Stapleton managed Cavendish at Highroad from 2008 until the end of the 2011 season. It was a period of unprecedented success for both team and rider, with Cavendish winning over 30 grand tour stages, Milan-San Remo and the points jersey at the Tour de France.
However, Cavendish moved to Sky at end of the 2011 season. The move coincided with the end of Stapleton’s HTC-Highroad team, as unable to find a financial backer willing to provide the clout needed to maintain a highly competitive WorldTour team, Stapleton was forced to close operations.
"It’s in his best interests to join Quick Step and work with people he knows and respects," Stapleton told Cyclingnews.
While a host of teams have been linked to Cavendish’s signature in the past few months Omega Pharma looks the most likely home. Fuelled by Czech financial resources and comprised of a number of Cavendish’s ex-HTC teammates, the Belgian squad offers Cavendish something that Sky can’t match: a leadership role at the Tour de France. With Rolf Aldag – another Highroad success - also in contention to move to the team, Staplenton believes that the set up is ideal for the British sprinter to flourish.
"I think Aldag makes a big difference. I think Cav has tremendous respect for Aldag. It makes sense, it’s just a question about something giving on the buyout but I think they can resolve that. I think it will be a bit of a re-birth for Cavendish and a lot of people would want to see that, including me."
According to reports in Cyclingweekly the buyout clause that has stifled interest in Cavendish - rumoured to be €1.2 million - may have been waived by Sky, allowing Cavendish to talk freely with potential teams.
Asked if he envisioned Cavendish leaving Sky after just one season, Stapleton replied:
"The amount of money at work and the personalities involved made that a tense situation before it even started and the stars have aligned perfectly for Sky with a real shot at yellow in the Tour, which they achieved. Now they have a series of GC riders queued up who look very competitive for the future. When you compare yellow to green, what’s the value of them against each other?"
"The pay off was just too big for Sky not to focus on yellow. The economic reality grabbed hold and Sky had to go for a fairly good shot to win yellow. Now they’re in a position to try and keep it. It all makes sense and it was probably foreseeable just as Cavendish wanted a role of leadership."
A role of leadership was virtually guaranteed at Highroad. The squad was geared to winning sprint stages with Matthew Goss, Andre Greipel and Edvald Boasson Hagen as supporting captains to Cavendish’s quality and palmares. However, along with the lure of a British team, Cavendish openly criticized his wages at HTC.
"Our challenge was bringing in a bunch of money. A 3 or 5 million dollar sponsorship was never going to do it for us. We had deals like that but we needed double digits and that’s a tough sell," Stapleton told Cyclingnews when discussing why Highroad was unable to secure a sponsor for 2012.
Asked what it would have taken for Cavendish to remain with the squad, Stapleton said: "Money would have solved any issues. That was root of people’s discontent in the team. We were always struggling to meet the competitive market and we saw that year after year. We were able to counter balance that by bringing in lots of talent but with more resources I think anything is possible."
Cavendish and Stapleton’s final face-to-face took place at last year’s Tour. After that, despite winning the Worlds in Copenhagen, the pair resorted to swapping text messages: A sad way for such a successful relationship to conclude but Stapleton still remembers those years with pride and not just for the glory Cavendish provided. Highroad was successful on almost every front, both in the men’s and women’s peloton.
"There was always fundamental respect for Cavendish’s ability and potential, and we fully supported him. Even if there were tense times we supported mark and believed in Mark and were able to work together to succeed athletically. There’s no hard feelings on my part, I don’t blame Cavendish for anything. I look back on that time with a high degree of pride."