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.
I spent about 20 minutes Sunday morning trying to explain the Stage Two Team Time Trial (TTT) to my four-year-old. There was really no parallel I could draw to anything within his frame of context (Transformers, Lego, Beyblades), so we ended in failure, him cheering every rider that came across the line first, at the head of a line of teammates.
The TTT had two winners, of course. One was Thor Hushovd who led the Garmin-Cervelos over the line to take the yellow jersey. I thought, on Stage One, that Philipe Gilbert had pulled off a good trick by getting to pull the maillot jaune over the Belgian National Champion’s jersey, but then the Bull of Grimstad one-upped him by pulling yellow over world champion stripes. In that one magical moment, all the disappointments of the Norwegian’s early season seemed to disappear. The order to let Hushovd cross the line first was a tactical masterwork by G-C management. A happy viking is a helpful viking (more on that in a minute).
The other big winner was Cadel Evans, whose BMC squad managed to take second place, and, because Garmin-Cervelo has no current threat for the general classification, Evans was able to add valuable seconds to his lead real candidates for the overall, for even though Hushovd wears yellow, everyone knows he isn’t a contender for GC. BMC’s performance was all the more impressive as none of their squad are world-class time trialists. It speaks to a level of organization and focus that, in a TTT, can overcome raw power, and it suggests that Evans finally has the team support he needs to make a credible tilt at the top podium step.
Stage three was your standard TdF sprint stage, except that the intermediate dash for green jersey points saw both Hushovd AND Mark Cavendish relegated for a brief tussle that barely registered on TV cameras. It was just another blow to Cavendish’s green jersey hopes, which were dented further in the run into the finish.
HTC-Highroad’s lead out seemed to come to the fore awfully early, with riders peeling off the front well in advance of the line. When things really got hot near the end, the blue helmets of Garmin-Cervelo suddenly appeared, and then cut the HTCs out entirely on a hard left-hander, Cavendish losing his line and leaving Hushovd in yellow to lead out Tyler Farrar for the win.
Yes. The sight of the yellow jersey on the back of the world champion leading out a sprint for a teammate is something you should try to remember. To my knowledge, it has not happened before, it may well not happen again. This is the fruit Garmin-Cervelo get to reap for taking care of Hushovd in the TTT the day before, and it allowed the big Norwegian to further burnish his reputation as an act of pure class.
Farrar winning on the 4th of July was a nice storyline for American fans. His ‘W’ victory salute in tribute to fallen friend Wouter Weylandt was a nice touch. Garmin-Cervelo are clearly the darlings of the 2011 Tour thus far.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International