News feature, November 28, 2007
After Deutsche Telekom announced Tuesday that it would cancel its sponsorship effective immediately, the T-Mobile Team management quickly announced that it would continue on under the name of its management company, High Road Sports, which also holds the UCI ProTour license. Manager Bob Stapleton now becomes team owner, and two teams now breathe a sigh of relief that the organization is able to continue. Cyclingnews' Susan Westemeyer reports.
Weeks of uncertainty and rumour followed the T-Mobile team after its long-standing sponsor Deutsche Telekom mulled over pulling its sponsorship after the doping positive of Patrik Sinkewitz was announced during the Tour de France. The title sponsor, convinced of general manager Bob Stapleton's vision for the future, announced in August, however, that it would stay through 2010.
The announcement earned the company praise from Stapleton and the UCI, but all of that happened before another doping positive and before Sinkewitz testified about doping practices on the team in return for a shortened suspension. What followed was a sordid tale of blood doping and more; practices which he claimed were so commonplace, he didn't even see it as wrong.
Despite Sinkewitz long being fired from the team, each report of doping on the team in the past - even if it was tempered by insistence that Stapleton had cleaned up the team - continued to associate the T-Mobile name with scandal. This connection proved to be too much for the telecommunications giant, who ended its sponsorship abruptly on Tuesday.
With a sponsorship contract scheduled to run through 2010, the firm and Stapleton negotiated a "mutually agreeable termination", he said, with all details to remain confidential. What was made clear was that the team will continue on under the name of the management firm for the near future.
"We have enough money to run the team for the next two years without finding a new main sponsor," he said. "We will continue to look for a new sponsor but we will take our time. It must be the right sponsor, one who is willing to make a long-term commitment to the sport and who will be good for the sport."
Stapleton indicated that these funds come from other sponsors and suppliers, "as well as a couple of well-intentioned investors," who wish to remain anonymous at this time according to Stapleton. He refused to go into financial detail.
Racing on a dime
The one financial detail he did disclose was that the team would be operating on a reduced budget. "We have to look at all the different ways to make every dollar count," Stapleton admitted. Reduced salaries would be one option, but the biggest change that will be made is in the race calendar, he said.
"We had one of the biggest race calendars in the ProTour last year [2007, ed.]" Stapleton noted. "We will probably have to cut back on that this year ." The team rode in many races at the request of its sponsor, and those races may well find themselves off the High Road race calendar. "We will see which races best fit our team athletically. I think we will get into all the races we want."
The Grand Tours will still be a priority. "The Tour is for us obviously huge. It is a difficult race but a huge focus. I like the Giro personally; it is at the right time of the season for racing and public attention. We have some very good athletes focused on that race. Those are two major highlights."
He emphasized that the new team will build on the strengths the team currently has. Stapleton praised the team's "outstanding young sprinters". "They will be joined by Edvald Boasson Hagen, a young Norwegian who is probably the best young rider in the world," he continued. "We have some good young American talent and some good young talent coming in from Germany as well. Our team represents the best of the future of cycling."
It is not just a young team but a new team. "This is a clean break. We have one [sic] athlete on the team who was on the team in 2005. [Marcus Burghardt and Andreas Klier]. The vast majority of them arrived in 2006 and 2007, including a lot of kids who weren't even riding bikes when these issues that are now being discussed took place."
New efforts to fight doping
Doping has been an overwhelming theme in cycling in recent years, especially for Team T-Mobile. With former team members either admitting or being accused of doping, the time was high for change. When Stapleton took over the team the beginning of this year, he put into place what he at the time considered a strict anti-doping programme, but which he now considers inadequate. A new anti-doping programme for 2008 goes even further than its predecessor.
"We have a comprehensive program involving an average of 26 tests per athlete, both blood and urine," he announced. "We will establish urine profiles, in which we will specifically look for steroids, hormones, and stimulants. If we see any change in the body chemistry, we will know that something is going on."
"This is the programme I would liked to have had last year," he continued. He was not yet ready to announce the name of those running the programme. "There is at least one other team involved, and it will be handled by an independent testing company. They began their work in October [at the team meeting -ed.] and it will be fully in place by January 1."
The riders were all informed of the changes in management on Tuesday afternoon at the time the public announcement was made. Their reactions? "A lot of enthusiasm and apprehension at the same time," Stapleton said. "They want to have jobs, they want to continue, they want to ride their bikes. We made a commitment to them and we will struggle to maintain the quality of tour program and continue to give them their chances."
Stapleton also said there was no compelling need to change the location of team base "Our ProTour license is for Germany and there is no super need to change that," he said. "We need a logistical facility in Europe and we have a nice one in Bonn [Germany], and there is no reason to leave it."
He expects that some of the smaller sponsors may also leave the team. "I expect there may be changes from some companies. So far everyone has been very supportive. The sponsors that are in the cycling business have been particularly supportive but of course there is the chance that some sponsors may leave."
Change not fast enough
Looking back at the past season, Stapleton admitted that changes in the sport did not come soon enough. "I had hoped there would be more change faster. I'm still looking for a consistent testing programme for all ProTour teams. That is fundamental to the credibility of cycling."
"To a certain extent I am angry and pissed off that it hasn't happened yet," he said. His anger is directed at those who are reluctant to change in the face of the sport's widespread problems. "I think in some cases people are not going to change and they will have to be replaced. I think that is ultimately how it works," Stapleton reasoned. "Teams have to adapt, and the government of the sport has to adapt, or there won't be any reason for new sponsors to come in."
Upon taking over as manager at a time of upheaval, Stapleton was perhaps a bit too optimistic that things would get better quickly for the sport. "I think I was too optimistic that the sport would see the need for change," he admitted. "I thought there was uniform recognition of the need for action."
Looking specifically at his team, though, he was much happier. "The team far exceeded my expectations. We had a fantastic season. Most of our wins came from our young guys. The women's team did everything we could possibly have hoped for." Only one thing was negative: "The spectre of doping did not help."
Now he is facing the prospect of 60 days of hard work before the first race, the Tour Down Under. "We've got to create a new identity, re-register the team, confirm or replace all equipment suppliers."
Finally, he explained why he is so involved. "It has never been about the money. It is always about doing the right thing."
"I'm pretty content with myself and content with the small rewards. I have kids the ages of these athletes and it pleases me when they succeed. When Gerald Ciolek or Mark [Cavendish] or even Judith [Arndt] or Ina [Teutenberg] wins a race, that is rewarding to me. I'm at the age now where the part I enjoy is seeing other people succeed."
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