Bob Stapleton has confirmed to Cyclingnews that he talked to Bjarne Riis earlier in the season about the possibility of merging their two squads: HTC-Columbia and Saxo Bank. However he downplayed the significance of the conversation saying that no formal negotiations ever took place.
Stapleton also talked about the prospect of Andre Greipel leaving HTC-Columbia. The German’s long-term future at the team is uncertain after he again missed out on selection for the Tour de France. Media speculation has linked the Greipel with a move to Omega Pharma-Lotto. In April, Omega Pharma-Lotto team manager Marc Sergeant confirmed to Cyclingnews that he was on the look out for a new sprinter and that Greipel was high on his shopping list.
Rumours that Riis and Stapleton had met to discuss a possible merger had been circulating for a number of weeks, but according to the American it was a third party, and not Riis or himself, who initiated the conversation between the two team bosses.
“I’m very open minded about talking to a lot of the teams about a lot of different things. Where I come from, mergers and acquisitions are typical, our company was built on hundreds of them,” Stapleton told Cyclingnews, referring to his past in the mobile communications industry.
“We had a discussion but decided to do our own thing. It was a third party that encouraged us to talk and it was a friendly chat or checking in. There were no negotiations. There are discussions going on like that with lots of parties. It’s a legitimate strategy.”
Stapleton, like Riis, began his career as a team boss by picking up the pieces of struggling squads. Stapleton rescued T-Mobile while Riis took over at CSC before a number a rebuilds took place. Stapleton admitted that Riis' success is something he has tried to imitate, developing some of the Dane’s more successful moves.
“I want to know where other teams are at and I’m always interested in possible ideas on collaboration. I have a lot of mutual respect for what he’s achieved over the years and a lot of the good ideas we’ve taken into this team are based around things like technology are things we say at Saxo Bank.”
Riis could be on the cusp of losing his biggest stars, as his search for a new team sponsor runs out of time. “It’s a challenging environment and it's hard to hold these teams together,” Stapleton said. “I’m sympathetic to his situation. They have a worldwide fan base regardless of what you think about any personality in the sport. These are flagships teams that are well know and have brought in good riders. That is a loss. It hurts if a marquee team disappears. It’s been one of the most progressive teams in the sport. Fact.”
Asked if he was tempted to pick off any of Riis' riders for 2011, Stapleton said: “They have tonnes of talent and it sounds like it could be the nucleus of a new team. Everybody is interested in a number of riders and there are clearly interesting riders on their team.”
However one rider who could be on his way out of HTC is sprinter Andre Greipel. The German has had a mixed season, winning more races than any one else but fluffing his lines at the Giro d'Italia, where the only reward for three weeks of hard work by HTC-Columbia was one stage win.
Asked if he knew if Greipel had signed a contract with Omega Pharma-Lotto, Stapleton said. “I don’t know. I think he’s grown into a big star in his own right and he wants to have unqualified support and he has earned that. Our view on all our current and former athletes is that I want them to have great careers. We’ve talked about Edvald in the passed and we were sad to let him go but if he won the prologue I would have been clapping, so if it turns out that way with Andre, it's okay too. I feel like we’ve got tonnes of talent and more coming. In the short term it’s a loss for us but in the long term I’m fine with that.”
Despite Cavendish struggling this season, Stapleton has seen enough to know that the ten-stages he has won in two years at the Tour de France justify any fall out and eventual loss of Greipel. At times this year the war of words between Cavendish and Greipel has caused tension in the team to rise and spilt over into the media.
“I think we still have the world's number one sprinter in Mark and I wouldn’t forget some of the young guys like Matt Goss or Leigh Howard. I think we can keep a stable of fast guys in the team forever,” Stapleton told Cyclingnews.
The final straw of the chance of Greipel staying at HTC-Columbia may have broken when he missed out on selection for this year's Tour de France.
Asked if winning four stages of the Giro would have been enough to secure a Tour spot for the German, Stapleton explained: “It’s hypothetical. Our challenge is to support the green jersey and take advantages on other opportunities in the race and have the guys in between Mark and Rogers who can do as much as possible on either terrain. Who can do more work on the front, who can do more work in the mountains, that’s what really drove the decisions and the criteria for the rest of the team.”