The absurd and depressing end of High Road Sports

Tour de Suisse 2011

(Team HTC-Highroad have thrown in the towel on finding a new sponsor, picture by Natalie on Flickr)

Well the hyenas will be cackling this morning, but no one with an interest in the long-term sustainability of cycling as an elite sport should be anything less than profoundly grim faced: High Road Sports is to pull down the shutters on its service course this winter and wind down operations.

Yes, the rumours have been that Mark Cavendish signed for Team Sky as far back as April 2011 and the Velits brothers have gone to Omega Pharma-Quickstep. It’s not unusual for teams to see departures and it’s likely a few more were on the way too. The team should have survived.

But as Brendan Gallagher points out in the Daily Telegraph, there was a drift towards those on the outside seeing the team as being all about Cav

It wasn’t conscious, it just happened. And just recently, it has really become a millstone around everybody’s neck. Potential sponsors were only interested in Cav, which is grossly unfair on him and the team but a fact of life. He is perceived as the “talent”, the “story”, the “man”. He was the magnet for all commercial interest. – Read the full article

Velochrono also offers an excellent analysis in French of what it calls an “inquietante impasse”.

But look at the men’s riders who hadn’t yet indicated they would leave: Tony Martin, John Degenkolb, Teejay van Garderen. Then remember that High Road’s management are among the best in the sport when it comes to spotting and developing young talent.

Nobody should blame Cavendish for the demise, he has done everything he can to build the team’s value and has never once ignored stating their value as a team, not individuals. My honest appraisal is that his value is so high that Stapleton simply cannot compete to retain him without sacrificing some of the team ethic so carefully nurtured.

Then look at their women’s roster, as powerful and convincing as any in the sport. Packed with names with genuine ability to win at the London 2012 Olympics: Judith Ardt, Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, Amber Neben, Evelyn Stevens and many more.

Then add in some of the values and credits that any sponsor should, if they are doing it properly, put a huge big box ticked next to:

  • A team which over a five year period has been a leader in the sport in every respect
  • A team with a guaranteed licence until 2014, ensuring invites to every race of note including the Tour de France
  • One of a handful of top-flight teams who have run a women’s team and invested in their women equally
  • A mid-budget operation with over 480 victories, comparatively offering the best ROI for sponsors of any team
  • A leader in Bob Stapleton who has aggressively sought to re-establish the credibility of the sport
  • A management team that contains a huge and varied wealth of expertise from race knowledge to technical
  • One of the best communications managers in the sport in Kristy Scrymgeour
  • A team that has never sought to hide from the media and has always sought to engage

Those facts on the page, I think there is little else I can say other than to state how absurd it is that the sport has just lost a highly successful team with a guaranteed top flight licence until 2014.

The nearest comparison I can think of is Honda leaving F1 which gave birth to Brawn GP, who won both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championship with Jenson Button the next season.

A sign of a depressing trend

It would be too simplistic to come over all Cassandra about it, a point that Colorado Goat makes well:

“Questions within the UCI need to be examined, but not sure HTC is necessarily a complete canary in the coal mine for cycling.”

But if not a canary, HTC is a sign of worrying and depressing trends in the sport when it comes to the long term sustainability of teams and races.

If the sport is to continue it’s globalisation, it needs teams like HTC which put forward an international vision of the sport. It doesn’t need a return to nationalism and parochialism which is what it left behind when T-Mobile exited the sport.

But measure that against a list of recent some of the teams and sponsors entering the sport: Sky, Green Edge, Leopard, Astana, Europcar, Movistar, BMC, Cannondale, Katusha.

They all fall into (roughly) three categories:

  • Single national identity (Sky, Green Edge, Astana, Katusha, to a lesser extent Leopard)
  • Single market identity (Europcar as French, Movistar as Spanish)
  • Sponsors whose only sponsorship option is cycling (BMC, Cannondale)

None of them is looking to extend their reach beyond a market where they are already active, although Katusha and Astana are political engines of soft power. Bizarre to think some nations are using cycling in the same way the UK uses the BBC World Service and British Council to extend its influence.

Green Edge may have signed Daniel Teklehaimanot, the Eritrean who bears the weight of African expectations, and Team Sky have developed a taste for Colombian riders (Rigoberto Uran and seem likely to sign Sergio Henao), but their core identity and market is domestic, not international.

This light touch nationalism is something Bob Stapleton warned against when I spoke to him recently for a BBC article on sponsorship and investment in cycling:

“I’m troubled by that trend. I think that’s where a lot of problems can start. If you look at all the best sporting franchises, they’re very international, every top football club even american basketball and baseball teams.

I think it’s a step backward. It’s clearly a factor where viewers and broadcasters in a given national territory are going to focus on the prominent riders from their country. It makes sense at some level, I just think it’s a step backward athletically.

We wanted it not be about your passport but your ability. When you harness a national identity and harness that as a differentiator, you’re going to harness that athletically.

When you bring a passport and the flag on your jersey into sporting decisions, you’re taking a step back. It’s a purist view on a sporting level.”

I’m going to reproduce my notes and transcriptions (complete with my errors as I’ve not got time today to tidy them up) at the bottom of this article)

Bob Stapleton and his team believed in cycling deeply. When he sold Voicestream Wireless to T-Mobile he took on the women’s team and ran it from his kitchen with his wife. He wasn’t in it for the money or glory – he wanted for neither – he was in it for the sport. To see him forced out for want of a sponsor is both cruel and depressing.

Perhaps in reading the notes that follow from my interview with Bob, you’ll be able to understand where he is coming from and why losing him is a huge dent to the advancement of the sport.

Notes from an interview with Bob Stapleton

I have the audio recording of the interview but as I agreed with Bob that the interview was for text, I am going to hold it back for the moment. I’ve not had a chance to listen back since making the notes and it’s very unstructured so makes for poor listening.

I am however going to put out these notes and transcriptions I made from the recording. All errors are attributable to me only and in no way reflect on Bob who very generously gave up his time on a Saturday afternoon to talk to me at length and with great honesty and clarity (something which is less clear in my notes):


A lot of the energy in the team is focused on finding and developing young talent like Teejay Van Gaarderen. We want to keep as many of these young athletes as we can.  We’re kind of a middle-weight budget so these guys are highly sought after. I’d love to keep him. All of these riders are very interesting for other teams. He very high on our list of riders we’d like to keep but also riders other teams would like to get their hands on.01:22 taking over T-Mob

“I’m really proud of our management team and how they’ve managed to achieve results with a very moderate budget”

01:42 On changing budgets

“What you’ve seen is the rise of some teams who are very well funded and teams who – I wouldn’t say they have-nots – are learning to live with a lot less money.”

We’re kinda somewhere in the middle but our guys have managed to achieve results at the top. That says a lot about their calibre.”

02:18 On T-Mobile’s withdrawl from the sport

“They had been a sponsor for 17 years, probably the biggest budget in the sport. I had recently retired from running their US operations. When I left the company I basically adopted the womens’ team. I was a trusted general manager. They said we’re concerned about this team would you think about taking it over.”

“It was about Operacion Puerto and concerns about what had gone on in their team in the mid-2000s”

“Their exit from the sport was really more about their history of the team than about Patrick Sinkewitz. I think they were very concerned that there were a lot of news stories that would raise issues about the team’s past.”

“For me I was new into the sport and T-Mobile had given me a free hand to reshape the team and the whole programme. As I learned more about the background and history of the team it made sense for me to want to move on as well. so I think we both agreed it made sense for T-Mobile to move on from the sport and for me to take the team over, rebuild and rebreand it into a completely different organisation and approach to the sport.”

04:30 – bond of trust with target market
“the trust was really broken before I took the team over. They brought me in as a last ditch effort to preserve their position in the sport. They did want to continue the brand building and legacy they had built but it was always going to be difficult to do that.


“There were a number of investigations into the team and their flagship rider, Jan Ullrich had been withdrawn on the eve of the Tour in 2006. For them that was the make or break point. As I took over the team more and more information about possible misconduct in the past became more than T-Mobile wanted to deal with.”

Freiburg, everything around that, Puerto, maybe even other information.

If you look at their last press release they were very complementary about what we were trying to do.

06:45 Why he took on the team

“For me I saw the promise of this group of young athletes, which included Mark Cavendish, riders you’ve seen go off and do very well. I felt like we could make pretty rapid change in the sport and I believed in the potential, so I took it on as a personal challenge.

07:25 – Key changes he made when he took on the team as High Road

“The key thing was that we built the team around best practice, the adoption of every natural advantage we could get – bikes, wheels, skinsuits, training.

A lot of the marginal gains approach you see British Cycling talking about, we adapted that.

Then we changed the philosophy from being a very national German-centre team to being truly international. We’ve got 20 nations currently on the team.

Basically we got the best and brightest athletes and managers from around the world… We focused the philosophy on being the best place for young athletes to be supported. And a lot of them have gone on to be great riders.

Edvald Boasson Hagen, who you saw winning a stage [for Team Sky], he started out with us. We’ve quite a few athletes go one and achieve but they take a bit of our DNA with them. That’s what we pride ourselves on: finding and developing young talent better than anyone else.”

09:20 National identity

“I’m troubled by that trend. I think that’s where a lot of problems can start. If you look at all the best sporting franchises, they’re very international, every top football club even american baseketball and baseball teams.

Tagetting pan-europeans

“For us it was all about maximising our talent pool for athletes and managers; and ultimately targetting multinational companies that wanted to market on a pan-European basis. We started with an athletic strategy that we thought would produce the best results and mirrored our marketing strategy after that.”

“For example, Columbia was an American company, outdoor lifestyle, but it was very important for them to be successful in Europe. So we helped jump start their brand in Europe.

HTC is a very international company that wanted to increase their brand awareness worldwide but particularly in Europe.

10:50 –
“We’ve tried to find international marketing partners who can take advantage of our roster. It’s worked pretty well. For example companies like Skoda may be very interested in Tony Martin, while others a Teejay [Van Garderen] in the US, and of course Cavendish.

Even our womens’ team fits into that. Someone who wants to hit a number of geographic and demographic markets, our team offers them clear marketing benefits and we’re trying to capitalise on that.”

Evie Stevens in Vogue note

“Our womens’ team have been a big plus for us in the last two years. I’ve seen a huge increase in interest around women’s cycling in the last two years. There’s a high level of interest from potential sponsors, even to the extent of proposals to split them off from the men and sponsor them separately.

“In many categories of products they control 80% of purchase decisions so they are an obvious target for marketing partners. Women represent over half of new entrants in endurance sports – cycling, trialthon, marathon – at the moment.”

14:00 national as indicative of lack of sponsors

“I think it’s a step backward. It’s clearly a factor where viewers and broadcasters in a given national territory are going to focus on the prominent riders from their country. It makes sense at some level, I just think it’s a step backward athletically.

We wanted it not be about your passport but your ability. When you harness a national identity and harness that as a differentiator, you’re going to harness that athletically.

When you bring a passport and the flag on your jersey into sporting decisions, you’re taking a step back. It’s a purist view on a sporting level.”

16:30 sponsorship in 2008-2010

“The sport’s got outstanding fundamentals. It’s a massive participation sport, 160M enthusiasts in the US and Western Europe alone. You’re marketing to people in a sport they actually do.

Catching people’s attention and their purchase decisions in really remarkable in cycling. Plus you’ve got the unique naming rights potential.”

“You’ve got the unique assets and opportunity cycling brings but it’s viewed as a somewhat unpredictable sport with some degree of risk.

Particularly in a down, challenging, macro economy, there’s been a shift to safe, conservative sponsorships that are not going to cause you any problems and you’re not going to get criticised about.”

So I think cycling has great unique value, but it’s got its own image problems to overcome and as a second tier sport it’s more subject to external concerns about economy and budget.”

Collateral damage

It’s hard to put a handle on. There’s more interest than ever before.

19:31 The Tour is a great global spectacle: everyone’s eyes worldwide in July are on cycling.

More awareness, interest. But there’s more conservatism in decision making and more competition from other sports.

In the broader picture, if you look at the cost of sponsorship, it’s down across all sports, except a few elite properties. To sponsor any pro sport at some level, particular in F1, is far less than it was a few years ago.

20:20 “Ten to 15 million euros goes a long way, when before that was more like 25 to 50 million. So if you scratch off Man United’s jersey and look at everything in the first and second tier, prices are down pretty substantially.

It’s a buyer’s market for sponsorship across the board. While people see the benefits and advantages in cycling, they measure the risks they look at their options, some come in, some go into other sports.

Image is a part of it, economy is a part of it, but those aren’t excuses either, we have to find our way to success.

21:24 Globalisation

“I don’t rely on the UCI to do anything constructive. You look at other professional sports leagues, what’s lacking in cycling is the structure.

There’s no dominant governing body that is growing the sport, communicating the positive benefits and that’s showing the beauty and excitement of it.  There’s no reliable platform for investors to put money in, in this case sponsors.

22:40 They want to know they are stepping into a very well managed, high level of professionalism sport. In cycling the onus falls on the teams to communicate that message. The UCI is just not a constructive force in building investment in the sport.

It’s a fundamental role of the governing body to develop the commercial interests in a logical predictable and safe way. And to ensure the level playing field so that sporting contests are settled on sporting merit. Our governing body has struggled with that on both dimensions.


“If you held my feet to the fire, there were  two things I came into the sport to achieve. One was to help grow the young riders into stars of the sport you can believe in.

But also this was a sport ready for change, that would be built on an image of clean and fair sport. We would remove the negative image from and grow it into a proper professional league to rival the other big franchises.”

“It’s a global media property

If we can replace the disorganisation and disarray in the sport with a stable predictable structure, then the money will flow in.”

26:00 Nationals, olympics, etc

27:00 – Cavendish and other names
“Cavendish is a good example of what we need: a new credible, exciting personality. That’s a wiiiner But the sport needs more than CAvendish but we need three or four more like that. He’s an asset for the whole sport.”

Great run 5 years, how long continues not clear

“Fundamentally, that’s what we need.

Wiggins, Van Garderen, Farrar.

“I’d love to see a half dozen guys like that because I don’t think a single dominating figure is enough.”

“I think you need rivals, that’s an important part of the story. A few good personalities, a group of always competitive riders, that’s the ideal.”



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