Interview With Bob Stapleton

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Bob Stapleton arrived professional cycling during a storm and, while another one is brewing, said he may return. From his home in San Luis Obispo, California, he is watching it all unfold – it is his “daily soap opera” he says – and waiting for his chance.

The American took over T-Mobile at the end of 2006 amid the Operación Puerto drug scandal (somewhat similar to the current situation at Rabobank). He transformed the team into the winning Highroad machine, bringing on sponsors Colombia and HTC, and helping develop the sport’s leading stars, including Mark Cavendish. Unable to find a new sponsor at the end of last year, however, he had to fold the team and return to the business world.

He explained, however, that one year on he is eager to come back to the sport. The scandals, he said, provide an excellent opportunity for change.

CyclingTips (Gregor Brown): What have you been up to in the last year?

Bob Stapleton: I had some health problems last year. I had a series of blood clots that started a few years ago and I had a flare up right before the Tour last year. Those can be very serious, but the problem was that I had insufficient blood flow in my veins. You have to rebuild the system a bit. [I took] drugs and had therapy. My weight was good, my general health was good, but once you have a blood clot you are forever more prone to get them.

I’ve completely turned the corner now and I’m in the best shape I’ve been in since 2006. I’ve spent a lot of time with my family. I spend a lot of time with top private equity firms. I’m looking at a lot of deals and investments and I’m on the board of Ironman, which has the emotional appeal that cycling has. I’m all around the sport from either an investment or an observational peloton.

CT: You have two sons and a daughter…

BS: [They] are all now out of college and out in their careers. My daughter graduated from college recently. She was our baby, now it just our wife and I! My wife is very anxious to push me out of the house as you might imagine!

CT: What is your next move?

BS: I’m kind of drawn back to the sport a little bit now [with the current scandal]. That environment that drew me into the sport in the first place, after Operación Puerto. Lots of changes, lots of opportunity for progressive change. I’m more interested in the sport now than I have been in the last year.

CT: Are you returning to cycling?

BS: It’s all about making sure there’s a real formula for success, you have to have resources. To be a top team now, you’re competing largely against individuals or institutions with a lot of money. I’d have to have the calibre of people we had in Highroad: partners, managers and athletes. That’s not easy now, all those athletes and the management team are in super-high demand. [Note: the interview was after Rabobank said on Friday it would end its sponsorship after 15 years.]

CT: Rumours linked you to RadioShack, taking Bruyneel’s spot. What do you make of the team’s situation?

BS: I look at that team, I don’t see the resources, I don’t see the stability, I see chaos. … I see lots of problems ahead for that. T-Mobile had a lot of strong partners, a lot of people who I knew very well. What blew that apart was a bunch of stuff we didn’t know about, like the recent history of the team. It started with remarkable promise, though. RadioShack starts absolutely on the back foot. You’ve got riders virtually revolting. You have a manager, or former manager, under deep suspension. Chaos reigns there.

CT: Was the owner, Flavio Becca wrong to hire Bruyneel in the first place?

BS: It doesn’t look too smart right now! Astana did the same thing. He had GC success in the past, that’s a fact, but the recent information has cast doubt on that. [Becca’s decision] was not irrational, but it might not have been smart.

CT: What do you make of Armstrong’s former team-mate, Ekimov and Vinokourov managing teams?

BS: You really aren’t going to get people who’ve been involved in doping out of the sport. There’s too many, they are in management positions, they are still riding. All you can do is double and triple up on the control system. The criteria for the passport need to get tougher, not easier. The UCI has not been vigilante enough in using that control. … That’s part of the formula, the other part is a clear and simple process that [reviews] these cases so you don’t have the [Alberto] Contador comeback; these guys who were busted and coming back after a short suspension. Let’s make it five years for a first and life-time for a repeat customer. The best thing the sport can do now is rigorously govern the conduct going forward.

CT: Should the UCI hand over its doping controls to a third-party?

BS: That’s my view. I’ve been a proponent of reorganising the sport for some time. A new league with a foundation in clean and fair sport, that has rigorous rules of contact, with rigorous testing and massive consequences for cheating, like career-over consequences.

CT: Michael Barry suggested a league to secure a team’s place and ease the pressure on the riders. He says that riders may feel pushed to race for points year around, which can lead to doping. Is creating a separate league the way to go?

BS: That was a big bone between Pat [McQuaid] and I. The points system is death of developing young riders, the death of team work and the clearest path for cheating. You’re not going to work for a team-mate because if you can sprint and get 19th place to get some points, and your contract is largely going to be based on points. A young rider won’t have points, so who can [afford] young talent? Teams with a lot of points. Sky can do it, BMC can do it… The rich get richer; the other teams struggle. [The system] perverts a lot of the best aspects about the sport; it makes it very difficult to do things as we were trying to do.

CT: Are we close to having a professional league?

BS: This is what makes the painful and very public death of one of sport’s great icons provocative. It is not so much about what happened in my mind, it’s all about what the hell are you going to do about it? Are you going to use this as an opportunity for progressive change? If the outcome is a bunch of guys gets suspended and the sport rolls around in turmoil for a couple of more years, then that’s pathetic. It’s all about taking some chances and making this as a chance to make some fundamental changes.

CT: Who needs to head up those changes?

BS: Frankly, the UCI needs to cede authority and be in a position to help drive change, protect the integrity of the sport. There’s a strong role that they can [play], but they have to recognise the challenges the sport faces and react to that, as well.

CT: If you had the magic wand, how would you re-structure the UCI?

BS: I would take elements of this league concept where you would align rights. The way to do this involves a role to the UCI and recognising parties like the Amaurys [Tour organiser, ASO]. You have to find a solution that incorporates … the economic stake that people have in the sport now. Then you have to figure out how to grow the sport so it’s good for everybody, but the foundation is restoring the basic credibility, and that’s around a new set of rules that are rigorously enforced, very likely by a third party, and that are inescapable.

CT: Do we need to tear the sport down to get to that point?

BS: You don’t have to tear it down, you have to recognise obviously things that need to change and be committed to a course of action. It’s all about action. There are a lot of examples you can look at worldwide. That’s the first step, recognising what you need to do and commit to it. Then, finding better way to do things is easy. You take a few pages from European and American football. You go around and create a best in class league that addresses the sport’s major issues and provides a platform for growing it intelligently going forward. A lot of people have brought it up for 10 years now, and now it’s time to sit around a table and do something.

CT: Will Bob Stapleton be back in 2013?

BS: It’s about an opportunity to do something that would be rewarding, and that’s not about money, it’s about having an impact and seeing growth, success and change. Highroad was quite rewarding. A lot of people who are interesting in sport came out of that, whether it’s managers [or cyclists]. I have my catcher’s mitt on, but I also have six years of hard experience to filter things. One of things that brought me into this originally was [the belief] the time was right for change. I see that now, but I would need to feel like progress could be made as well.

CT: Do you have any regrets from your Highroad years?

BS: I regret that I couldn’t bring on enough financial partners to give us the stability we needed. If anything, I like the fact that so many people came in and got so much better. I like the fact that [Rolf] Aldag became so successful, that [Allan] Peiper is out-standing, [Brian] Holmes, [Valerio] Piva, Lars Teutenberg is probably one of the brightest tech guys in the sport. They were all good, and they all got better.

CT: How did Mark Cavendish go this year after leaving HTC-Highroad?

BS: [As] reigning World Champion he did the jersey proud. It was just hard to see him struggling in the Tour, where he had some chances to win more but just didn’t have the team support. That’s been his showcase for a couple of years and it’s where he made his career. It’s a nice fit with [OmegaPharma-Quick Step], who went well in the classics and is generally visible all year, but was completely invisible in the Tour.

CT: Will Cavendish step on the toes of OmegaPharma’s GC men?

BS: That’s always the dilemma. It was the case in Sky. A number people went to sky because they didn’t want to spend some of their time supporting Cav’s races. … There will be a touch of that at OmegaPharma, but the team is owned and run by rational people and they’ll see his value. The team has to say they were invisible in the Grand Tours, and that’s just not acceptable. They can try to do what we were trying to do: trying to develop GC riders under the umbrella of sprinting success.

Bob Stapleton, owner/manager of one of the most successful teams in history still loved to go for a roll with the team. Shown here in the Arenberg Forest, Paris-Roubaix recon thursday April 8, 2010. Photo: Kristof Ramon

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