it hard to accept that a team with nearly 500 victories and who walked away with the green jersey at this year’s Tour De France fell foul of the ‘ifs’, ‘buts’, and ‘maybes’ that currently surround on-going investigations into doping. There certainly hasn’t been anything hitting the headlines regarding doping at HTC-Highroad.
So, if it wasn’t the doping that was stopping the sponsors signing on the dotted line, then what was it?
This is what Stapleton said to CyclingNews.com back in October last year:
I’d love to have a little west coast, geographically relevant compatible group of partners who are focused on common marketing objectives
Of course none of us were in attendance at those meetings and none of us actually know who Bob Stapleton was talking to. But if has restricted his search to the Silicon Valley bubble then I feel he has done his team a disservice.
However, while everyone is pouring over the quote regarding Contador and Armstrong the real assailant, when it comes to HTC-Highroad, is going unnoticed. If you want to know who really killed HTC, ask Richard Moore who was talking to earlier this year.
On the 14th of June Richard wrote an article for the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper which said:
Sportsmail understands the winner of 15 stages of the Tour de France has agreed to leave his current team, HTC-Highroad, to join Bradley Wiggins in the Dave Brailsford-managed British squad for 2012.
Cavendish is set to double his current salary, putting him on a par with Wiggins.
Cavendish was also quoted in the article as saying he was
“committed to a contract I signed a few years ago (but) there’s been no goodwill, no bonuses, nothing,”
He also added that he “felt kind of abused for what I’ve achieved”.
By the time this article appeared and the cycling world went into meltdown, negotiations would have been well under way with potential sponsors for the team which Mark Cavendish rode for - and was, undoubtably, the star of.
The problem that HTC-Highroad had was that they found an incredible talent in Mark Cavendish. He was young and brash when he went to T-Mobile as a stagiaire after finding success at the Tour Of Berlin in 2006. Stapleton quickly discovered just what the Manxman could do and so, slowly but surely, the entire team was moulded around him. And therein lay the problem. No one believes in Mark Cavendish’s abilities more than Mark Cavendish. With HTC unable, or unwilling, to pay him what he thought he was worth it was only logical that he would look elsewhere.
With Richard Moore’s article published, Bob Stapleton had no cards left to play. Cav is the fastest man in the peloton, the first British rider to win the Maillot Vert at the Tour De France and is still only 26. Who wants to sponsor a team that has, maybe, the second or third fastest guy in the world?
Andre Griepel, possibly the only rider who could beat Cav - and even then the conditions have to be just right - had left in acrimonious circumstances last year. I wrote previously about how Bernie Eisel and Mark Renshaw were using interviews at this year’s tour as a vehicle to publicize their intentions to go wherever Cavendish goes.
Recently the Velits twins announced that they had found a new home at QuickStep.
No offense to the following riders but if all you can offer a potential sponsor is Tony Martin, Bert Grabsch, Mathew Goss, and Tejay van Garderen the first thing they are going to say is “Who?”, followed in quick succession by a very succinct “No thanks”.
This is what Bob Stapleton told a hastily arranged telephone news conference yesterday to officially announce the end of HTC-Highroad.
“We went public with our sponsorship search just before the Tour. We were frustrated by the indecision of our title sponsor HTC who, after many months of assurances, had not come forward with a commitment to the team. That indecision remains a mystery to me”
The indecision remains a mystery. Really, Bob? Really?
It could be argued that one part of Armstrong’s legacy is an unhealthy focus for teams and individual riders to do one thing and do it really well. For Armstrong it was the Tour De France. For Bob Stapleton it was creating a team that could put Mark Cavendish at the head of a charging peloton with 200m to go. This was his crowning achievement and, indeed, his downfall. Because when the one element that your entire team is focused on is gone, there’s nowhere else to go. You suddenly find that what you thought was one of the most respected and well-drilled teams in the peloton is really nothing mor ethan a house of cards.
You can’t suddenly magic up a new squad that……well, does what, exactly? Cavendish is still the fastest man in world right now. Bob Stapleton knows that better than anyone else right now, so there’s little point in building another team along the same lines only to come second - at best. Riders with the ability to win Grand Tours don’t grow on trees and those types of rider also need a decent amount of team support around them. Finally, the true mountain goat isn’t celebrated much these days and is usually nothing more than a sideshow while the GC guys tentatively scrap with each other behind.
There is much to discuss about what the end of Bob Stapleton’s HTC-Highroad team means for the sport. There are questions to be asked about how teams are funded and how our sport can thrive when it seems to be at the whim of corporate ‘bang for buck’ sponsorship or the plaything of well-meaning, super-rich fans. There are also questions to be asked of the UCI who govern cycling and the organisations who run the events, such as ASO.
In other sports star athletes can come and go but the team always endures. To return, yet again with ill-deserved enthusiasm, to football; you can proclaim Wayne Rooney as something akin to the second coming of Christ one week when he plays for Everton and call him every name under the sun the next when he signs for Manchester United. It’s the club that you stick with. Always.
In cycling, we worship the rider and don’t care what the name on the jersey says - even when the name on the jersey changes but it’s still the same team. And that needs to change because in reality the riders and the teams are no better than serfs bound to a feudalistic system.
But getting back to the case of ‘Who Killed HTC-Highroad?’. if you really want to know the answer to that question, best ask Richard Moore.
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