Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: The legacy of Team Highroad

In a week when the merged RadioShack-Leopard-Trek team held its first training camp in Spain, when GreenEdge officially became Australia’s first-ever Division 1 team and when Rabobank presented its 2012 squad in the Netherlands, it’s worth reflecting on the team that won’t be in the peloton next year, HTC-Highroad, and why it will be remembered as one of the greatest teams in cycling history.

2011 UCI Road World Championships, elite men, podium
Two HTC-Highroad riders and one former HTC man made the podium at the 2011 road world championships. Photo: Casey B. Gibson (file)

In a week when the merged RadioShack-Leopard-Trek team held its first training camp in Spain, when GreenEdge officially became Australia’s first-ever Division 1 team and when Rabobank presented its 2012 squad in the Netherlands, it’s worth reflecting on the team that won’t be in the peloton next year, HTC-Highroad, and why it will be remembered as one of the greatest teams in cycling history.

The legendary teams of the past six decades were usually formed around a single, dominant leader, as with the Bianchi squadra of Fausto Coppi, the St. Raphaël-Gitane équipe of Jacques Anquetil, the Molteni ploeg of Eddy Merckx and the Banesto equipo of Miguel Induráin.

In more recent times, Italy’s Mapei dominated the world rankings from 1994 to 2002 thanks to a variety of big winners (including Tony Rominger, Johan Museeuw, Abraham Olano, Michele Bartoli and Paolo Bettini); but like Team Highroad’s predecessor, T-Mobile/Deutsche Telekom, and its main rival U.S. Postal Service, they existed in the EPO era that detracted from their legacy — and almost destroyed the sport.

The transformation of T-Mobile from one of the sport’s most dope-riddled squads into the most successful program in pro cycling was masterminded by Bob Stapleton. Already running the German telecommunications company’s women’s team under his High Road Sports banner, Stapleton took control of the men’s team at the end of 2006 — after the squad fired its top rider Jan Ullrich, general manager Olaf Ludwig and sports director Rudy Pevenage.

Five years later, only one rider remained from that 2006 team, the Czech Frantisek Rabon — a fact that demonstrates the complete overhaul made by Stapleton. The California manager’s first decisions included the confirmation of Rolf Aldag as team manager (even when he admitted with team advisor Erik Zabel to their past use of EPO); the appointment of sports directors Brian Holm, Allan Peiper, Jan Schaffrath and Valerio Piva; and the introduction of an independent anti-doping program that helped Highroad become one of the cleanest teams in cycling.

Among the new riders hired were Mark Cavendish (who began with Stapleton as a stagiaire in September 2006) and three other young sprinters (Gerald Ciolek, Bernhard Eisel and Greg Henderson), and seasoned team riders like Michael Barry, Bert Grabsch, Roger Hammond, Adam Hansen, Servais Knaven and Marco Pinotti.

They weren’t big-money stars, but all of them had good standing in the cycling community while the younger men offered great potential. The “bad apples” were weeded out in that opening year when three riders from the old regime, Patrik Sinkewitz, Sergei Gontchar and Lorenzo Bernucci, were fired after doping violations.

“We hunkered down to what the basic goal was,” Stapleton told “The idea when we hired all these young guys, a ton of sprinters, and kind of hope for the best, was that we could find and develop new athletes and new leadership.”

Stapleton, Aldag, Holm, Peiper and their organization were so successful in picking out talented riders and developing them that they had the most wins every season since. Cavendish has become the world’s most successful road sprinter, his wins including the world road title, 20 stages of the Tour de France and Milan-San Remo; Matt Goss also won the Primavera; Grabsch and Tony Martin both took the world time trial championship; and stages at grand tours fell to all these riders, along with their one-time teammates Peter Velits, Kanstantsin Sivtsov, Kim Kirchen, Henderson, André Greipel, Linus Gerdemann and Edvald Boasson Hagen.

Although Highroad didn’t produce a grand-tour champion, it picked up overall victories in most of the shorter stage races, including Paris-Nice, the Tour Down Under, Tour of California, Eneco Tour, Deutschland Tour and Tour of Beijing. And there couldn’t have been a more successful close to the team’s history than the 2011 worlds, where Martin and Judith Arndt took the elite TT golds and Cavendish and Goss placed 1-2 in the elite men’s road race (with ex-teammate Greipel in third).

2011 Tour de France, Bob Stapleton
Bob Stapleton's team was a victim of its own success. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | (file)

“It’s those guys and a dozen more, plus great management and a great group of women athletes (who produced) the kind of human results we wanted,” Stapleton added. “We didn’t raise the money to continue that indefinitely but we certainly did deliver on our basic goal.”

In other words, Stapleton’s “discover talent and develop it” policy was so successful that it caused his team’s eventual demise.

“Obviously, timing was quite critical,” he said about HTC’s decision not to raise its level of sponsorship and the need to have a deal in place by July this year. “We just simply ran out of runway, and part of that was precipitated by a kind of feeding frenzy on our athletes, manager and staff.

“There were single teams out there that had 6 million euros (almost $10 million) in offers outstanding to our riders well before the Tour de France. If we had kept that team together as it was comprised the entire payroll would have more than doubled. That’s a lot of money to raise.

“We were really in this squeeze and it was sort of like, ‘What do we really want to be? Do we want to be a leadership team? Or do we want to be a rebuilding team?’ And ultimately we decided that people were going to be better off on their own; it’s better to have people spread across a number of teams and getting well paid for that than trying to hold it together and just have too little resources too late in the game. We could have gotten smaller deals done but I don’t think any of us were going to be happy with that longer term.”

One little-known sponsorship problem that Stapleton came up against was competition from other sports. Traditionally, pro cycling has offered a deal in terms of name recognition and great exposure to a worldwide audience.

“Unfortunately,” Stapleton said, “other sports have gotten to be better deals. Prices have come down, other than elite European football (soccer) clubs.

“All American sports’ sponsorship rates have dropped, and second-tier European football, all the motor sports, they’re all substantially down. And cycling’s costs, if anything, are going up. So the historic cost advantage is even getting reduced. So when you see possibly less return and a lot of risk, the equation tilts away from cycling.”

Some teams have gotten around the less-sponsor-money conundrum by merging with other teams. That was a possibility that Stapleton considered.

“We had chances to do things, merge the team, before we decided to let it go,” he said, “but they were all really compromised. We were all one team and all working toward the same goals, and I’m only interested in environments like that.

“Maybe I’m too set in my ways but most of the things that you do that you feel good about are things where you stay true to it and try to do something big, and you either succeed or fail. Mergers or whatever, they are just compromised to start with.”

Continuing with this theme — especially in reference to three recent mergers (RadioShack with Leopard-Trek, Omega Pharma with Quick Step, and Garmin with Cervélo) — Stapleton added, “These mergers are driving this kind of haves and have-nots. … So you really do have teams that, you know, have budgets north of 20 million euro (almost $30 million), and then you’re gonna have a bunch of teams that aren’t close to that. And that consolidation is really destabilizing the structure (of the sport) a little further.

“I got criticized by a senior cycling person about my statements about the super-teams before, but I did tell them I could count on my fingers and toes and get to 20 (million euros) pretty quick on four or five teams — and I’m standing by that statement. We had chances to do stuff but we thought people were better off on their own than trying to cram organizations together and winding up with something that’s adverse.”

So, after a decade of creating big things in a relatively small sport, Stapleton, the entrepreneur who made a fortune in the wireless telecommunications industry before coming to cycling, is now looking at his own future.

“I’m kind of sitting back,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of discussions with a lot of people, in and outside the sport. I really do love the sport but I have to see the environment stepping forward a little bit before I would think about staying engaged. I mean, the sport is just so structurally challenged … and that’s just hard to overcome.

“So something with clear prospects and uncompromised focus, I think I’d be kind of interested in that. I’m trying to stay as flexible as I can.”

Where the HTC men will race in 2012

All 24 riders on HTC-Highroad’s 2011 roster have found homes for 2012 — on 12 different teams. That’s quite a compliment to the high standards set by the now-defunct American squad. As for the team’s sports directors, Allan Peiper is now with Garmin-Cervélo; Valerio Piva has joined Russia’s Team Katusha; Rolf Aldag, Brian Holm and Jan Schaffrath have taken various roles at Belgium’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step; and Jens Zemke is now with South Africa’s MTN-Qhubeka squad.

    BMC Racing (USA)

  • Marco Pinotti (I), 5 years with Highroad
  • Tejay Van Garderen (USA), 2 years
  • Cofidis (F)

  • Jan Ghyselinck (B), 2 years
  • Garmin-Cervélo (USA)

  • Alex Rasmussen (Dk), 1 year
  • GreenEdge (Aus)

  • Michael Albasini (I), 3 years
  • Matt Goss (Aus), 2 years
  • Leigh Howard (Aus), 2 years
  • Lotto-Belisol (B)

  • Lars Bak (Dk), 2 years
  • Omega Pharma-Quick Step (B)

  • Matt Brammeier (Irl), 1 year
  • Bert Grabsch (G), 5 years
  • Tony Martin (B), 4 years
  • Frantisek Rabon (Cz), 6 years
  • Martin Velits (Cvk), 2 years
  • Peter Velits (Cvk), 2 years
  • Project 1t4i (Nl)

  • John Degenkolb (G), 1 year
  • Patrick Gretsch (G), 2 years
  • Rabobank (Nl)

  • Mark Renshaw (Aus), 3 years
  • RadioShack-Nissan (Lux/USA)

  • Hayden Roulston (NZ), 2 years
  • Sky (GB)

  • Mark Cavendish (GB), 5 years
  • Bernhard Eisel (A), 5 years
  • Danny Pate (USA), 1 year
  • Kanstantsin Sivtsov (Blr), 4 years
  • Team Champion System (HK)

  • Craig Lewis (USA), 4 years
  • Team SpiderTech (Can)

  • Caleb Fairly (USA), 1 year