The End of the Highroad

Bob Stapleton during happier, headier times.

So HTC-Highroad is no more. Technically, that’s not quite accurate; the team will come to an end with the close of this season. But it feels like the team might as well be mothballed now. Any wins that come will carry a certain lame duck pointlessness as they won’t have the ability to attract a sponsor or serve as confirmation that an incoming sponsor made a good choice.

How bad is Bob Stapleton’s inability to find a new title sponsor for his program? It’s the worst thing that will happen to cycling this year, perhaps for years to come. Here’s why: There’s not a single doping revelation that can confirm potential sponsors’ worst fears about the sport the way the dissolution of this team does.

We’ve already had the Tour de France champion test positive twice in the last five years. Stapleton’s failure to secure a sponsor is directly due to that. In a conference call with journalists, Stapleton admitted that doping scandals were a topic of conversation in “every negotiation.”

Compounding matters was Stapleton’s refusal to be confined to irrelevance by racing on a shrunken budget while battling Sky and Katusha—teams that each have an estimated annual budget of $20 million. After all, if part of your raison d’etre is to lead the sport into a new, cleaner era characterized by better management, you can’t do that from the back of the bus.

The end of HTC-Highroad is the corollary to the Leopard-Trek dilemma. It proves (at least for the court of public opinion) that doping is what prevented Brian Nygaard’s formation from landing a real title sponsor (or co-sponsor, for that matter). Worse, the fact that Katusha, Sky and Leopard are funded by ultra-rich businessmen who could use the tax write-off makes the sport that much less relevant. It could be argued that BMC is no better given that few people seem to believe that BMC is selling enough bikes that Andy Rihs could fund the team exclusively out of the operating capital of that one company.

If bicycle teams become the playthings of oligarchs, it will be hard to sell the public on the idea that the sport carries the moral mantle of doping-free athletic achievement. There is a general perception that billionaires play by a different set of rules than the rest of us, and the recent phone-hacking scandal in London that brought down Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World and killed his play to become majority owner of bSkyb is all the proof many people need to come to the conclusion that cycling lacks a moral compass. After all, if Murdoch’s businesses will run roughshod over the most basic elements of privacy, why would anyone think his cycling team is any more ethical?

I’ve met a number of principled people in cycling. I’ve met plenty of truly ethical people in the sport as well. I don’t think I’ve ever met a smarter, more decent person in cycling than Bob Stapleton. I’ve met no one with higher aspirations for helping the sport to function in a cleaner, more transparent manner—in other words, to be its best—than Stapleton. He brought credibility that simply can’t be purchased elsewhere and served as the ever-reasonable counterbalance to the ill-considered pronouncements of the UCI. He was a sort of sanity constant.

As I mentioned before, losing Stapleton and his team isn’t just the worst thing that will happen in cycling this year. It’s the worst thing that will happen in cycling for years to come. If the sport can’t keep a man universally respected and admired, then it will be no better than the cesspool of politics because it may only draw people we’d rather not have dinner with, figures like Bernard “Dr. Mabuse” Sainz.

Sainz’ nickname comes from the Fritz Lang film of the same name. The film was a commentary on post World War I German society, a time of amoral criminality. Dr. Mabuse, “the gambler,” was a megalomaniac who ruled—via hypnosis—an organized crime syndicate of counterfeiters, thieves and murderers. I can’t think of an uglier thing for cycling to be compared.

We’ve lived through that once, or something thereabouts. If the riders don’t get the idea that they need to clean up their acts, there won’t be a sport left to employ them. But we can’t place all the responsibility on the riders. The UCI has an obligation to make sure that testing is performed in a rigorous manner and justice handed out promptly and equally. Until John Q. Public sense we’ve turned that corner, it will be hard to attract leaders like Stapleton and sponsors like HTC.

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  1. Boz

    Funny coinsurance, but didn’t Stapleton’s new sponsor back out just as the U.S. economy is poised to tank once again? Maybe the funds this sponsor thought would be there just disappeared like a lot our 401k account balances evaporated in just three days time. Perhaps the sport will condense itself like many industries have in these tough times.

  2. Adam

    I am genuinely saddened by this. For the last three years I’ve watched star riders leave Highroad for greener pastures – EBH, Hincapie, Rogers, Kirchen, Burghardt, Greipel, Lovqvist, Barry – and thought to myself, “that’s it, thier reign is over” only to see them come back stronger the next year. In any sport there are stars, but to the true fan nothing is better than watching new young talent emerge before your eyes.
    Cycling has traditionally been a sport where teams are dominated by a single rider and protected status has to be earned over years. Highroad singlehandedly changed the way teams were organized and victories collected.

  3. Souleur

    its been a good ride fella’s…Chapeau!!

    i pray they find greener pastures as adam mentions! whether thats a new team or other teams that pull them in…either way

    1. Author

      I don’t mean to be cynical, but I really have to wonder if things might be different for Stapleton and the other directors if the economy were better. The world economy is in the porcelain unit, so I think it’s hitting all teams to some degree. I can’t help but be curious—would finding sponsors be easier, even with the doping problems, if the economy were better. If there’s any chance that answer is yes, then there’s another question: How many companies are using doping as an excuse because they just can’t spare the cash? The trouble here is that it’s like crying “racism” if none existed. It falsely magnifies the problem.

  4. gob

    As others have mentioned in the twitterverse, Stapleton’s failure to keep Cavendish happy (no bonuses, no raises) and keep him under contract for next season torpedoed his chances for a new sponsorship as much if not more than the doping he mentioned, but he can’t come right out and admit that.

    The tanking economy is absolutely a factor as well. Why else would teams be merging?

  5. pas de chaine

    Notwithstanding your interesting post above, and the issue of doping in particular, I’d love to read more about the true economics of cycling and in particular the actual economic value created for sponsors.

    Stapleton mentions that HTC “generated ‘in the region’ of $400 million in media exposure during its tenure in the sport.” If so, would the sponsors agree that for every dollar “invested” in HTC (or a team in general) that a specific, measurable and verifiable multiple was returned turn to them? After all, once you put aside a love for cycling and the touchy-feely promise of “exposure”, I’m sure sponsors want a return on their investment and I’m curious a) what the actual return is in cycling (in absolute terms and compared to other investments) and, b) how effective teams and the cycling industry are in communicating that to the “outside world”.

    Any my final soap box quip, it seems to me that sometimes it comes down to simple supply and demand. And from what I can tell, cycling has been grappling with a) an over supply of riders, teams, races, etc. and/or, b) an under demand for riders, teams and races all driving to a lower price (i.e. value) for all of those variables. Not exactly what the fans and industry insiders want, but perhaps what the economics dictate.

  6. randomactsofcycling

    It is sad that a successful team is disbanding. It is also worrying that the two biggest Belgian teams have to amalgamate to survive. There is certainly a dearth of top level sponsors outside of the cycling world that see cycling as a viable publicity outlet with good investment return. How many times have we seen a sponsor come in for the short term, say three or four years, then exit. Clearly something is lacking for them. There are other sports where a sponsor is in it for the long haul but I cannot name one in the cycling world.
    I’d love to see the research that went into Mr Stapleton’s $400 million claim. Clearly it doesn’t stand up in HTC’s eyes.
    We also now have GreenEdge that are yet to name a title sponsor and though their infrastructure and backer are more sturdy, I cannot help but recollect Pegasus…..

  7. michael

    the Inner Ring blog has a brilliant take on the whole Highroad issue – did they ever truly have a title sponsor at all since the very beginnning, or where they simply mostly playing with Telekom settlement money for 5 years?

    1. Author

      Inner Ring’s theory and analysis is terrific. That said, at the point T-Mobile pulled out of their contract, estimates of the size of the buyout were much smaller. I remember $10-12 million being the range that came up a few times. There’s no way that would have carried Highroad all this time. My gut says the number was on the lower side and Stapleton was putting in his own cash to bridge the difference. Ultimately, it suggests they didn’t have a true title sponsor as Inner Ring claims. The import there is that the sponsorship landscape is far bleaker than most people think.

  8. Ben

    Katusha has a $20 mil budget? Jesus they suck & half the team’s under doping investigation. RIP HTC Highroad… You did it well and made teams like Katusha wish they could follow your wheels. Chapeau!

  9. cwcushman

    If you think about it, a $20 million team budget is not that big relative to other sports.

    – F1 Racing (which I have never watched) – $500 million for high end teams
    – Baseball – $37 million (Marlins) to $200+ million (yankees)
    – Soccer – I couldn’t figure out exactly, but the teams in the US are worth between $30 and $100 million.

    Doing the above (quick research) it appeared that the big problem is that cycling teams don’t make money. All the stadium sports the teams get a percentage of the tv royalties and tickets. NASCAR teams sell a boatload of merchandise. If the team’s only return on investment is straight advertising, it appears to be a very inefficient system. That would also explain why companies come and go. Most advertising campaigns last a couple months and then stop. The only companies that it really makes sense to continually advertise in cycling are the ones that make direct profit back, i.e. Garmin, trek, Shimano, etc.

  10. cwcushman

    Question that just popped into my head. How are individuals or groups of business men owning cycling teams any different than the set-up for most american pro sports (i.e. basketball, baseball, football)?

    1. Author

      The differences are myriad. It’s hard to draw any parallel. In American pro sports (and most other sports) you’ve got a 50% shot at winning. You can’t be in a game and have an anonymous performance, but French teams do that all the time in bike races. There are no ticket proceeds for the team owner and no share of TV revenue. It’s truly a completely different business model and those examples only scratch the surface.

  11. cwcushman


    So i guess the more relevant example would be F1 racing being owned by individuals or countries which doesn’t mean much to me because I don’t follow F1 racing.

  12. Moneyfire

    So looking at the teams as the playthings of “rich guys” the obvious parallel would be to ownership of teams in the English Premier League. In the last decade or so there has been a pronounced shift in new ownership groups treating teams not as profit center but as prestige centers. It has certainly altered the landscape of the EPL and has made it difficult for lesser funded teams to be competitive.
    However looking at what this sort of stratification might mean for cycling I’m not sure it is nearly as damning. To field a truly competitive Grand Tour team was already prohibitively expensive for most racing outfits. Further, so long as the incentives of race owners (e.g. ASO) remain the integrity of their races there should be an adequate counterbalance to a win-at-all-costs mentality of owners. The invitation process for prestige events (along with public censure for “dirty” outfits) should provide enough incentive to race clean no matter the type of ownership group.

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