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Stapleton: The peaks and troughs of Highroad's journey

The loss of the HTC-Highroad team from the professional peloton will be one of the most difficult for the sport to absorb. Not only did the team win more races over the past three seasons than many teams combined, it fostered a sense of teamwork, care and concern for the development of new talent and strong ethics that made it a leader of a new movement in the sport.

Yet few may remember that this highly successful, ethical squad emerged from one of the most scandal-ridden teams in the sport, and that 2007, the first full year of general manager Bob Stapleton's tenure, was perhaps the worst year for any team in history.

Cyclingnews spoke to Stapleton earlier this autumn about how he turned the team around and the challenges he faced in those early days when it became clear through Operación Puerto and the Freiburg clinic affair that riders had been heavily involved in doping.

Stapleton acted as general manager of the T-Mobile women's squad before being called in to take over the men's professional team in 2007, in the wake of the disastrous 2006 season during which the team's biggest star, Jan Ullrich, was embroiled in the Operación Puerto investigation.

Stapleton's arrival talked T-Mobile back from the brink of walking away from its 15-year-involvement with the sport, and they signed on for another two years with the team and this new general manager, who touted a new, clean and fair way of competing.

While he admitted at the time that he was only qualified to hand out bottles when it came to the sporting side, Stapleton was a shrewd manager with a deep belief in his unique vision for the sport.

"The only reason I did it was I had the firm backing of people I had worked with in the past," Stapleton told Cyclingnews. "They had asked me to take it over and gave me complete control. I felt that this was a sport that was ripe for change. All these scandals would force change on the sport, and we could be an agent of change in a sport that has all these great fundamental merits - a healthy lifestyle, it's a dramatic, exciting sport on television and it's a worldwide sport. If we could change the way the game was played it had enormous potential."

Yet the laid back Californian had stepped into a quagmire which he attributed to the "rotten eggs" which had carried over from the previous organisation.

Early into his first year with the team, two doctors in charge of the team's new internal controls, Lothar Heinrich and Andreas Schmid of the Freiburg clinic, were named by former soigneur Jef D'Hondt as being involved in organised doping of the team in decades past, and Stapleton was forced to fire them after they finally confessed.

Then the team fired Serguei Gonchar after medical checks turned up suspicious blood values, and in July, Patrik Sinkewitz tested positive for testosterone during the Tour de France. To top it all off, the news of Ullrich's involvement in Operación Puerto kept on coming in.

It was a distraction for the man who was trying to change the way cycling worked.

"The fundamental challenge was [with] most of this ... we got rid of half the roster, made sweeping changes in the management and staff, but that wasn't enough. We still had riders under contract that later became problems. We had a relationship with the team doctors who were at that time very trusted by the sponsor, by myself and the university that employed them. They looked like they would be powerful forces in the fight against doping, but they turned out to be very tainted.

"We still had some rotten eggs in the barrel, and they almost destroyed the 2007 season."

There were positive, for lack of a better word, aspects to the year which proved to be the basis of the following season's success, and part of that was the riders who were hired on and who stayed to build the Highroad empire.

"I think we did a lot pro-actively. That same year was the year Cavendish was hired, Pinotti and many others came into the team, but despite the changes we made, we didn't go far enough [in 2007]."

One of the events that was critical to turning around the team's reputation was a controversial decision by directeur sportif Rolf Aldag and his friend, former teammate, and six day partner Erik Zabel to make a public confession to their doping past.

Stapleton says the move wasn't his idea, but he sat with them in the press conference because he knew it would help to drive change and break the omerta around doping.

"I think Rolf was deeply committed to do something in big in the sport. He wanted to be as clear and forthcoming as he could be. He and Zabel had been roommates and teammates for years, and they decided together it was time to put this out there and get it behind them so they could do good work in the sport.

"For me it was an eye opener, but I respected them for that. There've been a lot of weak-ass confessions in the sport, [but] these guys went on TV in Germany, with an audience of five to six million, and they had a lot to say. It was crystal clear that they were doing this because they wanted to help drive change. There would be no other reason for them to ever do that.

"What they did is still impressive, and they did it for all the right reasons."

Another factor in building the basis of the team's turnaround was the independent testing programme, which began with Heinrich and Schmid but later evolved into a system which mirrored the UCI's biological passport.

The team employed a technology for measuring blood volume to detect transfusions, making riders available for random checks. This concept was expanded upon in the following seasons when the Highroad team brought in first the "Agency for Cycling Ethics (ACE), and then UCLA doctor Don Catlin to administer an independent testing programme.

"In business you do this all the time, you hire independent auditors to check and see what you're doing - I loved that approach. I loved the idea of continuing this concept, especially since the bio passport was coming into play. We were early supporters of that, and at that time with ACE, we started a program that would complement and expand on the bio passport testing. We rolled that into the program with Catlin, and fully integrated it into the UCI and WADA testing. That was a sustaining feature of the team.

"I think it was a highly effective deterrent [to doping], and for me it was part of doing everything we possibly could to keep doping out of the team."

Once free of the previous administration's rider contracts, Stapleton and his directeurs were able to hire on riders who understood up front what would be expected of them when it came to transparency.

"All of the athletes results were evaluated before we hired them, they understood exactly what was going to happen in terms of testing frequency, the scope of tests and that at any sign of any [doping] they'd be fired. They knew there were severe consequences and high expectations, and they knew it would be the most comprehensive testing on the planet.

"I think it was highly effective, but also we'd learned. There was no way we were going to hire anyone who we had any questions about whatsoever. Everyone was going to sign up in advance to this."

Stapleton said the policies actually attracted some riders, and one of those was Canadian Michael Barry, who came across from the Discovery Channel team in 2007.

"Some riders it scared them, but others it reassured, and it was a common bond that bound the team together. You could look across the bus and know you had teammates you could trust. It translated to the racing. Our code of conduct helped to bind the team together," said Stapleton.

As the 2007 season wound down, the Operación Puerto case was shut down in the Spanish courts without any verdicts and another German, Jörg Jaksche, was spilling his guts about doping, the Gerolsteiner team was going under and another ill-timed doping positive came for T-Mobile, this time for an appetite suppressant by Lorenzo Bernucci,

The sponsor finally pulled the plug in November, but reportedly left Stapleton with a settlement to get out of the multi-year contract it signed earlier in the season, allowing the team to go forward as "Highroad" the following January.

The name drew sniggers from detractors who saw the anti-doping push as either a joke or a threat, but Stapleton insists it was never intended to portray a 'holier than thou' attitude.

"The name Highroad goes back to 2004. It's really about what sports are supposed to be. Sports are supposed to be about making yourself better, setting goals and working to reach them, self improvement and work, all the inspirational elements of sport. That name preceded the whole anti-doping mission. It just happened to fit pretty well.

"It was mocked terribly - everyone had their cute mockery - low road, high horse... it was never intended to be some holier than thou thing, it was just the way we were going to behave. Other people could do whatever they wanted, they could think what they want, this is what we were going to do. It wasn't preachy, it was just putting out on our sleeve what our values are."

In the end, Highroad has the last laugh as it walked away with more wins in its three-year lifespan than most teams get in a decade, and it did so without scandal despite racing amidst continuing doping sagas elsewhere.

"It's funny to a certain extent, because [during] every one of these big doping announcements we were right in the middle of it. When they hauled [Riccardo] Ricco off [at the 2008 Tour de France], Cavendish won that day, [Saunier Duval] was parked one bus down from us. One of the police cars actually ran over my foot because I was standing out in front of the bus.

"When Floyd [Landis] was sitting at the Tour of California with a bullet-proof vest or whatever and his body guards, Tony Martin and Michael Rogers were 1-2 in the time trial. The fact that we set ourselves apart from that translated into good athletic performances right in the face of these big convulsions the sport was going through."


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Laura Weislo

Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. A former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks.