Beyond seeking victories at this year’s Tour de France, San Luis Obispo-based Team HTC Highroad appears to be in a quest for its very survival.
Highroad owner Bob Stapleton told a French news agency in a recent interview that if his professional cycling squad does not land a new title sponsor by the end of the Tour de France, he will begin steps to end the team. The Tour de France started Saturday and concludes at the end of the month.
“If we haven’t secured a sponsor by the end of the Tour de France, we will have to sit down and start considering how to wind down operations,” he told Agence France-Presse, the French news agency. “The world’s best team, a leader in the sport for the past several years, needs a title partner.”
The contract with smart-phone manufacturer HTC expires at the end of this year. A deal with sporting-goods maker Columbia ended last year as well.
Title sponsorship is critical because of the high cost of operating an elite cycling team such as Highroad. In a 2008 interview with The Tribune, Stapleton said the annual budget to mount a season’s worth of racing for the men and women’s teams was more than $10 million.
“I think one of the things people don’t realize is what a complex, moving army this is,” Stapleton said then. “ ... It is a big logistics business in terms of getting athletes to races and having them fit and ready to compete. It has an astonishing amount of moving parts.”
Highroad is based in San Luis Obispo because that is where Stapleton makes his home; a training center is in a nondescript barn on O’Connor Way. But its 37 male and female athletes come from Europe, Australia and America, and Highroad enters races in Europe, America, Asia and Australia.
It has won more races in men’s and women’s competitions than any other team since 2008, making it the sport’s leader.
Stapleton told Agence France-Presse that he has talked to companies about becoming the key sponsor, but they shy away over concerns about cycling and its taint caused by riders accused of using banned substances to improve performance.
There is another critical issue facing Highroad over the title sponsorship. In an interview last week with Cyclingnews.com, team manager Rolf Aldag — lead coach for the men’s squad — said that the athletes need to know if they will have a team to ride for next year.
If not, top competitors such as Tony Martin of Germany will sign on with another squad.
“I would like to stay, but I am getting contacted by other teams,” Martin told Cyclingnews.com. After Sunday’s second stage, Martin was in 14th place. He is Highroad’s best chance this year to compete for the overall title at the Tour de France.
Both Stapleton and Aldag are with the team at the Tour de France and could not be reached for this article. Highroad is San Luis Obispo’s only professional sports team. And while cycling is not a major sport in America, the Central Coast boasts many enthusiasts and an abundance of cycling clubs. As a result, the team’s performance is closely followed.
Highroad has also been recognized by local organizations such as the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce for bringing prestige to the Central Coast, given the team’s worldwide successes.
The team was highlighted earlier this year at the San Luis Obispo Film Festival when it showed a documentary that followed the Highroad squad through the Tour de France several years ago.