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An interview with Bob Stapleton, February 1, 2008
Fresh start for Team High Road
Towards the end of 2007 things were looking shaky for the riders and staff on the T-Mobile team. After months of negative media publicity the title sponsor pulled out. Fast forward two months, though, and the prospects are far better for the squad now known as Team High Road. Andrei Greipel, Adam Hansen and Oenone Wood have opened up the 2008 account with fine wins in the Tour Down Under and Australian national championships and, as general manager Bob Stapleton tells Cyclingnews’ Shane Stokes, everything is progressing well with the team.
Given that its previous title sponsor pulled out late last year, it’s ironic that the new Team High Road appears to be starting the season with outstanding results. While a settlement deal with T-Mobile has given the squad enough of a budget to continue for up to two years, it's still on the hunt for a new title sponsor.
With the change of the team name, it would appear the last link between the present and past has been severed.
For much of 2007, it was clear that the ghost of past indiscretions hung over the current riders. Few of them were part of the earlier team, but revelations about past scandals coupled with isolated incidents involving Patrik Sinkewitz (positive for testosterone) and Leonardo Bernucci (positive for sibutramine, an appetite suppressant) put a dark cloud over the squad.
It was an unfortunate situation for the other riders in the magenta jersey. The general consensus within the sport was that the 2007 team, managed by American businessman Bob Stapleton, was one of those with the strongest anti-doping stances. However, due to the repeated bad press it was getting in the German media and worldwide, T-Mobile reversed a decision it made in August to stick by the team; on November 27th it threw in the towel, stating that due to the scandals it would no longer remain involved in cycling.
All was not lost, though. On that same day, it was announced that the team would continue under a new name. For Stapleton, there was no question of walking away.
“For me, the basic issue was do I want to stay, to keep the team together, to keep these guys on their bikes?” he said, speaking to Cyclingnews in recent weeks. “So this was never for me about the money or trying to bring in new sponsors. It started off by asking myself the question if I wanted to screw up a bunch of people's careers, people who didn't do anything wrong? After all, if we had folded the team these guys were all damaged.
“We have got such a young and promising roster,” he continued. “For the guys later on in their careers, it would have been very difficult to cope with [having to find] something new. Because of that, I really felt it was the right thing to do to keep the team going. To maintain our operations and to give these guys a chance to show what they could do.”
There is a clear silver lining to the cloud, in that a fresh start can now be made. “For me,” said Stapleton, “that clean break was really essential. I really underestimated how much baggage and bad news came as part of the T-Mobile team. When I look at the roster in 2007, this is almost a completely different team [than in the past]. We have got the top young international talent from a bunch of different countries. For me, it is important for these athletes that they have a chance to represent themselves, represent the team, and they are not explaining 2005, 2006, Jan Ulrich, whatever. That is something that I very much look forward to [a fresh start].
“I mean, you've got articles running in Germany that talk about doping going back to 1993. Yet we have got a bunch of riders that weren't even on bicycles during that timeframe. So to have to carry that around on our backs is a big, big burden.”
Business origins and team restructuring
Stapleton may be involved in a sport steeped in tradition, but he has a completely different background to many of the other managers working in cycling. This gives him a different perspective, a new approach, but also probably explains his statement about underestimating the baggage linked to T-Mobile’s past.
Prior to becoming involved in running teams he was a successful businessman, co-founding the VoiceStream Wireless telecommunications company in the early nineties. He was acting as president and chief operating officer around the time of its purchase by Deutsche Telekom for tens of billions of dollars, and made a considerable sum out of the deal. The company officially became T-Mobile USA in 2002, creating links with the company that would ultimately shape his future career direction.
Apart from his business interests, Stapleton was also passionate about cycling. His involvement in the sport grew and, prior to the start of the 2005 season, he took over from Jim Millar as general manager of the T-Mobile women’s cycling team. Predominantly US-based, the women’s squad became increasingly international the following year and was much more closely linked with the men’s team than before. The riders had the same jersey and equipment, had their team launch with the men in Majorca and were spoken of as being part of the same structure.
Stapleton continued to manage the women’s squad but then began his involvement with the men’s team in the wake of Operación Puerto, the ejection of Jan Ullrich and Oscar Sevilla from the Tour de France team and the subsequent media fallout. He was brought on as an advisor vis-à-vis how the team should move forward, and then in the autumn of 2006 he was then elevated to the role of general manager.
While he didn’t have a long history in the sport, he was given the task of cleaning things up. That required some drastic changes. A major reshuffling of the team took place, with staff such as Olaf Ludwig and Mario Kummer being sacked and a number of riders, including Andreas Klöden, Mathias Kessler and Eddy Mazzoleni, departing.
At the time some attributed this to the new anti-doping measures that were being brought in. While Klöden insisted he had nothing to hide, Kessler and Mazzoleni both saw their careers nosedive due to problems in this area. The former was announced as non-negative for testosterone in June while his Italian team-mate was implicated in the Oil for Drugs enquiry and announced his retirement.
Stapleton has said that one of the first things he did when he took charge was to make it clear that doping would not be tolerated. Aside from signing [or retaining] riders on the condition that they signed up to the team’s new ethical policy, an internal programme of blood examination was set up in order to conduct regular tests on the riders. These focused on finding evidence of blood manipulations and while the tests did not screen for substances such as anabolic steroids, T-Mobile paid money to the German National Anti-Doping Agency on the understanding that an increased number of out of competition tests would be done on its riders. It was one of these tests which nailed Sinkewitz for testosterone use in June 2007.
The first rider to go was Serguei Gonchar, though. A double Tour de France TT stage winner from the previous year’s Tour, his blood screening uncovered suspicious values in April and he was fired by the team in June. Two other riders [Sinkewitz and Bernucci] were also given their marching orders due to the results of external tests, but with many others on the team being outspoken against doping, it seemed that the majority of the 2007 line-up were keen to do things correctly.
However, Stapleton nevertheless found himself piloting the ship through some rocky waters in the spring. The team took a knock when former soigneur Jef D'hondt alleged in late March that Jan Ullrich and Bjarne Riis both used doping products in 1996 and, furthermore, that the team doctors at the University of Freiburg were involved.
The significance of this is that they were the same doctors who were now administering the blood tests. The two, Lothar Heinrich and Andreas Schmid, were first suspended and then fired. What’s more, a number of former T-Mobile professionals including Erik Zabel and Rolf Aldag confessed that they too had doped while racing for the team during the nineties.
This ensured that the media spotlight turned on the team, as did Sinkewitz’s later statement that alleged Heinrich and Schmid were involved in doping as late as the 2006 Tour de France.
It’s clear that Stapleton was facing a difficult task. Skeletons kept tumbling out of the cupboard as regards T-Mobile’s past, and hiring doctors who later turned out to be alleged to be implicated in doping was also something that he will have rued. Although he didn’t comment specifically on the doctors in question, he looks back on the period and says it was as a time when a lot of changes had to be implemented in a limited timeframe. Some mistakes were undoubtedly made but, as he suggests, things would probably have been better had the new management had more time on its side.
“Last year the timing forced us into quick decisions and some compromises,” he told Cyclingnews. “We really had two months to put a team together. We have now got the benefit of a year’s experience [heading into 2008] and now we can really look at a lot of the methods we are using. I think it is now a much, much stronger programme and a much, much better team.”
However, while Stapleton says that he did not know everything about Heinrich and Schmid, an obvious question is if Aldag or others in management apparently knew that the two doctors were allegedly carrying out blood transfusions in recent seasons, why didn't he? If so, it would appear they did not inform Stapleton of this fact before the two were named as playing a big part in the anti-doping measures.
There are indications that the doctors followed new guidelines in 2007, realising that T-Mobile was heading in a new direction. Firstly, Gonchar’s April blood tests uncovered abnormalities which then led to his firing, even though no UCI limit was breached. And secondly, in a November interview with German magazine Spiegel, Sinkewitz gave the following exchange:
Sinkewitz: Of course they [the management] were saying: No doping! But as a rider, it's difficult to believe that things can really change from one day to the next. You're still expected to do well. The message I understood was this: Just don't get caught! But now I know that they were really serious about it.
SPIEGEL: What else did you take this year (2007) besides testosterone?
SPIEGEL: That was it?
Sinkewitz: Yes. The risks were too great. T-Mobile had introduced internal tests. And besides, during training we could expect to see inspectors come knocking at our door at any time.
Stapleton knows that for the team to move away from the memories of 2007, two things were needed. The first was to break with the past, and this appears to have been more or less completed. Few riders are left from the team of two years ago (Marcus Burghardt, Scott Davis, Linus Gerdemann, André Greipel, Kim Kirchen, Andreas Klier, Frantisek Rabon and Michael Rogers), and only Burghardt and Klier remain from the 2005 lineup. Moreover, the breaking of links with the previous sponsor should help the team shake off the ghosts of the past.
The second crucial measure was to implement a fully independent and credible anti-doping system. Stapleton has stated that he wasn’t satisfied with what was in place last year; he’s had time to work out new plans and things are different this time round. The testing in 2008 will be ramped up due to the team’s new partnership with the Agency for Cycling Ethics (ACE), which will apply what is arguably the most comprehensive scrutiny in sport.
“Having a clean team was the original goal, and we stick to that,” Stapleton told Cyclingnews. “People ask me if we are changing the philosophy of the team. My answer is, ‘hell no, why would we do that?’ Of course not!” he said. “That is a personal philosophy of the management and the athletes, so why would that change?”
In 2008, the ACE programme will be far more complete than the one which preceded it. Each rider will be subjected to blood and urine tests at very regular intervals. “For me it is a program that I wish we had access to a year ago,” said Stapleton. “It is quite comprehensive, as it is really testing for everything that is practical to test for. I think that using these [hormonal] profiles is really, really a breakthrough technique.
“The profiles and passport concept really allows you to focus on any small changes and then follow up as needed. And that is a very different philosophy for testing. I think it has got to be the future for testing in sports.”
ACE monitored the Slipstream-Chipotle team in 2007 and will be doing the tests for the two teams this season. “These guys have got some experience, they are super-enthusiastic and I think they have already done a fair number of tests,” he said. “They started in October…most athletes have been tested several times already, even though the programme really kicks into full operation on January 1. It is off to a good start.
“I really like the basic science behind the programme. The riders will get tested a lot. On average, it is every two weeks during the year and in reality, for some guys in some circumstances, it is almost going to be weekly. That is really going to improve the usefulness of the testing. And that in turn has got to act as a powerful deterrent.”
Given the measures that his team will have in place, Stapleton is keen that all other squads in the sport clean up. Stapleton agrees that the new biological profiling to be introduced by the UCI is a step forward, but feels that monitoring on the same level as Team High Road is what would really tackle the problem.
“I think that what we really need to see the sport is that level of testing across the board. Then you have really got a sport that everyone can have confidence in. It is that frequency of testing and using these profiles which really set a whole new level for testing.
“For us, we will do what we can as a team but the real solution is programmes of that nature implemented across all the teams. The team-by-team solution [the UCI’s planned biological passports – ed.] is just what can get done quickly, but the real solution is comprehensive profile-based testing across all the teams. Then you really have a breakthrough. That removes the biggest challenge that cycling has got.”
He thinks that the UCI’s anti-doping programme is a worthwhile step forward though, although he’s concerned that it might not be implemented in time. “To really get it done, you have got to start testing very quickly," he said in December. "More and more people are focused on the issue, more and more are saying the right things, but we are just running out of time to act effectively. This testing programme requires baseline testing and profiles being made, and so you need to spend the time to get those tests done. That needs to start in January, not in April or May.”
(In part two of this interview, Bob Stapleton talks about the level of interest in the new team, the search for a title sponsor, the men and women’s line-up for 2008 plus the early-season training and racing plans for High Road.)
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Images by AFP Photo
Images by Shane Stokes/Cyclingnews