Friday 5 August 2011

End of the Highroad?

While winning time and time again,
Highroad has always worked hard to
improve professional cycling in any
way possible. They will be much missed
and their absence sorely felt.
Highroad's ongoing sponsorship problems have been no secret, with team boss Bob Stapleton uncharacteristically openly admitting some time ago that he was having difficulty securing a financial backer for next season. The team - partly because of the popularity of Stapleton himself, partly because of the popularity of the riders and partly because of the most impressive team palmares in professional cycling - has been one of the most admired by fans throughout its history, and so the cycling world as a whole breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced that negotiations with a potential new sponsor were positive.

Sadly, that deal fell through and HTC have confirmed that they will no longer work with the team - precisely why this should be is not yet known, but it has been suggested that "ongoing drugs scandals" are the cause. Stapleton made an official announcement yesterday, saying: "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." He added, "an agreement with a new partner looked to be in place, but the deal collapsed Sunday night when they called me during my wife's 50th birthday party."

The team's highest profile rider, British sprinter Mark Cavendish who won the final stage of the Tour de France a few weeks ago, is said to be heart-broken by the news. Cavendish has raced for the team, which has earned a reputation for discovering and developing new talents, ever since it grew out of the T-Mobile team in 2008 and has become recognised as the best sprinter in the world whilst with them, personally responsible for a large share of the men's team's many victories.

"I am hugely indebted and incredibly grateful to my teammates and all the staff for their support over the last five years and I am immensely proud of what we have achieved together," he told reporters.

Stapleton hopes the Highroad
women's team will continue.
Highroad is one of the very few teams to place as much emphasis on its female riders as its male stars, ploughing serious resources into their development and reaping the rewards in the form of numerous triumphs.  Stapleton, who personally financed the embryonic Highroad between November 2007 and June 2008, is hopeful that he'll be able to keep the women's team on the road. Women's cycling has long suffered from sponsorship problems, so it is to be hoped that Stapleton and Highroad will continue opening doors for young talent that might never get the opportunity to progress. The continuation of the women's team also leaves the possibility that, should they continue bringing in the trophies - and with riders such as Ina-Yoko Teutenberg, Judith Arndt and Katie Colclaugh on the roster there's no reason to suggest they won't - we might one day see a new sponsor put up funds, allowing a new men's team to rise from the ashes. It wouldn't be the first time Stapleton had turned disaster into success.

It is depressing that would-be backers are still claiming doping as the reason when they pull out of sponsoring teams. Following the dark days of EPO, the Festina Affair and Operation Puerto, cycling has done more than any other sport to stamp out the problem - with Highroad doing more than most, striving to be drug-free and sacking riders who tested positive as long ago as 2007 before it became the norm. Unfortunately, it seems that the druggy image that somehow became attached to cycling remains in place, despite evidence that fewer cyclists use performance-enhancing drugs than do athletes in many other sports.

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