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An interview with Bob Stapleton, February 4, 2008

Fresh start for Team High Road

As the start of the 2008 season approaches, the management and riders of Team High Road are preparing for another year as one of the biggest teams in cycling. In the second part of this Cyclingnews' interview, general manager and team owner Bob Stapleton tells Shane Stokes 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 (continued from part one).

Stapleton refused to give up
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From a financial and logistical viewpoint, things have gone surprisingly well since T-Mobile, Adidas and Audi withdrew. "It's been pretty non-stop the last six weeks, and the last three have been almost 18 hours a day," Stapleton stated during a thirty-minute phone interview from the headquarters in California. "But I'm actually really happy with all the progress that we have made. We are actually in really good shape.

"Really, at every level the support for the team has been amazing. All of our sponsors and suppliers have been very enthusiastic. We have basically got a full sponsor line-up for 2008, with the exception of cars. That always take a little longer because they come from big companies who set their budgets earlier in the year. But I don't view that as anything that hurts our team. That's something that will come, it will just take longer.

Back in August T-Mobile had announced that it was continuing for three more seasons. Ending that contract necessitated a severance package and this – estimated in some media quarters as between 20 and 25 million euros – means that the team does not need to immediately find a new backer.

When asked about this deal, Stapleton said he was unable to discuss what was agreed due to a confidentiality clause. "Unfortunately I can't say anything about the terms and conditions of the separation from T-Mobile. There are a lot of reports in the media, a lot of speculation, but I really can't comment on them."

"We want is somebody who wants to be a major force in sport, who will have a longer-term view!"

- Stapleton on the ideal title sponsor.

As regards a replacement sponsor, he confirms that there has been some talks with companies. However he plays down the significance of this, saying that he is determined to take his time in order to ensure that a strong long-term partnership can be secured.

"In terms of potential title sponsors, we have what we need for the next year or so and, if we are careful, the next two years," he explained. "There has been again more interest than I am really able to deal with, frankly, but we are going to take our time. I came into this with a powerful sponsor in T-Mobile that wanted to do big things. And that is the kind of sponsor we are looking for. We want somebody who will make a significant long-term commitment to the sport."

"I don't think that is going to happen overnight. Some of the interest in the team is very opportunistic, they would like to do something now, pay a little and get a lot. But what we want is somebody who wants to be a major force in sport, who will have a longer-term view. The most attractive partners for us will have those qualities. For me that search is a patient and diligent process. I don't expect a lot of change as regards that [in the immediate future], certainly not before the team is up and operating and racing, and people can see more of what they would be actually getting."

The dilemma for the sport and potential sponsors

Cycling has experienced a large number of scandals in recent years and this clearly generates negative headlines around the world. In addition to that, the increasingly-tough anti-doping measures being adopted by the UCI and others mean that cyclists are exposed to more tests than perhaps any other sport. This further increases the likelihood that doping stories will continue to surface, at least in the short term.

Operación Puerto is a case in point. Cycling's authorities have gone after those implicated in working with Eufemiano Fuentes while, in contrast, nothing has happened with regards to the heavily-rumoured involvement of sports people from the world of football, tennis, basketball and athletics. One sport is trying to tackle the problem, while others appear content to turn a blind eye to it.

The course is set, though, and eventually the storm should – we all hope - blow over. Stapleton knows that time should help heal the damage which has been done. "For sponsors, the sport needs to be more attractive. I think that people will be more interested in cycling and in the team in six months than they would be in six weeks. So that just dictates being patient and doing the right things to build the foundations of the team."

Begin without a title sponsor is undoubtedly a peculiar position to be in. "Frankly, there have been people not really understanding how the team can continue," he said. "They are saying, 'what do you mean there is no new title sponsor?' The situation is so unique that it has really caused people to have a hard time adjusting mentally.

"However, I cannot tell you how much support there has been…hundreds of e-mails, very clear support from the majority of our prior sponsors and a lot of interest from people looking to get involved with the team. There are more people than we could really take [right now]," he said, before adding that he expects backers to come on board in the middle of the season.

At the moment, things are being run to a tighter budget than before. The settlement deal presumably means that once a new title sponsor is secured, Team High Road will have a very healthy budget. For now, though, Stapleton is keeping a rein on spending. This will have some effects.

"We are making adjustments in the team right now, in terms of the budget, the schedule and some staff," he explained. "I don't see any real changes in the rider rosters. I don't think there is anything going on there. But we are going to reorient the team, we are definitely operating on a smaller budget, so that will be some staff changes, some personnel changes.

"That said, I think the riders are a very much set and you will see the vast majority of the management [staying] in place. But we are obviously looking to see if we have all our resources in the right places right now."

Women's squad also continues

Stapleton said that the line-up for the women's team should also remain the same as was announced before. Prior to taking over as the general manager of the T-Mobile setup in the summer of 2006, he ran the women's team and it is clearly something that he has a lot of interest in.

"It will continue as planned," he said. "The women's roster is a particular source of pride for us. We have a very good young group of athletes that we have put together, with basically four new young riders coming on board. There are a few that I think have really good prospects and can become future stars.

"The women's roster is a particular source of pride for us."

- Stapleton on the continuation of the women's team.

"Overall, it is exceptional...the feeling is great around the team. You can see where a lot of my enthusiasm around the athletes themselves and the teams come from, being around the women's squad. They work brilliantly together, they are super-dedicated, they love to ride their bikes and they are very positive and optimistic people."

Having spent time with the riders at the end-of-year camp held in Cologne, Germany, Cyclingnews can vouch for the special atmosphere in the women's ranks; it feels more like a family than simply being a group of competitors with the same colour jersey. Indeed Stapleton feels that this ethos is an example for the men's squad

"We had our focus on the team last year, on [the theme of] Die Mannschaft, and even the athletes were a little bit skeptical of it. They were saying, ‘oh yeah, right, good marketing,' so it was really a pleasure to hear people then saying later on that it is actually real.

"They feel like they can rely on their team-mates, that people will give up the chances for others and that they really have full support. We will take that quality and bring it into next year. And, you know, I would love to see them develop socially along the lines of the women's team, where they really are committed to each other and to the success of the group."

Going to California...

In recent years, the team had a set approach to the start of the season. The riders and staff would travel to Majorca, a Spanish island with a very big German presence, and there hold an early-season training camp plus the team launch. A restructured UCI ProTour calendar plus the departure of T-Mobile as a sponsor means that things had to be somewhat different in 2008.

Stapleton explained that while the riders went to the island, the normal media centered team launch was not planned for Spain. "It is a departure from the tradition of a big team presentation, where the team used to fly in journalists. This time it will be very focused on giving riders their new equipment, their new kit, and getting them together on their bikes again.

"It's really about catching up on the logistics and the time that we lost over the last six weeks or so [since the restructuring]. We will get everybody set up and then move on from there." But they got it all done and Andre Greipel delivered the team its first ProTour win in Adelaide.

The launch will, by necessity, be held later than normal. "Everybody on the men's and women's team will be coming to the US before the Tour of California. We will have a camp there and are also looking at things right now in relation to the launch, in terms of determining what makes most sense. It is really our first chance to have all of the athletes together."

Another consideration as regards the probability of having the launch in the US is the fact that the team's licence now looks very unlikely to be taken out in Germany. This was done in the past because of the origins of the squad and also the location of its sponsors. However much has changed, and it is possible that the US could be the new administrative base.

"We are looking hard at that issue [where to take out the licence] right now," he said. "It is really a question about what makes sense from a business standpoint. We are an international team, there are 14 or 15 different countries represented by the line-up. We do have a significant presence in Germany now, many good people there, and I think that it makes sense to maintain that. As regards the licence, though, we are looking at what makes sense from a corporate standpoint. There is no benefit in it being in Germany; that is pretty clear at this stage. So for us I think it is an open question whether we make it a US team or something else."

Consolidating and moving into a new season

Winding up, Stapleton said that he is happy with how things are going. He and the rest of the team management had a huge task once T-Mobile withdrew but from the sound of things, it had gone very smoothly in the weeks since Team High Road was formed.

"Overall, I'm very enthusiastic about the interest and the support in the team," he said. "We basically have everything we need to succeed now, and for that to have come together in a few weeks is just really remarkable. We learned a lot about the people on the team and the programme itself. You know, a little bit of adversity, a little bit of challenge really shows you where people's hearts and heads are at…I was really encouraged by the support and enthusiasm within the team.

"[Externally], it was very motivating to see this pretty incredible outpouring of support for continuing the team and growing the programme and fighting for clean and fair sport. That gives you a good, clear hope for the future. If there are enough people out there who believe in what we are doing [an anti-doping stance], then that is fundamentally good for the sport.

"It was my own perception that maybe we needed a proper fresh start [as regards splitting from T-Mobile]. I was actually surprised that many people have come forward with kind of a similar view, agreeing that this is the best way. I think there was some skepticism about the team that perhaps this actually helps clear up."

It's certain that the 2007 incarnation of the team was very different to what came before. Riders such as Gonchar and Sinkewitz may have slipped through the net, or at least failed to understand that Stapleton was serious when he said that the team must be a clean one. However that message has been well and truly emphasised now and there can be no question of the riders not understanding what is expected. 2008 should consolidate the work that has been done.

Stapleton believes the young riders on his team are playing a very important role. "Last year had some pretty good accomplishments. The young guys we brought in last year did great and we've now got a whole bunch more of new ones this year. This young roster is something that I am just very excited about. I had a good chance a few weeks ago to meet with all the riders in Majorca, except for the guys who were in Beijing. I was completely impressed with the motivation of Lövkvist, Boasson Hagen, Gerard Ciolek. If we can support them, these are the people who can change the sport over the next five years.

"For me, that is the big, interesting reward in this. Can there really be a new generation of guys who can win, and that you can have a lot of confidence in [in terms of being clean]? We have got quite a good number of strong young prospects here and if they can really develop, they could be special. They could really help to change things."

Return to part one.

Other Cyclingnews interviews