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Thursday, August 4, 2011
HTC-Highroad men's team to cease

By Bonnie D. Ford
ESPN.com

The California-based HTC-Highroad cycling team, which has fielded the most successful men's and women's teams in the world the past several years, fell short in its search for a new title sponsor and will cease operating its men's team at the end of this season.

Owner Bob Stapleton said Thursday that the sport's chaotic economic structure, along with continuing fallout from the still-unresolved doping case involving triple Tour de France winner Alberto Contador and the federal investigation of seven-time Tour champion Lance Armstrong and his past teams, helped doom the quest.

"I absolutely don't want to be in the position of blaming anyone or to suggest anything other than we didn't get it done, but there are some destabilizing factors in the sport, and there is a concentration of wealth in a handful of teams that is going to make this very challenging for many teams and the sport in general," Stapleton said.

As for the effect of the Contador and Armstrong storylines, Stapleton said: "I don't think there's been a single discussion with a potential sponsor where one or the other wasn't talked about at some length. It's been a factor in everyone's view of cycling that we've talked to in the last year."

Stapleton said that the team had an agreement in principle with a new title sponsor he declined to name, but the deal collapsed Sunday after the team "uncovered additional challenges" through its own research.

HTC, the Taiwan-based smartphone company, could not come to a decision internally about continuing its sponsorship, Stapleton said. Finally, the team was approached by seven other professional organizations seeking a merger, but for various reasons, none of those marriages made sense, he said.

That led to Stapleton's decision to release all of HTC-Highroad's staff and riders to seek new jobs for next season. Several had already officially defected as of Aug. 1, when the transfer period began, and both burgeoning American talent Tejay Van Garderen and British sprint superstar Mark Cavendish are headed for other teams they have not yet confirmed.

HTC's men's and women's teams have won almost 500 races the past five seasons, but the disciplined, efficient sprint "train" that has delivered Cavendish first to the finish line of 20 Tour de France stages since 2008 will probably be the most indelible memory left by the team. Other prominent riders who passed through the organization include U.S. veteran George Hincapie, Norwegian standout Edvald Boasson Hagen, Australia's Michael Rogers and German sprinter Andre Greipel.

Stapleton's management company took over the powerhouse German team then known as T-Mobile after a scandal-wracked 2006 season and based its administrative offices in its owner's hometown of San Luis Obispo, Calif. In mid-2008, the American sports apparel company Columbia took over as title sponsor, succeeded by HTC in 2010.

The former wireless industry executive described his drawn-out negotiations with HTC as frustrating. Stapleton added that he was not willing to go forward without the kind of bankroll that would enable his team to stay competitive with what he characterized as several "super teams" with budgets of $30 million or more.

"We produced heavyweight results with a middleweight budget," Stapleton said. "We never had the budget that people suggested or that you read about in the press. We were very average. ... You can do that against people whose budgets are 50 percent bigger than yours, but once it starts to get 100 percent or more, and you've got such a narrow talent pool of riders, that becomes increasingly difficult."

Stapleton, who first became involved with cycling when he managed the T-Mobile women's team, said he hopes to keep the women's team afloat in what will be a crucial season leading to the Olympics.

The HTC-Highroad women's roster includes two leading American riders, former time trial world champion Amber Neben and current U.S. time trial champion Evelyn Stevens.

Garmin-Cervelo director Jonathan Vaughters said the demise of HTC-Highroad is symptomatic of the deep structural dysfunction in the sport.

"To me, it's just ludicrous that the team currently ranked No. 1 in the world is forced to disband because of a shortfall in corporate sponsorship," said Vaughters, who is also president of the professional teams' association known by the French acronym AIGCP. "Every successful professional sport has revenue sharing from merchandising and TV rights, and long-term guarantees."

Vaughters said it distressed him to see what he termed Garmin's "sister team" fold because Stapleton was intent on helping to change the way cycling is run.

"On a sporting level, the relationship between us and HTC-Highroad has been pretty mean and nasty and it's gotten out of control at times," Vaughters said. "But on a business level, Bob has always been my best ally and to see him go -- I'm not happy about it. We have a very similar vision of the sport."

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.