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By Matt Pacocha
By now, it’s pretty clear that T-Mobile is moving in a new direction. Of course, there was little choice after a year of scandal that started with the ejection of Jan Ullrich from last year’s Tour.
To its credit, the team is now trying to rehabilitate the sport and leave a legacy of doping behind. We’ve seen the new general manger, American Bob Stapleton, clean house. He hasn’t been afraid to leave behind riders and staff who have been so much as implicated to doping. He’s also one of the few who’s not afraid to discuss the touchy subject. Stapleton says he believes that he’s laid a solid foundation of riders and management since his arrival. Now he’s asking his sponsors to help the team move forward. It’s something that Stapleton, an admitted bike geek, also has a hand in. If the sponsors aren’t interested in their own testing then they, too, might be left behind.
“This is an area of personal interest and for me,” said Stapleton. “Our whole program is about giving our guys the most we can. Very directly, we want to give them every possible support we can so they can win — and win clean. We feel like they made a huge commitment to the team and we want to deliver our end of the bargain and give them the best tools on and off the bike. Not only, are some of these equipment advantages real, but they have a huge physiological effect. If you feel like you’ve got the best stuff then you’re going to be better.”
Giant Bicycles has already expressed an interest in establishing a truly symbiotic relationship with its only ProTour team.
“I think they’re [Giant Bicycles] the kings of carbon manufacturing,” Stapleton noted. “They make more bikes than anybody and they make a lot of high-end bikes for major brand names. So I think they’ve always had the manufacturing power, but the nice part of the relationship now is that we [the T-Mobile team] want to be very sophisticated and really contribute to the design of the of the products; for our own benefit and hopefully for theirs. That’s not something this team has done in the past. In the past there has been a desire to keep the bikes very consistent and very stable. But now I think we want to look for every new potential advantage we can. I think Giant is very responsive to that and they have been great to work with over the last few months we’ve been doing this.”
With the relationship redirected between the team and its bike sponsor, some issues of timing have come up. Unlike other major brands that sponsor ProTour teams, traditionally, Giant has not had a man on the ground at events like the Tour de France. Stapleton and Giant plan to change that.
“We’ll be adding a full time resource that’s going to work out a few issues for us,” he said. “That position is going to start right after the Tour.”
This liaison from Giant will manage the team’s relationship with the company and to gather performance data and feedback about the products from the team.
This reassessment of sponsorship obligations is already producing tangible results on Giant’s end, and Stapleton hopes the team will soon have some of its own results directly tied to those changes. One of the most visible new products at the Tour was Michael Rogers’s prototype time-trial bike. It is actually built on the third frame Giant has produced using specific feedback from Rogers and the team’s management. It was not, as had been reported earlier, produced specifically for the prologue. The bike is being used to refine the geometry for next year’s team time-trial models, meaning it might also make it into production.
“It’s not real pretty, but it could be our new time-trial bike for next season,” Stapleton said. “It’s a brand new bike for him. He’s still working through some of the fine points to see really how good he feels on it. It’s the third version of it that we’ve done this year, each one has been a little bit different and that one is fresh from the factory.”
Stapleton also confided that the team is currently testing a new carbon road bike, but it wasn’t quite ready for a ProTour debut this July.
“We’ve got a new road bike that’s being tested right now too,” he said. “Two of our guys have had it for a month or two. The feedback is encouraging. It could be a relative breakthrough in terms of strength to weight ratios, so I think that’s something that Giant will be happy to introduce next year. We’re pretty excited about it, or at least the guys that have been exposed to it are.
Stapleton says the new bike was developed directly as a result of Giant’s expertise in material development.
“It’s really just better materials,” he said. “It’s got many, many different layers and forms of carbon. So it’s really the materials and the integration of the materials and the molding itself, that I think is the advantage.”
Besides the frames, Stapleton sees wheels as another area where the team can gain efficiency and speed through smart choices. Those choices are made apparent by the team’s use of a couple of different models of unbranded wheels. Michael Rogers and a few of his teammates rode a Hed H3C custom 90mm tall front wheel with T-Mobile decals for the prologue. On the first few flat stages the team bikes were set out in front of the bus sporting Zipp wheels, with the decals removed of course. All of the bikes had the 808 in the rear and a 404 in the front, both were Zipp’s standard version.
“We’ve done a lot of materials testing over the last three months to try to find the best selection of equipment,” he said. “So we’re going with several different wheel combinations depending on the conditions we expect to see. We have some wheels specifically for the mountains. We’ve got a couple of different set ups for the time-trials. And we’ve made some changes in what we’re going to use for our basic race wheels, so I think our guys are pretty well equipped. This is just something that you need to do to be a top team.”
The precedent is established and now sponsors, along with any rider, who wants a spot on T-Mobile will be held to a higher standard.
“I think top teams have to give their riders the best tools they can find,” said Stapleton. “This will be a forever process on this team where we try to go through and look for everything we can do to be a little better and a little more efficient.”