Cycling: Cavendish free to join Sky after HTC team folds

 

Madrid

Incredible but true: not even 484 wins in the last four years, including 20 Tour stages for Mark Cavendish, could prevent his HTC-Highroad squad from announcing last night they were quitting the sport at the end of the year.

Even Cavendish appears to have been caught out by the bombshell announcement, which – given HTC-Highroad's consistent position as the most prolifically successful team in terms of wins for the last four years – will leave a significant power vacuum.

As recently as Tuesday, the Manxman said he would not rule out staying with his current team, despite all the rumours linking him with Sky, and most recently with a new Australian squad, GreenEDGE.

However, as Californian businessman and HTC-Highroad team owner Bob Stapleton revealed, last Sunday a phone call from a future main title sponsor pulled the plug on the team.

The irony that the call came during his wife's 50th birthday celebrations was lost on nobody, and left Stapleton immersed in frantic negotiations with their current top backer, HTC.

Those talks also failed to work out and after a last-minute merger with another squad – one of seven which had shown interest in fusing with the team – collapsed too yesterday morning, the writing was on the wall. Stapleton blamed money, or the lack of it, as being one of the big reasons why HTC-Highroad could not continue.

Cycling has traditionally been a low-budget sport – just a few years ago, the entire top league of 20 teams had less than €200m (£174m) to spend, just over half the ¤380m available, say, to top football squad Real Madrid at the time.

But in the last few years the sport has been a victim of its own success: some major sponsors have come in, wages have risen for the top-name players and they have left the middle-budget teams like HTC-Highroad out in the cold. "You have haves and have-nots and that is not an optimal situation," Stapleton said.

"Our view was that if we couldn't be close enough on financial firepower, we couldn't consistently outperform with far less money. 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 [driving change] was our fundamental mission coming in, and if we weren't going to succeed in that, then it was best to let people pursue their own interests."

Probably one of the most telling moments in the lengthy interview Stapleton gave was when asked if he could explain why HTC-Highroad, with one of the strongest anti-doping records out there, was unable to find a sponsor while others with far more murky individuals on their books were able to find backers for next year and beyond. There was a short silence before he said "not really".

However, that conundrum will leave the sport without one of their most impressive line-ups – not just for the men, but also for women, where HTC-Highroad have taken over 40 wins, including two World Cup rounds, this season: no other squad has come even close.

Cavendish's squad are famous, too, for their hard-line, ground-breaking anti-doping policies, which Stapleton was hopeful would persist elsewhere. "[They] will be a big legacy," Stapleton said. "Athletically the team has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams, but I'm a little disappointed in the modest impact we've had on the future of the sport."

In terms of individual riders, though, the biggest legacy of all will almost certainly be Cavendish. All 71 of his professional wins have been for HTC-Highroad or its previous incarnations, with whom he turned pro in 2007.

In an Olympic year, the Briton will have to build a completely new infrastructure for his team – such as the legendary "trains" that guided him to a high proportion of his wins – from scratch. That is no easy task, as Sky and Bradley Wiggins found to their cost last year when the fledgling team suffered badly in the Tour.

But Stapleton insisted, in any case, that Cavendish's doubts over which team he would be signing for in 2012 had not affected the sponsor search. "It was not a defining factor. It was more of a chicken-and-an-egg situation. If we could have secured funding in a timely manner, there would not have been a problem. And regardless, we are very proud of his success, and the team that was behind him, too."

Just how many future Mark Cavendishes the sport may no longer see with HTC-Highroad no longer in the field next year is just one question that will now, sadly, remain unresolved.

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