HTC-Highroad's fall 'incomprehensible'

HTC-Highroad's personable, passionate assistant director Allan Peiper didn't mince words in the media room at the start of the Tour de France when I asked him to comment on the team's financial limbo.

"Incomprehensible -- that's the word that comes to mind," Peiper said, his lilting Australian accent leavening obvious frustration.

That was five weeks ago, when the winningest organization in cycling still had some hope of living to ride another season. Owner Bob Stapleton, faced with indecision from his title sponsor and an indifferent response from other companies, had gone public with the team's uncertain future.

The unconventional move spurred a flurry of corporate inquiries, and Stapleton said he held several meetings in Europe and the United States during the last weekend of the Tour and the week following. Several other teams approached him with merger proposals. Meanwhile, rival organizations circled, buzzard-like, over HTC-Highroad's multinational ensemble of accomplished riders.

In the end, Stapleton said none of the options passed muster at a funding level he considered viable, and he elected to pull the plug and let his riders and staff seek their fortunes elsewhere. Speaking with a small group of reporters Thursday, Stapleton said he did not want to make excuses for whatever might have been lacking from his own pitch. But he asserted that his task was made far harder by the fact that cycling's economic base bears more resemblance to quicksand than to asphalt.

Stapleton also cited the handling of Alberto Contador's 2010 Tour doping case, which has been extended by various entities at various points in the process and now looks as though it won't be resolved before the end of this year. That situation, and/or the ongoing federal investigation of Lance Armstrong and his former U.S. Postal Service teams came up in every serious sponsor discussion Stapleton had, he said.

The latter mention begs one obvious question: How can RadioShack, with its former leader and several staff members and riders enmeshed in the federal probe, carry on? Stapleton said he recognized the contradiction but had no specific explanation for it.

"A lot of sponsorship decisions are based on close relationships with partners, and in some cases, there's different views on what is good and what is bad publicity," he said. "Each company makes their own decisions on those variables. It would be more appropriate for RadioShack to comment on that than me."

By August, the ink on sponsorship deals and renewals is generally long dry, but the Fort Worth-based electronics company that backs the team Armstrong rode for as recently as last winter has remained formally mum on its intentions. Chief marketing officer Lee Applbaum has repeatedly declined comment, saying he will elaborate at the appropriate time. Armstrong, who remains under contract with the team this season, traveled to Paris for the end of the Tour but stayed out of public view.

Director Johan Bruyneel, who oversaw all seven of Armstrong's Tour victories as well as two of Contador's, told Reuters in a brief interview on June 30 that the sponsorship would continue for two more years. When I approached Bruyneel before Stage 1 of this year's Tour, he politely but firmly said he would not be doing any more interviews on the subject.

Chris Horner, one of the team's hopes for a high finish before he crashed out of the race with a severe concussion, was more talkative.

"I wasn't surprised to see them continue," he said, rolling slowly through traffic to the sign-in podium. "RadioShack's gotten their money's worth out of us, and they're really happy working with us."

We won't know until and unless they say so, but the 39-year-old Horner may have helped clinch RadioShack's decision to re-up by winning the Tour of California in May, distancing the pack with help from runner-up and teammate Levi Leipheimer and enormous work at the front of the peloton by young American Matthew Busche.

RadioShack has subsequently conducted itself like a team that is staying in business. News of several rider signings has trickled out in recent days, including that of German veteran Andreas Kloden, who announced he had a two-year deal on his Twitter feed, and young French rider Tony Gallopin, nephew of RadioShack assistant director Alain Gallopin who transferred from Cofidis.

So why didn't success on the road and an absence of scandal translate to the sound of wallets snapping open for HTC-Highroad? Its riders have won everything, as Stapleton noted, except a Grand Tour. The team hasn't had a rider test positive since Germany's Patrik Sinkewitz in the team's first season under Stapleton's management in 2007, when, as he later admitted, he had ineffective internal controls and relied too much on his own optimism.

In some ways, that incident was the least of the obstacles and skepticism Stapleton faced when he took over the T-Mobile team and the years of doping baggage attached to its Deutsche Telekom heritage. He declared he wouldn't tolerate cheating on his team, but also refused to automatically discard riders or staff associated with a tainted era. It was a tightrope act that was tough to pull off with any credibility, but Stapleton managed, and there are few directors in the peloton now who command more respect than former Telekom rider Rolf Aldag.

It would be tempting to say the team didn't have enough of an identity outside of the brilliant British sprinter Mark Cavendish, who since 2008 has won 20 Tour de France stages, the prestigious Milan-San Remo one-day classic and this year's green points jersey in the Tour. Yet any prospective corporate sponsor that did its due diligence would have understood that Cavendish -- as he has frequently said himself -- couldn't have accomplished what he did without the team's attention to detail and general excellence. The members of the lead-out train that escorted Cavendish changed over the years, but the formation performed with amazing consistency.

HTC-Highroad eschewed paying big money for potential Grand Tour winners and instead scouted and nurtured young and underutilized talent as well as any team in recent memory. Perhaps that wasn't sexy enough in the current volatile economy, especially when it comes to the kinds of publicly owned companies Stapleton was trying to court.

Stapleton described the difficulty of competing with $30 million "super-teams" without naming names, but it doesn't take much imagination to know he was talking about organizations bankrolled by rich individuals, like BMC's Swiss owner Andy Rihs, or partnerships between government and industry, like Russia's Katusha. Since cycling has no mechanism to spread the wealth through television or merchandising deals, and no salary cap, owners who don't have to be accountable to stockholders have a clear advantage in buying and retaining talent.

Some teams have been saved by mergers. Two Belgian teams, Quick Step and Omega Pharma, recently announced they will consolidate. Cervelo became Garmin's partner and bike supplier in a deal struck last summer (although director Jonathan Vaughters has stated publicly he is having trouble reeling in a needed secondary sponsor). And it's not as though lower-budget teams can't find, develop and support great riders, as France's Europcar proved in this year's Tour with veteran leader Thomas Voeckler and young super-domestique and stage winner Pierre Rolland.

As for Garmin itself, a software developer and manufacturer of global positioning system devices that is publicly held, with all the constraints that entails, vice president Jon Cassat said the investment that began in 2008 has been more than sound.

"We had business goals going into this sponsorship, and we've met all of them," he said July 3, the day Garmin won its first-ever Tour stage.

The bottom line is that a variety of factors contributed to the place HTC-Highroad finds itself today, including the fact that Stapleton did not want to settle for running anything less than a top team. It is a cautionary tale for a sport that appears to be taking substantial risks in its resistance to modernization.

The HTC-Highroad riders lined up on a stage to meet the media before the Tour, dressed in their full kits, hands crossed in front of them, looking like Spandex-clad soccer players forming a wall. They submitted to the team ritual of being questioned by Versus commentators Paul Sherwen and Phil Liggett, then descended to chat with reporters.

Asked about the sponsorship situation, gifted young American rider Tejay Van Garderen, already the subject of hot transfer rumors at that point, said he wouldn't bet against Stapleton.

"If anyone can pull it out, Bob can," Van Garderen said.

With their competitive record, the idea that the bottom would actually drop out may have seemed … well, incomprehensible is the word that comes to mind.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.