HTC-Highroad reaches the end of the road

It is an unthinkable scenario in any other sport. Can you imagine Ferrari pulling out of Formula 1? Or Manchester United folding? Or the NFL starting next season without its reigning Super Bowl champion, the Green Bay Packers? Well, it is happening in cycling with the announcement that HTC-Highroad, currently the most successful team (in terms of race wins) in professional cycling, will cease to exist at the end of the 2011 season due to a failure to find a suitable sponsor.

Let me just state that again: the most successful and high-profile team in the sport – and one which is run on a middling budget – cannot find the sponsor(s) it needs to continue.

This is the team which, in just under four years, has won more races (a staggering 484) than any other squad, including 54 stages at cycling’s three Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España. This is the team which boasts not only the fastest sprinter in the world, Mark Cavendish, but a world-class roster of sprint talent which includes Australians Matt Goss (the winner of the Milan-San Remo classic this spring) and Mark Renshaw (widely acknowledged as the best lead-out man in the business), not to mention up-and-coming German youngster John Degenkolb (winner of two stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné), who has stepped into the shoes vacated by his departed countryman André Greipel (now with Omega Pharma-Lotto). Fellow German Tony Martin is a world-class time-trialist – arguably the one man world champion Fabian Cancellara most fears against the clock – and Tejay Van Garderen is one of the most promising prospects of the new generation of American riders. Even stacked up against much better funded teams such as Sky, BMC and Leopard-Trek, this is a squad equal to any other in the sport.

Who is to blame?

The team is almost inextricably associated with its star sprinter Cavendish (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

However, the team is most closely identified with Cavendish, around whom the team has been built when it comes to the biggest race on the cycling calendar, the Tour de France. In those four years, Cav has delivered an astonishing 20 stage victories at the Tour, including five and the green jersey last month. The rest of the team has accounted for just two wins in that period (Marcus Burghardt in 2008 and Martin in this year’s time trial).

Cavendish has unwittingly had a pivotal role in the difficulties team owner Bob Stapleton has had in finding a new sponsor. Out of contract at the end of this year and having been originally signed on the cheap, he had previously made his dissatisfaction known at not being awarded a new deal commensurate with the success he had brought to the team. It has been an open secret that he would be leaving the team at the end of the year, a fact he all but confirmed in a BBC TV interview this week. With the team’s biggest draw on his way out and no big-name replacement in the pipeline, this can only have hindered Stapleton’s efforts.

However, Stapleton himself refused to lay the blame at Cavendish’s door:

It was a chicken and egg situation. We are very proud of the success he has had, and if we could have secured funding in a timely manner we would have had a lot fewer problems in general. It was not a defining factor in the search for a sponsor.

Stapleton's search for new sponsors proved unsuccessful (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

It would be unfair to blame the Manxman. In the post-Lance Armstrong era, he is arguably the sport’s biggest and most bankable star. Alberto Contador may have won six Grand Tours, but he is uncomfortable with the media, rarely conducts interviews in English and has the small matter of a potential doping ban hanging over him. Cavendish is one of the few cyclists in the peloton about whom there are no doubts when it comes to being ‘clean’, and has an honest and forthright style which does not always win friends but makes him extremely quotable. That, and the fact that he simply cannot stop winning, means he is guaranteed to generate masses of airtime for sponsors.

A more pertinent question would be to ask why even a Cavendish-less Highroad team – which would still have one of the deepest talent pools in the sport – should struggle to attract sponsorship. When the sportswear company Columbia ended their sponsorship in 2010, Stapleton had been unable to find a second title sponsor to sit alongside the phone manufacturer HTC. (Highroad is the name of Stapleton’s management company.) And now, as Stapleton explained to journalists yesterday, it has resulted in the decision to cease operations altogether:

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. We proceeded with other options. We ended our discussions with HTC last night. We decided that one final merger scenario would not succeed early this morning.

Is cycling heading for Doomsday – and would that be such a bad thing?

Sky's sponsorship has contributed to a shift in the financial playing field

All this raises concerns over the financial health and attractiveness (to potential sponsors) of a sport which has grown significantly since cancer survivor Armstrong’s dominance of the Tour raised its global profile and threw open the doors to the lucrative US market, and yet has been repeatedly stung by doping scandals. Already the two Belgian teams, Omega Pharma-Lotto and Quick Step, have announced they will merge next season, a year after Garmin and Cervélo combined. Other teams are reportedly having difficulties pinning down their 2012 budget. And the presence of big-money sponsors and owners funding teams such as Sky and Katusha further skews the market for everybody else, just as the arrival of billionaire owners has altered the playing field in football’s Premier League.

The doomsday scenario for cycling is the financial collapse of several smaller teams, which could force it down a cost-cutting route similar to what Formula 1 has been through in the last few years. This could mean fewer professional teams with smaller rosters, and consequently the contraction of a UCI race calendar which has recently forged its way into new territories such as Qatar, Oman and China.

A temporary consolidation and retrenchment of the sport need not be a bad thing, though. Cost-cutting measures in F1 have made it easier for new teams to gather the budget they require to enter and compete in the sport without detracting from the spectacle at all, as a result of which it is in a healthier state now than it has been for many years.

Where next for HTC-Highroad’s riders and staff?

Stapleton’s decision not to drag out the team’s death throes coupled with the talent present throughout the team – both in terms of riders and backroom staff – means that most if not all should find gainful employment elsewhere in the sport. He said:

After an exhaustive search to secure long term sponsorship we have concluded that it’s time to release our team members to pursue other options. Our team’s success has been based on our outstanding people. It’s in their best interest that we make this decision now. Our athletes are the most sought after in the sport, and our management and staff are the most capable in cycling. They will lead new teams and the sport forward.

Helping to create the individual success of the people in our team has been the most important and enjoyable element of our management team. We wish everyone the best for the future.

It is a genuine statement which speaks volumes about the spirit within HTC-Highroad, a team built from the disgraced embers of T-Mobile and which has been one of the biggest proponents of new ethical standards within the sport. They have also been fortunate to have had a natural leader like Cavendish, who has always been fulsome in his praise for his teammates’ efforts even when things have not gone well for him and has engendered a real sense of camaraderie among them.

Where Cavendish goes, Eisel is likely to follow (image courtesy of

The announcement of Cavendish’s new team will be pivotal in igniting cycling’s transfer market. The strongest rumours have linked him with Sky, although the new GreenEDGE team has also been mentioned in dispatches in recent days. In an ideal world, he would certainly take the nucleus of his current team – lead-out man Renshaw and road captain and roommate Bernhard Eisel – with him, although Renshaw may take the opportunity to move elsewhere to further his own ambitions. Goss will be a highly sought-after target, and could emerge as one of Cavendish’s fiercest sprint rivals in the coming years.

Whatever happens, the break-up of HTC-Highroad will see the end of one of cycling’s most talented and harmonious squads. The line-up has changed over the four years, but the spirit and the performance of the unit has remained constant. Their rivals will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief, but it will be a sad day when the book finally closes on one of the sport’s all-time great teams. Farewell Highroad, and chapeau.


About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

7 Responses to HTC-Highroad reaches the end of the road

  1. gchutrau says:

    Thanks for a very good note. Yes, it’s sad to watch HTC disband… Such a strong team.

    • Tim says:

      It just seems bizarre that a team which managed that rare feat of combining talent and chemistry could be allowed to go their separate ways like this. Very sad.

  2. oranjepan says:

    Excellent post.

    However I have to add one thing – what does it say about the sustainability of pro-cycling’s financial model that teams can come and go with such ease and rapidity?

    For a team in a sport as demanding as cycling to be so highly dependent on a single headline sponsor should be a major concern. Given the structure of media rights holdings and prize fund distribution in a fractured and proliferating calendar one might wonder about the ability to retain and develop talent, how this influences the choices of individuals who go beyond acceptable methods to gain an advantage and whether this isn’t behind the damage done to reputations.

    Cycling is supported by two main income streams (prize money and sponsorship) whereas by comparison most other sports rely on events, commercial activities and media income – I’d suggest that cycling’s governing body needs to look at how it can reform itself to promote improvements.

    Perhaps they could consider a more transparent and rigorous licensing system.

    • Tim says:

      Exactly my point. I’m no expert in the detail, but cycling certainly has an unusual income structure as you say, with no media income and hardly anything from other commercial revenue streams. If the UCI wants a more stable structure, they need to think about the sport’s finances a bit more – but then that brings them into conflict with rights owners & events organisers such as ASO, who run the TDF, Vuelta, Dauphine, Paris-Nice, Tour of Oman, Tour of Qatar and half the one-day classics. Someone is making money out of cycling somewhere, and it certainly isn’t the teams themselves.

      • oranjepan says:

        Cycling always seems a very closed sport run by a cabal of former champions who are instinctively reluctant to shine a light on the manner of their earlier successes, supported by the strict hierachic code of the peloton and the shifting patterns of alliances – which is why one of the things which make it so fascinating is watching how the top men use their athleticism and diplomacy to shape the race and win – something course designers are now paying more consideration to.

        The challenges presented by the move to globalising the sport pose another aspect as it opens up the competition to new performers and promoters each with different values and cultures.

        I’ve been following the development of races in the US, at least partly because there are more snippets available about the structures behind everything. eg

        One of the interesting points is how the team prize is given more weight compared to the individuals prizes.

        There also looks to be plenty of potential for some magnificent stages over there, which makes it a bit of a shame that fewer of the top competitors are present. In that sense cycling is a bit like boxing, too much hype about the big man and the result and not enough real action or attention to the manner of its acheivement.

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