HTC-Highroad era ends: Stapleton frees riders and staff to find new jobs

Bob Stapleton, owner of HTC-Highroad, confirmed Thursday that he was unable to secure a satisfactory sponsorship partner to carry the team forward at the competitive and ethical level that he and his staff wanted.

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One of cycling’s most innovative and successful teams will close its doors at the end of the 2011 season.

Bob Stapleton, owner of HTC-Highroad, confirmed Thursday that he was unable to secure a satisfactory sponsorship partner to carry the team forward at the competitive and ethical level that he and his staff wanted.

Though negotiations with potential sponsors and a possible merger deal with another team continued right up until Thursday morning, Stapleton decided it was better to end the team rather than compromise the team’s competitive and management legacy with something that wouldn’t allow him to compete with the biggest and best teams in cycling.

“We decided the best thing to do was to release our athletes, staff and management to pursue other career options,” Stapleton told journalists over a conference call Thursday. “It is in their best interest to go forward with their career options.”

Stapleton said the hunt for a new sponsorship dated back to last year, and included talks with existing title sponsor, the HTC mobile phone company, whose three-year deal expires at the end of 2011. When negotiations with HTC stalled, talks with potential title sponsors and possible mergers with up to seven teams offered new hope, but nothing could be hammered out in time to meet growing pressure from rival teams looking to pluck away the team’s stable of top riders.

“We thought we had a partner that would have given us the necessary budget to operate the team on the same level as the past four years, but that deal collapsed Sunday night. It was right during my wife’s 50th birthday dinner. We had e-mails and phone calls,” Stapleton explained. “We proceeded with other options. We ended our discussions with HTC last night. We decided that one final merger scenario would not succeed early this morning.”

Riders were informally told Monday they could start considering other options. Three riders have already signed deals, including the Velits brothers, who are headed to the new Quick Step-Omega Pharma merger.

Sprint star Mark Cavendish revealed Tuesday to BBC that he had already decided on a new team for 2012. Cavendish has been linked to Team Sky, but he was reportedly waiting for Stapleton to find a deal. When a late-hour Stapleton deal looked increasingly unlikely, Cavendish pulled the trigger. There is growing speculation that Cavendish has reached a deal with new Australian team GreenEDGE, but there was no official confirmation yet on where Cavendish is headed.

Stapleton expressed his frustration that he was unable to “get it done” when it came to securing the team’s financial future and said it’s becoming increasingly difficult to compete with what he called “super teams,” such as Sky and Katusha, which boast budgets in excess of $20 million per season.

“We faced a tough dilemma,” Stapleton said. “With the rise of the ‘super teams,’ it was a question of having enough money to have the team be at a leadership level of the sport, and the need to bring in substantially more funds. The stakes of having a top team have changed. You have the haves and the have-nots, it’s a destabilizing factor in the sport. It was a factor in our decision-making process.”

“We produced heavyweight results with a middle-weight budget. We were very average in our budget,” Stapleton said. “You can do that against people who are 50-percent bigger than yours, but when it’s 100-percent more, with such a narrow talent pool, it becomes very difficult. If we couldn’t be close enough with the financial power, and if we couldn’t be in a leadership position of the sport, we wouldn’t be in position to drive change. And if we couldn’t succeed on that, it was best to let people go on to pursue their own interests.”

Stapleton said he was hopeful that the team’s top riders and staff would be able to find jobs within the professional peloton. He also said he hopes to secure a sponsor that will allow him to keep Highroad’s highly successful women’s program afloat for next season.

“I’d like to come through for our girls,” Stapleton said. “They deserve it and the signing schedule is a little different for women, so there is still some more time.”

Stapleton came into women’s cycling in 2004, and men’s cycling in 2006 — largely to help salvage the scandal-plagued T-Mobile team. Alongside compatriots Slipstream Sports, the marketing company behind the Garmin-Cervélo squad, Stapleton’s High Road company introduced groundbreaking anti-doping rules and ethics.

“I cannot help but be a little bit disappointed on the modest impact of the sport,” Stapleton said of his hopes to have long-range impact on a change in the sport’s direction. “Our goal was to try to bring forward athletes and management that could help lead the sport forward. Although is a sad call, I do feel like we’ve achieved that goal. Some of the most interesting athletes have High Road DNA.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.