Amgen Tour of California keeps going, but HTC team will disband
On the same day that Amgen announced it would remain for two more years as sponsor of the Amgen Tour of California, the country's largest stage cycling race, Riverside native and telecommunications millionaire Bob Stapleton took part in an emotional conference call in which he announced that his cycling team, HTC, would disband at the end of this season.
HTC has finished as the top-ranked team in the world the last five seasons while producing the charismatic and world's best sprinter, Mark Cavendish, as well as the 2010 Amgen Tour of Caiifornia winner, Mick Rogers, and Edvald Boasson Hagen, who won a Tour de France stage this year, and one of the most promising young American cyclists, Teejay van Garderen.
Stapleton, whose team was based in San Luis Obispo, is one of the most respected men in the sport. He was prominent in developing a women's team that was also best in the world and was outspoken in his belief that cycling could be cleansed of the doping scandals that has plagued it over the last decade.
Stapleton had been chief executive of a company called VoiceStream Wireless and eventually held a seat on the board of T-Mobile, which owned a German cycling team that was home to perennial runnerup to Armstrong, Jan Ullrich. The T-Mobile team eventually disbanded because of a number of doping issues with the team and Stapleton started his U.S.-based team in 2007 with the very public ideal of running a clean operation. Stapleton originally called the team High Road Sports to emphasize what direction he was taking. Stapleton funded the team himself at first, but soon attracted major sponsors such as Columbia, the sports outfitting company, and HTC, the mobile phone company.
"We went public with our sponsorship search just befor the Tour," Stapleton said. "We were frustrated by the indecision of our present title sponsor, HTC, who, after many months of assurances, had not come forward with a commitment to the team. That indecision remains a mystery to me," Stapleton said on the conference call.
Even as recently as last weekend, Stapleton said, he thought he had a new sponsor, but negotiations ended.
“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," Stapleton said. "We proceeded with other options.”
Among the problems in going on, Stapleton cited, was what he called the emergence of "super teams," teams with budgets of more than $20 million a year. Specifically he referred to the Russian-based Katusha team and the British-based Team Sky, which it has been rumored for over a year that Cavendish, also British, would land.
“We produced heavyweight results with a middleweight budget," Stapleton said. "We were very average in our budget. You can do that against people whose [budgets] are 50% bigger than yours, but when it’s 100% 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's team won 484 races overall and 54 stages during the three grand tours -- the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Spanish Vuelta.
That Stapleton couldn't attract enough sponsor money to continue competing in a wnning way and driving the sport away from the doping culture is a loss for cycling.
-- Diane Pucin
Photo: The HTC cycling team competing during the 23 km team time-trial and second stage of the 2011 Tour de France. Credit: Lionel Bonaventure / AFP / Getty Images