Cyclingnews travelled to Morgan Hill, California, to the headquarters of HTC's new equipment sponsor, Specialized, to meet with team owner Bob Stapleton and find out what he has in store for the new partnership. Stapleton has grand plans for his program, and is looking for a new co-title sponsor after the exit of the sportswear company Columbia. He talked about the state of the sport, his team and what needs to be done to ensure cycling's future.
CN: We're here at the home of your new bike sponsor...
Bob Stapleton: I don't see them as just a bike sponsor. This is a partnership that Mike [Sinyard] and I have been interested in for a number of years. For me this is a foundational partner. It assures that we'll have the absolute best products. It's something we're good at as a team; they have their own development resources and we can work with them at a highly technical level to improve the already great products they have. It's an iconic brand. It's the sort of brand that will draw other partners to the team.
We've had great success with partners in the category - but Specialized is Silicon Valley's bike brand. They can help us build this franchise, and bring in people who can complement HTC, Google and Skype. I'd love to have a little west coast, geographically relevant compatible group of partners who are focused on common marketing objectives, and Specialized is strong enough to make that happen.
CN: Do you have any specific plans for this marketing scheme?
BS: We launched our partnership with Google at the Tour, where we go with that next is probably more around social media - a lot around the technical features and functionality that are in most of the smart phones now. Google has an interest to change the way people interact with the sport - be able to follow it more closely, to be connected at whatever level - watching it on your device, via Google TV, or getting into all the technical pieces of it: the biometric information, Tour tracker type stuff where you can follow the race on a computer or a mobile. I think they like engaging people in a different way in a major sporting activity. That's shared with HTC, and I think it will ultimately be shared with Specialized.
I think with the quality of a HTC and a Specialized, we look to bring in a motivated partner. We have between now and the Tour to do that. We've had great success bringing people in at the Tour the last couple years. That might be the new normal selling cycle, realistically. Garmin's had luck doing the same thing. A number of new sponsorships are popping up at the Tour. A few years ago that would have been done at the start of the year, but the Tour's a powerful call to action.
CN: What kind of dollar figures are we talking about for a co-title sponsor?
BS: That depends on who they are and what we get out of that, but we're looking for a significant partner. Mike and I have the grey hair and the experience to share, and we honestly want to do something big.
We want to be the leadership program in the sport. We want to be the program that all other teams are measured by. I want us to be a powerful force for change in the sport - the sport is struggling. Some people kid themselves about that, but we need reliable athletes, reliable teams and reliable governance of the sport. And the stronger we can be the more of a force for change we can be in the sport. I sense that very acutely right now.
CN: Speaking of struggles, the cases of Alberto Contador and all the other recent positives - does this mean the UCI's cleaning house? Or have the riders been backsliding?
BS: I think it's the cumulative result of an enormous amount of testing. This is the low water mark on the sport in terms of enduring the painful cost of progress. What has to come out of this is the sport's credibility grows; the system should be fair and appropriate. If we can establish that, it's progress. Right now it's definitely painful.
It's not just Contador. It's a bunch of them. You've got the overhang from whatever's going on around Lance Armstrong. It's difficult for people to understand - it's difficult for me to understand.
CN: And then they go and let Danilo Di Luca back in nine months early...
BS: I'm pretty annoyed at that, actually. It's a provocative statement, but it bothers me that you've got repeat offenders that are back in the sport so quickly. That's the wrong message. I'm really, really discouraged by that. People have to see that the system works, that people get caught and it's reliable and dependable. Even if it's not all sunshine, if people know that it's fair and independent, it's OK, over time that will become OK. Over time, if the penalties are more substantial, they just won't be around and you'll ultimately weed it out.
CN: It has to be hard when you're looking for sponsors?
BS: This is a tough environment to do what we're trying to do, for sure. I think the strength of our partners and the team itself means we have enough credibility to pull this off. I think what people want to see is a logical structure for the sport. I really had hoped we'd see more change in the governance of the sport, that we'd have a stable ProTour, a stable offering for major sponsors and investors that you see in other sports. That's where cycling is really at risk.
We still have warring factions in the sport that do not share the same goals. Given the challenges of doping and the tough world economy, that is really hurting the sport. That may not be totally obvious, but I think even in a year it could be totally obvious. You've got teams that have gone away and are being replaced with teams with much smaller budgets. In some cases you have this rise of the super-teams, you'll have four or five teams that will economically and ultimately athletically dominate, and that's not a good structure.
CN: So how does cycling fix it?
BS: First you have to make sure there is a level playing field and the control systems work. I'm very interested to see how the Contador case gets resolved. People have to believe the control systems work, and the passport is credible, and credibly implemented.
Beyond that, people have to set aside the relatively small issues we have surrounding race entries, rights, and there has to be a predictable structure where athletic performance is a part of that. You've got to have credible teams that are racing in all the top races, and there's a logical structure for competition so fans can follow it. You see this in every other sport, there's a championship and a structure to the league and you follow your favorite teams.
CN: You've been the most winning team for the past few years, but everyone seems to look at every other winner with suspicion. How do you avoid that?
BS: We're doing everything objectively possible. Our athletes sign up for a code of conduct that you and I wouldn't ever sign up for: that if there is any suspicion of any misconduct they're going to lose their jobs. And that's backed by absolute independent review, and by maybe the foremost expert, Don Catlin, who's looking at all their biological passport data. They're ordering independent tests, being done through independent collection agencies and the results are going straight to WADA and the UCI.
They know we're dead serious about it. That element of credibility is something that I and the management believe deeply in. It's an element of the team culture - they want to look across the bus and know they can count on that person.
The success has been broad based. There have been years where every single woman on the team has won races. 17 guys won races this year, 19 last year. They're seeing rewards as a team, but also as individuals. If they do the work, they use the tools of the team and commit to the team's goals, they'll have a chance to succeed.
There's enough success in there that people see pretty near-term results for doing the right things, and I think that's the magic of the team. We have common goals, but there are still chances for individual success. Everything you ever need as an athlete exists here. You might not get everything you want, but you'll get everything you need to succeed. And the difference is how hard you work to make the rest happen.
CN: Do you think you'll still have the most wins now that André Greipel is gone?
BS: I think we'll have a good fight next year. The girls will do extremely well, although Garmin-Cervélo's going to be good too. That's our goal - it's going to be closer though. Two years ago we were two times more than everyone. This year we were one and a half times more than our next competitor. We're going to fight to stay ahead next year. I wouldn't underestimate these young fast guys. You're going to see a strong Matt Goss: these young guys will win a few races. I think Greipel's wins will be split among four or five riders. If we can do that I'll be pretty happy.
We brought in a lot of young guys last year, and we're seeing some of them progress pretty well. Goss had a great year and I think he's going to have an even better 2011. Leigh Howard did well and we didn't have him all year, he was racing a lot on the track. He'll be with us a lot more next year and I think he'll have a great year.
Another newcomer a lot of people haven't noticed is John Degenkolb: second in the U23 world road race ahead of Taylor Phinney, and he won the first stage of Tour de l'Avenir. He's another fast young rider, but he's off the radar screen. I think he'll do very well over the next couple of years. What I really see is our sophomores taking a good step up. I think TJ's going to have a great year. You saw Peter Velits step up, and both the Velits brothers are very good.
CN: Do you have any regrets with how the Greipel/Mark Cavendish situation was handled?
BS: It's kind of like picking which one of your kids is the most beautiful. I really am fond of André Greipel. He's been an absolute great athlete in our team. He's been a reliable, dependable, good-hearted guy. I also see that he needs to go off and have his own success. I'm looking forward to them racing head-to-head. I think that's exciting for everybody. I wouldn't do anything different. I'm glad we could hold it together as long as we could. I think André really worked with us to try and stay in the team. He did a fantastic job this year, was the winningest rider in the sport. No complaints there at all. I'm excited for him, he's a great guy.
And Cav is Cav. He's a franchise player. You gotta enjoy him as well. I think this sprinting aspect may be the most exciting thing next year. Tyler Farrar is going to get more support. Cav's super hard to beat; Greipel's going to be there with a great team. This group of four or five sprinters going head-to-head may actually elevate that part of the sport. So much has been yellow jersey oriented, but maybe they'll get more attention.