Cycling giants HTC-Highroad have announced their trailblazing days in the professional peloton are over after owner Bob Stapleton failed to land a new title sponsor.
Stapleton, whose squad includes ace riders such as Tour de France green jersey winner Mark Cavendish and Australian Matt Goss, had been battling through the summer to secure a multiple-year deal from a naming sponsor prepared to invest at least 10 million euros (US$14 million) annually.
He had been in advanced negotiations with a new title sponsor up until Sunday night, when the deal collapsed at the 11th hour.
Further negotiations ensued with HTC, who Stapleton said were not prepared to invest as much as they have done in the team, which — together with its women’s team — is approaching an astonishing 500 professional victories in only four years of competition.
Stapleton’s last option was to merge with another team in a similarly precarious financial position, only for that option to be ruled out early on Thursday morning.
Under Stapleton’s leadership, Highroad have been regarded as one of the most ethically-sound and successful teams in the unforgiving ranks of the professional peloton.
However, in a teleconference call on Thursday the American was finally forced to concede defeat.
“We had an agreement in principle with a new partner, [which] should have given us the necessary funds to operate our team at the same level as we have done for the last four years,” Stapleton said. “This deal collapsed Sunday night, during my wife’s 50th birthday party, when I received an e-mail and subsequent phone call from my intended partner.”
Stapleton would not name the partner who let him down, but said: “In doing our due diligence we uncovered some difficulties that were not resolvable ... and the process of asking some very tough questions caused the deal to fall apart.”
“We proceeded on our other options, on the most expedited basis possible, and ended those discussions with HTC last night. And we then ended our remaining merger scenario, which we believe would not succeed, early this morning,” he added.
Stapleton conceded that the negative fallout from ongoing doping allegations implicating former Tour de France champions Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador had proved an obstacle in negotiations with potential sponsors.
“It’s been a factor for everyone we’ve talked to in the past year,” he said.
However, a large part of Stapleton’s decision to wrap up operations was anticipating having to compete with the new “super-teams” whose annual budgets are set to reach 20 million euros next year.
“We’re faced with a tough dilemma,” he said. “We’ve seen the rise of a few ‘super-teams,’ quite a few teams with budgets in excess of 20 million euros that are queued up for next year. So it’s a squeeze between keeping the team at a leadership level in the sport and the need to bring on more money.”
“Our view was that if we couldn’t be close enough on financial firepower, we couldn’t consistently outperform with far less money,” he added. “And if we couldn’t be in a leadership position in the sport, then we weren’t going to be in a position to drive change and that was our fundamental mission coming in. And if we weren’t going to succeed in that, then it was best to let people go and pursue their own interests.”
Asked if smartphone giant HTC had refused demands for more money, Stapleton said: “HTC were unable to reach a conclusion internally about continuing at the same level, let alone at an increased level. Those discussions ended last night.”