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PARIS (AFP) — The owner of the HTC-Highroad team says that the team’s trailblazing days in the professional peloton could come to a premature end unless a replacement title sponsor is found before the end of the Tour de France.With an impressive 460 men’s and women’s victories since 2008, including nearly 50 stage victories from the Tours of Italy, France and Spain, HTC-Highroad sees itself as the most successful team in the peloton.
Although boasting the talents of Mark Cavendish, a 15-time stage winner on the world’s biggest race, Paris-Nice champion Tony Martin and Milan-San Remo champion Matt Goss, HTC has a reputation for finding and nurturing cycling’s upcoming talent.
Yet uncertainty will surround their final preparations for the 2011 Grande Boucle.
Their deal with title sponsor HTC, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of smartphones, expires at the end of 2011. Although talks concerning future sponsorship are ongoing, there’s no guarantee of renewal.
Bob Stapleton, owner of the team’s management company Highroad, is now in a desperate fight for survival for the 36 men and women riders, representing 18 nations, and the dozens of staff who have been an integral part of their unrivalled success.
“If we haven’t secured a sponsor by the end of the Tour de France, we will have to sit down and start considering how to wind down operations,” Stapleton told AFP in an exclusive interview. “The world’s best team, a leader in the sport for the past several years, needs a title partner.”
In the current economic climate, and to a sport which continues to court controversy, Stapleton says his task has led to “many sleepless nights”.
However the Californian, who turned to cycling after making his own fortune in the telecommunications industry, believes the sport, and in particular his team, offers unrivalled marketing and business opportunities.
“Cycling is unique in that you have valuable naming rights. Sponsors can be on Manchester United’s jersey for a lot of money, but the team is still going to be called Manchester United,” he added.
“It’s literally hundreds of thousands of repetitions of your brand name on the internet, on television, and in global media.
“Our total return is unmatched in cycling, and I think in sports. We’re going to generate a 20 plus times return for a title partner. The gold standard is more like 10.
“We have a lot to offer. But we have to shout that story out over the controversy that seems to surround the sport.”
Cycling has often been synonymous with controversy, however anti-doping measures such as the pioneering biological passport have so far had a positive impact.
To date, no riders from Stapleton’s team have been implicated in doping controversy.
Yet he says sponsors whom he would like to contribute 10 million Euros a year for at least three years are still reluctant.
“The consistent feedback we get is that they (sponsors) love cycling and the fundamentals, but they’re concerned about the sport, and the non-stop drama around misconduct and doping,” he added. “Be it Alberto Contador, be it Lance Armstrong, be it Riccardo Ricco, whatever. And in a tough economy, with multiple sponsorship choices to make, people will see cycling as a challenging environment.
“What we need somebody to do is look past that at the great fundamentals and this kind of leadership position this team offers.”
Cavendish, whose rumored move to Sky is “not a major issue” for Stapleton’s talent-rich team, is expected to add to his 15-stage tally in the coming weeks.
During the July 2-24 race, to be broadcast in 190 countries, Stapleton will be hoping to hear better news.
“We want to come through for the team. It’s been such an unqualified athletic success but it’s important for me that we get it on a stable, long-term economic footing,” he said.
He added: “Cavendish is compelling, but what title sponsors would much rather have is a stable of performing athletes who are constantly reinforcing your core values.
“Our proposal is: we’re gonna always be competitive, represent your brand, and for any given country or race we’re going to have a compelling athlete who can perform.
“We crave that longer term commitment. The Tour (de France) provides that narrow window of opportunity for us to get something done.”