'This is a clean break'
By Andrew Hood
Ever since Bob Stapleton took over the reins at T-Mobile late last season, the German team’s nefarious doping past hung over the squad like a toxic cloud.
The scandalous legacies of Operación Puerto, Bjarne Riis, Jan Ullrich and Patrik Sinkewitz dogged Stapleton as the American impresario tried to reshape the team under his mission of “clean and fair sport.”
Those ghosts were finally exorcized Tuesday as the German telecom giant pulled the plug on its long-running cycling sponsorship.
Despite the blow of losing T-Mobile’s estimated $12 million annual sponsorship, Stapleton vows to field a team to the 2008 season and is glad he won’t have to carry the heavy baggage that came with it any longer.
“I’m quite optimistic we can move forward independently,” Stapleton said Tuesday. “We are ready to move forward without constantly engaging with the history of the team and the broader problems of cycling in general. This is a clean break for T-Mobile, for me personally and we hope to make it a positive and clean break for our team and athletes to keep going forward.”
For Stapleton, the departure of T-Mobile only presents a new challenge and a new opportunity.
In what would be devastating news for most teams, Stapleton finds room for optimism.
“This is a clean break,” he said. “The team only has one athlete that was with the team in 2005 and only a few that were in 2006. The vast majority of this team is new. There’s a fresh crop of young kids that weren’t even riding their bikes when the issues that are in the media today. It’s a clean break for everyone and that’s a good thing for everybody. We have to adapt to the loss of T-Mobile’s support.”
While many are sure to lament the exit of T-Mobile, one of cycling’s most durable and biggest-spending title sponsors since 1991, there was a sigh of relief among riders and staff as Stapleton confirmed Tuesday that the team will continue through at least the 2009 season.
Without naming names, Stapleton said there’s enough money from investors and co-sponsors to cobble together a reduced but still significant budget that should allow the team to continue without drastic reductions in riders or staff.
“The team is funded by well-intentioned and patient investors,” he said. “There are reasonable prospects that more people are coming onboard, but we’re confident that we can get though 2008 and 2009 without the necessity of a new huge title sponsor.”
Speaking to a handful of North American journalists during a conference call from his home in California, Stapleton said T-Mobile’s departure will allow the team to move forward without the distraction of the seemingly endless string of high-profile doping scandals linked from the team’s heydays in the 1990s and continuing through the 2006 implication of Ullrich to the Puerto scandal.
Stapleton – who took over as general manager in the wake of the Puerto scandal in mid-2006 – said it was hard for American fans and journalists to truly grasp the depth and magnitude of the T-Mobile scandals that are resonating through German media and society.
Doping confessions from 1996 Tour winner Riis and scores of other major German cycling stars such as Udo Bolts, Erik Zabel, Ralf Aldag, Jorg Jaksche and Sinkewitz have made Germany’s cycling legacy front-page fodder from months.
“The visibility of (doping scandals) in Germany is just enormous. This is 50 times the coverage that Barry Bonds gets in the U.S. media. It is an almost daily issue in the news,” he said. “That is a cloud that has just hung over the sport.”
T-Mobile stuck by Stapleton’s reform efforts through the 2007 season, but unrelenting pressure from media, share-holders and politicians prompted the German telecommunications giant to finally cut its loses. A portion of the parent company, Deutsche Telekom, is owned by the German government.
The recent doping confessions of Sinkewitz, the T-Mobile rider who tested positive for testosterone ahead of this year’s Tour, only added fuel to an already combustible and unsustainable situation for the beleaguered sponsor.
“T-Mobile kept getting drawn into doping issues. For a lot of good reasons, they finally said, enough is enough,” Stapleton said. “They’ve been under pressure from all sides. This has been a big distraction and they want to get back to their core business.”
Despite losing T-Mobile’s estimate $12 million annual title sponsorship, Stapleton sounded confident about the future.
He said the team has a strong base of talent focused on a mix of youth and experienced riders. Changes will be made to the team’s race calendar with less emphasis on German-based events to appease T-Mobile’s interest.
The team’s ground-breaking internal anti-doping controls will be expanded into 2008 with additional urine samples to complement blood samples taken throughout the training and racing periods to monitor riders.
He said the ongoing war between the major race organizers and the UCI in a power struggle over the future of the sport deflects attention away from the more critical issue of rebuilding credibility in the sport with tougher anti-doping controls.
He was particularly critical that an across-the-board anti-doping testing program isn’t effectively in place.
“I’m disappointed, angry and pissed off that that hasn’t happened yet,” he said.
Stapleton said T-Mobile’s departure reflects a growing disconnect between the major players in cycling and underscored the need for further change before cycling can again become attractive to big-spending, corporate sponsors.
“I had hoped there would have been more change faster,” he said. “There’s a reluctance to change. I think in some cases, some people will not change and they will have to be replaced … If you want to restructure the sport and bring in bigger, more stable longer-term sponsors – it’s a chicken and egg scenario – you can’t do that until you’re serious about anti-doping.”
Stapleton even hinted that more drastic changes are needed in how the sport is organized and said he would be open to negotiations with “all players” at the table, including the major race organizers, the teams, athletes and the UCI.
In the meantime, he said there’s plenty to keep him busy to reorganize the team following T-Mobile’s departure.