News feature, January 17, 2007
Leading the fight
T-Mobile will be setting an example this season, as regards to their extensive medical testing and other anti-doping measures. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes was at their launch in Majorca and heard what they had to say.
Fresh start, new beginning, clean approach and Die Mannschaft (teamwork); these words and themes featured heavily in the 2007 T-Mobile team launch, which took place Saturday afternoon on the Spanish island of Majorca.
Metaphorically, the storm clouds of last July seemed a long way away, as the riders, staff and assembled media met amid sunny conditions and temperatures of 17 degrees Celsius. Both the men's and women's squads were presented, making for a total of 40 motivated riders decked out in the distinctive magenta of the German team.
"What we did is we focussed on what we could do in our own house." - Stapleton talks of changes.
New general manager Bob Stapleton was one of the first to speak and he set out a strong message of intent. "I am very proud to be here today," he said. "2006 was a challenging year for the sport but I think we have made tremendous progress. For me, I am very happy to be in Majorca with the team and to show our personal commitment to T-Mobile and their executive board, who are all here today.
"I think it was a very tough year for everyone. What we did is we focussed on what we could do in our own house. We wanted to make sure we could bring in the best people, best methods and really build the team spirit that we feel is fundamental to doing well.
"I believe that success is built from the intense work of a group of focussed individuals and that is what we are encouraging here. This is a very demanding sport, it looks like it is an individual victory when the first person crosses the line but in reality that success depends on a lot of people doing their job very well."
One year ago Jan Ullrich was the star of the team and, following the retirement of Lance Armstrong, hopes were strong that he could finally repeat his Tour win of 1997. However Operación Puerto put paid to all of that and, according to several team sources on Saturday, the scandal went very close to ending the sponsor's multi-million euro backing of the team. What saved the squad was the determination that something good could come out of the problem, namely that T-Mobile would reshuffle, reassess, regroup and lead the new anti-doping fight in the sport.
Stapleton made it clear that this was a genuine goal. "I think we have to go into the season with an optimistic mind-set but also with a commitment to doing all that we can [to fight doping]. I think that there are many people in the sport who want to move in a new direction and we want to help to be part of that.
"It is a constant challenge; there is still tremendous uncertainty and it is hard to separate fact from fiction. All we can do is set the bar very high and work together with the teams, the event organisers, the governing bodies and the testing agencies to progress the sport as much as we can.
"I think this is a very pivotal year for the sport. We need to earn the respect and the interest of the general public and that is going to take a concerted effort from all the members of the community."
Those words were well received by the audience and no more so than attendees Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme and UCI President Pat McQuaid. The two were placed sitting side by side and, despite their considerable differences over the ProTour, both will have appreciated the message that was conveyed. They are also likely to have been impressed by the full battery of anti-doping tests – including a revolutionary anti-blood doping measure – plus the very strong ethical stance that the team has set this year.
Mallorca is Spanish but small pockets of Germany exist on the island, thanks to the annual influx of visitors from this country and the resulting infrastructure that this has created. One example is the Club Robinson resort situated on the eastern side of the island in Cala Serena, the venue for the launch. Things kicked off with a snappy five minute film showing images of the men and women riders, then attention shifted to those presenting the show, the management and, of course, the cyclists themselves.
First to speak was the new CEO of T-Mobile International, Hamid Akhavan. He was asked about the similarity between bike racing and the business of the sponsors, and stated that there are clear parallels. "Both jobs are about facing challenges you can only overcome through strong teamwork and team spirit," he stated. "I think success is about selecting strong individuals with the right mind-set, the tenacity and the competitive spirit to win, then putting them all together and then taking the performance to the next level through team play. I think there are a lot of parallels."
Akhavan said that he is likely to travel to the Tour de France and also the company's local race, the Rund um Köln, in order to support the team. Despite the scandals of last year, he remains convinced that the sport is a good vehicle for their sponsorship. "We have selected the tagline 'simply closer' for T-Mobile's brand. We like to build a very emotional brand for our customers, we like to have a bonding with them and cycling can bring that to life. Cycling is very much an enthusiasts' sport and it is the team spirit of the cycling team that can convey that emotional brand message to our customers.
"I would like the riders to act as role models, both for our employees and also to inspire our customers. This can be done though their fair and open competition, clean sport and competitiveness. I would like them to inspire our employees and show our customers that T-Mobile stands for excellence and team spirit."
While Bob Stapleton is the man at the helm vis-à-vis the overall running of the team, Rolf Aldag is the head of sporting management and thus the man who will have intense day-to-day dealings with the riders. Stapleton said that his appointment was a something he saw as logical for the squad.
"There was a clear and obvious choice when I was looking for someone to head the sporting management team. Rolf Aldag is a person I met six years ago and he is someone who represents everything that is good in the sport. He is hardworking, he is uncompromising, he has a clear mind and a focussed mission. He is a remarkable person and my partner in this venture."
The German said that he was very pleased with how things have gone. "I am very happy here because of everyone around me. You come here and hope that everything works the way you hoped it would... There is a lot going on and we have a tight schedule, but everything is going well. There is a bit of electricity in the air, too... The season is approaching and we are looking forward to it.
"I am optimistic. We had a big shock last year, but we have gotten over it. We are looking forward, we have got the people together we need, led by Bob... There is great communication now and team-work... That is what has changed, compared to what was the norm in the past.
"The Tour de France is of course enormously important but we start on the 31st of January and we finish months later. I think we have many racing days, 21 at the Tour de France alone, and we want to thrill our audiences. We don't go to Qatar to just train there – we want to be present there, we want to try to win."
Stapleton echoed this and said, "We want to be competitive from start of season until the end."
The men's squad
A total of 29 riders have been assembled for the men's team, one less than the UCI maximum of 30. There were rumours in recent weeks that this final place might be filled by ProTour winner Alejandro Valverde, but exploratory talks held in December came to nothing. In recent days his existing team, Caisse d'Epargne confirmed that he had signed a lucrative new contract with them.
So who is the top gun? Well, following the departure of Ullrich and Andreas Klöden, team leadership at the Tour de France will transfer to Michael Rogers. The Australian finished 10th in 2006 and said that he was looking forward to the challenge this time round.
"My whole career has been based on steady improvements and finishing inside the top ten last year while doing domestique duties was pretty satisfying," he stated. "If I can get into the same shape again I hope to go better, perhaps top five is possible. I've worked hard this winter, doing a lot of mountain biking, and feel like I am in good shape. Things are great with the team this year; there is a really good atmosphere."
The squad has a total of 28 other riders, including talented up-and-coming Germans Patrik Sinkewitz (also likely to be a protected rider in the Tour) and Linus Gerdemann, Tour de France stage winners Serhiy Honchar and Giuseppe Guerini, new signings Axel Merckx, Michael Barry and Roger Hammond, plus promising young sprinters Mark Cavendish and the world under 23 champion Gerald Ciolek.
Other well-known competitors include Bernhard Eisel, Kim Kirchen, Andreas Klier, Servais Knaven, Jacob Piil and Marco Pinotti, to name but a few.
Rogers said he was pleased with how things have gone. "There seems to be something nice in the air, a lot of energy so we are going to draw from that. I think over the past couple of days here and the few days ahead, we will be building a really good team base. That is something that I think will support us for the rest of the year.
"As regards the Tour, it is never easy. It is the world's biggest race. I think also that the media attention the race receives makes things harder. Of course there are big shoes to fill but hey, I will try."
Bernard Eisel said that while the squad will have far tougher medical tests than some of its rivals, he hopes on performing well. "For the team, the main goal is that after the major change, we can show that we are really competitive. That we can be at the front of races. My personal goal is to win a stage of the Tour de France."
Patrik Sinkewitz is also aiming to ride well. "So far, so good," he stated. "I hope this year that I can be at the front of some of the classics and do a good Tour."
The men's season kicks-off on January 26 with the GP Doha, followed by the Tour of Qatar.
The women's squad
Of course the men are, since last season, just one part of the successful T-Mobile team. Twelve months ago the international women's team was launched, evolving out of a smaller, identically-named squad based in the US.
In 2006 Bob Stapleton was involved in running the international team and while he has been handed a considerably bigger role this time round, he remains very proud of what the women have achieved. "Last year was their first as an international team," he stated. "They won races on three continents and had a very successful year. They had the world cup jersey for over half the season, so I think the bar is very high for them. They are an extraordinarily motivated group. As Hamid said, they want to build quite a few schools in Africa and they are very motivated to do that."
The squad is led by former world champion Judith Arndt, double world cup victor Oenone Wood and multiple race winner Ina-Yoko Teutenberg. Kim Anderson is, along with Arndt and Teutenberg, the only returning member of last year's team and she and Anke Wichmann add more valuable experience to the lineup.
The gifted young riders include Danish road and time trial champion Linda Villumsen, former junior world champion Suzanne de Goede, former junior world pursuit champion Alex Rhodes, Jayco Bay Cycling Classic winner Kate Bates and the most young of the 11, 18 year-old Emilia Fahlin.
In terms of guidance, the team will have an all-women management setup in 2007. This draws on the experience of three successful ex-professionals. Former world hour record holder Anna Wilson was a two-time winner of the women's world cup and has given up her occupation as a lawyer to return to working in the sport. Petra Rossner was another world cup winner and also won gold in the Olympics and world championship pursuit, while former Cyclingnews journalist Kristy Scrymgeour was previously Australian national criterium and time trial champion, as well as being a successful pro with the other two on team Saturn.
"These are three very motivated women," said Stapleton. "It is an all-women management team that has a two-time world cup winner and one of the most dominant athletes ever to wear the German national team jersey. In the past, Kristy, Anna, Ina, Petra and Judith all rode together (on Saturn) so they knew a bit about Die Mannschaft. It was also the number one team in the world, so that is a good ambition."
"I love cycling and it is impossible to stay away," said Wilson. "When I finished racing I always wanted to come back and work in cycling and just needed the right opportunity. The T-Mobile team has put together this amazing programme. It is all about the team and we have an amazing group of athletes... Every rider is someone who is capable of winning a race by herself, but they are also people who are willing to sacrifice for their team-mates. That chemistry is incredible. I experienced good chemistry when I rode as part of the Saturn team but I think we have an even better group here."
Team coach Petra Rossner agrees. "Team spirit is very important, that is what counts, and we select the cyclists on that basis. We state very clearly from the outset that team spirit is crucial and we emphasis that importance. That pays off during the season.
"Just like a teacher in a school, the job of every coach is to provide the best possible education for the young. I have tried to contribute my experience in cycling to the riders."
Scrymgeour feels that the balance between youth and experience is just right. "We have eight new riders and we also have a lot of young, new talent. There is a lot of enthusiasm and together with the experienced girls on the team; it is a really good mix of people. It is a very strong squad."
She says that this combination means that they have the optimal conditions as regards pressure. "They have a really good chemistry and that can help them through that. The pressure that we put on them is never as much as they put on themselves and I think if they can do that, together with having a great director and coach behind them, they will be just fine."
"We are going to try to have as good a year as in 2006," agreed Arndt. "Last year we won three world cup placings, I was on the top step of the podium several times and I think we made €50,000 for Unicef [the team supports its Schools for Africa campaign]. We were always at the forefront of races and this year, I think a lot of different team members will win races. I believe we can achieve a lot of goals."
The women have their first official race at the Geelong Tour in Australia, running from February 27 until March 1.
T-Mobile 2007 lineup
Men (29): Michael Barry (30/Canada), Eric Baumann (26/Germany), Lorenzo Bernucci (27/Italy), Marcus Burghardt (23/Germany), Mark Cavendish (21/Great Britain), Gerald Ciolek (20/Germany), Scott Davis (27/Australia), Bernhard Eisel (25/Austria), Linus Gerdemann (24/Germany), Bert Grabsch (30/Germany), André Greipel (24/Germany), Giuseppe Guerini (36/Italy), Roger Hammond (31/Great Britain), Adam Hansen (Australia/25), Greg Henderson (New Zealand/30), Serhiy Honchar (36/Ukraine), Kim Kirchen (28/Luxembourg), Andreas Klier (30/Germany), Servais Knaven (35/Netherlands), André Korff (33/Germany), Axel Merckx (34/Belgium), Aaron Olsen (29/USA), Jacob Piil (33/Denmark), Marco Pinotti (30/Italy, Frantisek Rabon, (23/Czech Republic), Michael Rogers (27/Australia), Stephan Schreck (28/Germany), Patrik Sinkewitz (26/Germany) and Thomas Ziegler (26/Germany).
General Manager: Bob Stapleton (USA)
Head of Sports Management: Rolf Aldag (Germany)
Sporting Directors: Tristan Hoffman (Netherlands), Brian Holm (Denmark), Allan Peiper (Australia), Valerio Piva (Italy) and Jan Schaffrath (Germany)
Women (11): Kim Anderson (38/USA), Judith Arndt (30/Germany), Kate Bates (24/Australia), Chantal Beltman (30/Netherlands), Suzanne de Goede (22/Netherlands), Emilia Fahlin (18/Sweden), Alex Rhodes (22/Australia), Ina-Yoko Teutenberg (32/Germany), Linda Villumsen (21/Denmark), Anke Wichmann (31/Germany) and Oenone Wood (26/Australia).
Team Manager: Kristy Scrymgeour (Australia)
Director Sportive: Anna Wilson (Australia)
Coach: Petra Rossner (Germany)
See Cyclingnews'teams database for more details.