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Tour de France

Bob Stapleton optimistic, but not open about whether HTC-Highroad has a future

HTC's Bob Stapleton says he sees "reasons for optimism," and that's about all he will say — for now.

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LIMOUX, France (VN) — Highroad boss Bob Stapleton was playing rope-a-dope outside the HTC-Highroad team bus Sunday morning.

The questions about the team’s future came quick and fast from a handful of journalists chasing rumors about the team’s future, but the American tycoon wasn’t giving anything away.

“I cannot confirm anything (about an announcement) for tomorrow. All I can say is that there is reason for optimism,” Stapleton told VeloNews on Sunday. “There are some intelligent discussions under way. It’s not done until it’s done.”

Those comments would suggest that Stapleton is close to landing a big fish, but he cannot announce anything until all the details are nailed down in the fine print.

Everyone is watching to see how it plays out for HTC-Highroad, which has been the most successful team the past several years but suddenly finds itself without the security of a long-term sponsor. The contract with title sponsor HTC, the Asian cell-phone company, concludes at the end of this season.

Many were expecting Stapleton to have some sort of news on Monday’s rest day, but he said there would be no team press conference. Nonetheless, the web is rife with rumors about the team’s future.

One scenario has HTC staying on board as title sponsor for three more years. Another story gaining traction has the team merging with another squad, bringing a core set of riders and team staff into a new outfit, similar to what happened last year when Cervélo disbanded and linked up with Garmin.

“If we don’t get it over the goal line, that could happen,” Stapleton said of the merger talks. “We’re focused on HTC. They’ve got probably the best sponsorship in sport the past couple of years, but there are some interesting discussions going on right now that have sparked in the last couple of weeks, and we are going to follow up on those. There could be something there.”

The mood around the team bus seemed upbeat, with plenty of smiles and relaxed faces. Whether that’s simply good acting or an indication that a real deal is perhaps already done and everyone is just waiting for the right moment to announce something remains to be seem.

Timing is critical. Riders are always nervous about delaying contract negotiations — most like to have their future secured before the end of the Tour. There are already plenty of rumors that some of HTC’s top riders might head to other teams: Mark Cavendish to Team Sky; Peter Velits to Quick Step; Matt Goss to the new GreenEdge, Aussie-backed team; and Tejay Van Garderen to BMC.

Stapleton didn’t seem too worried about that, either. The team has built its reputation as an incubator for young, emerging talent and Stapleton voiced confidence that the talent will be there to be competitive no matter how the sponsorship option plays out.

“I also know this is a place riders want to be. If we can compete financially, if we offer reasonable contracts and stability, everybody wants to be here. We’ve been overwhelmed with other riders in the past, because they’ve seen the success. I think if we get something done in a reasonable time frame, we will be OK,” he said.

“What I am not worried about is losing people on the team. I think the management team that we’ve had together for the past five years is as stable as it can be. I think our staff is the best in the sport. We always do well on in bringing in riders and developing riders and keeping riders. I am not worried about that.”

Asked by VeloNews whether it was frustrating that cycling’s most successful teams, with powerful men’s and women’s squads, could not secure its future, Stapleton said yes.

“It’s been very frustrating. It’s hard to understand. The value the team’s created has been extraordinary,” he said. “That’s no excuse. We have to plow through it and get something done.”

Until the ink is dry on a deal, expect Stapleton to keep his cards close to his chest.