Columbia-HTC's Bob Stapleton is ready to tackle the challenges of 2010
It’s a sunny Californian morning and Bob Stapleton sips his coffee as he flicks through the morning press. On his desk sits a post-it note with the words ‘call cyclingnews’ penned across it. With the coffee dispatched and a quick scan of the website he’s about to contact complete, he picks up the phone and dials the UK office. He can relax, smile even. This will be a doddle. After a long, hard season he’s at home, surrounded by enough magazine clippings and press releases to keep his sponsors happy for another year. Clouds on the horizon? Not today. It’s all blue skies in the US’s sunshine state. The ringing stops.
"Hi, this is Bob. How are you?"
Rewind back to March and Mark Cavendish is being smothered in a bear-like grip by Mario Cipollini after winning his first ever Classic, Milan-Sanremo. As Cavendish, raw with unadulterated joy, struts onto the podium Stapleton looks on. "This is going to be a good year," he can afford to mutter to himself, as Italy's passionate tifosi applaud the Manxman after a thrilling finale. But of course Stapleton knew that the season would go well. He knew it long before we did. He has that Midas touch.
"Were heading into an interesting time in the sport right now with the Tour, Giro and Tour of California all announcing their route on top of each other," Stapleton opens, before a question has even left my lips.
"I think the biggest challenge for every team now is how to race these three Grand Tours at a high level and how to use their athletes to the maximum effort," he says, indicating that Columbia-HTC’s 2010 season could be their hardest yet.
"In my opinion I see the Tour of California as a Grand Tour. It’s the eighth largest economy, directly behind France. The race will be televised in over 100 countries and it has a broad following in Europe already. The concentration of these fantastic races in a 90 day period is pretty fantastic for the sport. You’re going to see the world’s eyes on cycling."
It’s all true. California is trying its hardest to position itself among cycling’s elite races, and as Stapleton points out, the considered assembly of his solders on so many fronts is going to be key if he’s to repeat the success he’s had.
"Can you align your athletes, your marketing goals and all the personal ambitions you have around these cornerstone events? While I see a spectacular summer for the sport, we’re really focused on doing well at all of these races. The Tour is the Superbowl of the sport and everyday in the Tour can be a career-maker for an athlete, but we want to maximise our success in each event."
And to be fair Stapleton seems better equipped than most team managers to succeed. Here is a man who has taken fledgling young athletes like Tony Martin, Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen and turned them into not only competitive riders, but potential greats, and in Cavendish’s case, the second most marketable cyclist on the planet after Lance Armstrong. "We won 17 stages in Grand Tours and had success in California this year. We don’t have the huge depth we had last year, but we do have very good quality. I think we can bring some of our new additions to the team to bear on our results next year."
Therein lays the biggest challenge for Stapleton in 2010. Racing schedules aside, having seen so many of his riders leave for pastures new, how quickly can he develop his new, young crop of talent? Boasson Hagen, Thomas Lövqvist, George Hincapie, Greg Henderson, Marcus Burghardt, Kim Kirchen have all gone and there are holes to fill.
Like any team or business for that matter, some will be missed more than others. In particular, Boasson Hagen, who many believe has the potential to win anything he wants in the sport, will leave a considerable gap. "He was a rider we had tremendous pride in," Stapleton says. "He wasn’t just a very good young talent, but a hallmark of the team strategy of finding and support young talent. We definitely will miss him. Otherwise, we basically traded for some very promising riders for the longer term.
"There are five neo-pros but there are also five talented riders coming from other teams. The Velits brothers will step up dramatically here after coming from Milram. Matt Goss, Lars Bak will do very well here and so will Hayden Roulston, who joins from Cervelo." Between them, they've won a total of seven races in 2009 and rode in the Grand Tours. A far cry from the 16 wins Boasson Hagen supplied to the team’s total of 86 wins for the year.
Yet when you consider that Stapleton holds two vital aces with Cavendish and André Greipel, along with an improving Tony Martin, ever-steady Michael Rogers and wildcard Kanstantsin Siutsou, he still has a core of riders to make most team managers drool. The additional loss of experience and level-headedness someone like Hincapie brought to the team will be a further hurdle to overcome, but Stapleton remains positive about the immediate future. "We’re quite confident with Mark and André. Individually they’ve won as many races as entire other teams, even really top teams.
"We’re intelligently investing in keeping the support for both sprinters at the very top level. Those two guys won 44 races between them this year, so if we stay right there we’ve already won more races than anyone else. We were never planning on 85 wins the last two years, we were just planning on coming in competitive at every race and we’ll continue to play to the team’s strengths."
And what of Tony Martin? He finished a surprise second overall in the Tour de Suisse, clung to the white jersey in the Tour for the first two weeks of the race and, were it not for two bad days, could have made the top ten overall. Is he a star in the making, or does he lack the spark required to really twinkle? "One of the challenges for us is to look at Martin, Rogers, Siutsou, and also [Maxime] Monfort and see how to use these resources over a couple of key races. It’s funny, people don’t ask me Siutsou. He was 17th at the Tour riding for Kim two years ago and was 17th in the Giro last year riding for Michael. Those are very solid results. He’s one of the guys that everybody overlooks."
Yet it’s still Martin who burdens more of the responsibility within the team. Columbia-HTC Directeur Sportif Rolf Aldag has publicly stated that the German can crack the high reaches of the Tour ladder, on the basis that he’s never actually built his season around the Tour, but still held his own against the best. It’s a view that Stapleton echoes. "Tony will make another big step forward this year. He wasn’t focused on the Tour this year but he could be in the top ten."
Stapleton clearly believes that with Cavendish and Greipel he has the basic formula for success. With the Tour of California and Giro clashing there’s also the opportunity to distribute responsibility between the two highly competitive riders without causing friction, an element that had dogged the two riders in the past. "If André continues to grow then he could be a challenge for the team, but I think we have more than enough opportunities for guys to grow. One interesting thing is going to be the Worlds next year. You could see the two key rivals being otherwise teammates and both supported by good squads."
As the conversation draws to a close it’s clear what Stapleton is trying to achieve: a cohesive team of individuals who, while working for the team, have their own chance to develop. "The team was always designed to make a difference and to be a key player in the shaping the sport for the future. As long as we do that I think it’s fun and interesting for all of us." Regardless of the challenges that face Columbia-HTC in the next twelve months, if dark clouds do appear, it’ll only be a matter of time before the blue skies return.
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