Bob Stapleton Q&A

highroad-ouch

That's got to hurt...! The result of a crash in stage one of the 2011 Santos Tour Down Under.

The demise of the incredibly successful Highroad team because of the lack of ability to attract a naming-rights sponsor beyond 2011 reflects a sad situation for cycling. The owner of the team, Bob Stapleton, came to the sport with a fresh approach and was particularly outspoken about the ‘crimes’ of the past. He took over the reigns of a squad with a long history and he rebuilt the formation to become one of the dominant forces in the pro pelotons – men’s and women’s.
Rob Arnold caught up with Stapleton at the team’s pre-season training camp last December. The transcript offers some insight into the man and the team… a fine group that will disband at the end of the year. There are critics in every realm of life but few could argue that this outfit didn’t achieve some magnificent success thanks largely to the fine group of people who all believed in each other.

Interview by Rob Arnold

Q. You once told me that bike riders – or people associated with cycling – have a type-A personality.
A. “I think they’re on the edge of any personality type, right? They’re absolutely type-As, or obsessive compulsive, always pushing the limits and that’s a trait of success for many people in almost any line of work. It seems like this sport attracts that or maybe even demands it.
“The self selection for sports like cycling – these endurance sports – includes a part of how you succeed is the willingness to suffer, a willingness to push yourself… and that’s a well defined psychology.
“I think of it as type-A but you’ve got to get into the neurosis and there’s definitely an elements of obsessive compulsive. I see that in CEOs, or athletes or, generally, people who are really good at what they do. You have an element of that, I have an element of that and I think you see it in people who are good at what they do.”

When you bring a group of people like that together you seem to be able to take a backward step and let everyone do their job. What’s the secret to managing a large group of people?
“We’ve got 37 athletes, 10 key managers… and the hard part for us – which is unlike most work environments where you can just be together, and it’s much easier of you’re face-to-face – we’re not often on the same continent. That, combined with constant travel, raises the bar on communication, common goals, and really having the trust in each other that people are trying to do the right things. That’s the biggest challenge for us.
“The way we get through that was easier for me because I have a long background in management and this was an area where I didn’t have a lot of personal competence. I do not know all that much about the sport. I learn stuff all the time: 100 things per day when I’m around the riders and staff. I can learn from everyone on the team, still. So I had to find people who were distinctly competent. And then the main thing was to get them to work together so all their skills and knowledge were brought to bare on the team.
“A lot of teams are managed by people who have a lot of knowledge and competence and they really dictate what’s going on. Here [at HTC-Highroad], it’s a totally different game. We’re getting people to work together really openly and as peers not in any sort of silly hierarchy. That’s what I think sets our managers apart. You’ll see we have very little management turn over. We turn over riders – guys get better and go on to different contracts, new ones come in and they grow… we keep what we can but that’s going to be the constant process in the team.
“The management stability helps a lot and I think part of the feeling the managers have is that what they say is listened to, what they think will happen and get done in a team. They really feel like they have a lot of personal impact – on the riders, how the team operates – and it’s very collaborative in that regard. Personally, I think that is fun. It’s a lot more fun! And for me it was an absolute necessity because I’m not really particularly competent in any area of the sport itself. I just have to make that we make good decisions together. For me that’s more fun too.”

I’m curious about why you got involved. Obviously, people generally get into business because they want to make money. And a lot of people –seem to be keen on using an umbrella title and leveraging that to make the team a brand, rather than just a sponsor’s entity. Is the team making money?
“Nah. Every penny that comes into the team goes back into the team’s budget. I’m not taking anything out of here. The only thing I pay myself is my health insurance.”

Which begs the question: why would you do it?
“This started off as a fight! It was a fight to try and do something big in a sport that I believed was ready for change. I wanted to help grow this into a proper professional league and make it a sport that was relevant and compelling for peoples’ lifestyles.
“This can be part of a healthy lifestyle. This can be exciting and dramatic. It’s something that can become part of a better life for participants. That’s very unique about cycling.
“There are not too many sports that you can watch for nothing. There are no tickets, there’s no stadium. You can get a bike and go ride the course yourself. You can make yourself better by participating in the sport. And that’s why I really started. That’s what drew me in and what kept me in was the connection to athletes that I thought were working in the hardest sport. They weren’t getting a lot of respect or attention or support.
“I started in women’s cycling and that was actually the foundation of this connection with athletes. That’s as strong today as it was five years ago.
“When I first started working with Ina [Teutenberg], for example, that’s been five years now. Amber Neben was on the first team that I ever had a connection with and that was in 2002. That was the USA Cycling-managed T-Mobile women’s team. It was an all-American team focussed on the 2004 Olympics.
“So it started off with an affinity for athletes and, when T-Mobile asked me to take over the men’s program, it became kind of a mission to turn this thing around. And I pretty much dove into that fight and, realistically, underestimated what was going on. But we recovered pretty well from that.
“We basically nuked most of it, salvaged a few really good, competent people, and rebuilt the thing into a really international power-house of a team of young talent. I’m proud of that.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done on the governance of the sport. And so I guess the reason [I’m involved] is that I enjoy responding to a challenge.
“I really do not care about money. I never did in my career. I want to do stuff. I want to feel like I’m engaged in something that I care about, that I can have some impact in. There’s a chance to do this in cycling and we’re still in the middle of this fight. So I don’t want to pull off, or fuck around on guys-with-money things. It was never about that. I don’t care about that. I like my blue jeans. I like my tennis shoes. I like my 10-year-old car. I don’t care about all these other trappings. Those things are things that own you.
“I really enjoy seeing the personal success. That’s the sustaining element. That, and still trying to get this sport turned around.”

highroad-ride

Helge Riepenhof, Peter Velits and Alex Rasmussen at the training camp in California, December 2010.

“I really do not care about money. I never did in my career. I want to do stuff. I want to feel like I’m engaged in something that I care about, that I can have some impact in. There’s a chance to do this in cycling and we’re still in the middle of this fight. So I don’t want to pull off, or fuck around on guys-with-money things. It was never about that. I don’t care about that. I like my blue jeans. I like my tennis shoes. I like my 10-year-old car. I don’t care about all these other trappings. Those things are things that own you.
“I really enjoy seeing the personal success. That’s the sustaining element. That, and still trying to get this sport turned around.”

I think everyone who has been involved in cycling in the past 10 years can take a step back and take it all in and ponder if it’s really worthwhile. People may consider getting out for one reason or another… but they eventually come back. Have you ever thought, ‘This is a joke. I want to get out.’
“I think you ask yourself that all the time. We’ve been there for a lot of the dramas. Obviously the Telekom drama, and we were there when Cavendish won on the day [Riccardo] Riccò got dragged out of the Tour – we won that stage. We were there at the Tour of California, winning the race, when the Landis/Lance thing blew up. We’ve been there through all of that. We were there when ‘Vino’ got hauled off the Tour…
“We’ve been front and centre through all these controversies and we’ve put our heads down and tried to win. We tried to put the focus back on the positive elements of the sport: the beauty of it, the individual achievement. It’s a constant battle.
“I get shit about it from most of the people I know. Every public conversation I get drawn into is about doping and that gets really tiring.
“I think everybody goes through a period where they’re kinda going, ‘What the fuck!?’ And that’s why you hear me talk about individual success because that’s what is rewarding. It’s still rewarding to see Evelyn come out of nowhere and kick arse. It’s rewarding for me to see Ina – probably one of the best of all time – still plugging along. If she can win the world championships next year, or a gold medal in the Olympics, that’s awesome! That would be a lifetime achievement. There are still a lot of little things that keep me emotionally engaged but I do find the state of the sport very frustrating.
“We’ve got storm clouds all over the sport right now. We’ve got Contador and Armstrong… something is going to happen on both and right now I feel like I hope it’s Armageddon. Let’s use this crisis to really advance this sport.
“It’s going to happen. So we better figure out what we’re going to do to make sure we come out of this with a healthier, stronger sport. It’s not going to be easy but we’re still in that fight and it might not be easy to win but it’s possible.”

highroad-specialized

Tools of the trade... at the Specialized facility in Morgan Hill, December 2010.

We did some really basic things that really paid off. I see the constant ability for us to be new, better, fresh. There is a sea of things that can be done in this sport. And that’s kind of fun to do. It’s the small things, the elements that are controllable, the things we can do on our own that really keep me engaged. Cycling really came from personally doing it, appreciating the challenge and the difficulty. Being part of a healthy lifestyle was absolutely my entry into the sport. And I ultimately think those fundamentals are what’s going to save it.

Tell me your history with cycling.
“It’s kind of nuts. I played all the traditional American sports – football and baseball in particular. I had college scholarships in both which is kind of unusual for a little guy. I then moved into running and my knees were terrible. I was getting older and I was, physically, losing it. My kids are all very active and I didn’t want to get to the point where I couldn’t do stuff with my kids when they were young adults. That’s the best time I ever had with my father and I felt like I wanted to be able to do little adventures with them. Cycling was a natural fit.
“Some friends got me into it and the more I learned about it, the more I was captivated by it. What a rich history, you know? What a set of experiences that are outside the normal American routine, right?
“So, you see elements of that in this team. I love the fact that there are 20 different countries involved. I love that one person may think this and another things that. They might fight over it even, but that diversity of thinking is inherently interesting.
“I also saw that some part of the sport is stupidly backwards and I started believing that it wouldn’t be that hard to be better. We did some really basic things that really paid off. I see the constant ability for us to be new, better, fresh. There is a sea of things that can be done in this sport. And that’s kind of fun to do. It’s the small things, the elements that are controllable, the things we can do on our own that really keep me engaged. Cycling really came from personally doing it, appreciating the challenge and the difficulty. Being part of a healthy lifestyle was absolutely my entry into the sport. And I ultimately think those fundamentals are what’s going to save it.
“The participation element is really so unique. The real-world drama aspect is also unique; you just don’t see that level of suffering and drama and stunning competition in a sport that you see in a stadium with two players or two teams. This is organised chaos. And I think that’s interesting for people. If you tell it in a good way, you will hold their attention and there’s many ways to do that which this sport does nothing with.”

I’m curious about the cultural shift of cycling because you can visit France and everyone is always telling you it’s like cycling is huge in Europe. But my perception is that it has been dying a little in some of the traditional heartlands.
But then there’s this whole new wave of American and Australian and international tourists going to see it because they’ve been ensconced with the images they’ve seen on television, they want to be a part of it – they want to be the guy running along in a man-kini… what’s your perception, number one: of European cycling, is it dying? And number two: is the new love in once-antipodean cycling nations going to give cycling a new life?
“There’s new interest in cycling coming out of Australia, America, the UK and, not too long ago, Germany. And that is the strength of the sport right now. In the traditional legacy homes of cycling, there’s a lot of pressure from other sports – other media, things that are stealing away the younger audience. This is where we are at and the participation element that’s being carried in important. In the US there are something like 60 million people who ride their bike at least every other week. That’s a massive number.
“You’ve got about 10 million who are riding a lot and they’re a very attractive market. These are people riding over 50 times a year and they’ve very affluent and it’s a very attractive demographic. They happen to be decision makers in a lot of companies.”

Which is a complete reversal of what it’s been like in the traditional heartlands where it’s been a blue-collar sport…
“Now they are attractive consumers – both business to business, and at a direct-to-consumer level. So that’s part of why you see a growing interest and, again, it’s association because of doping or races 100 years ago. It’s really post-Lance and it’s healthy lifestyle. It’s about making yourself better. And it’s now got a social level that makes it really a lot like golf. Many people consider it the new golf and, in some areas it is. In hi-tech areas like California, Texas, Colorado – on both seaboards – cycling is on fire.
“And you can see that starting to happen in Britian. It might have been the success of Team GB, athletes like Wiggins and Cavendish – you can see it happening.
“It’s also a green method of transportation and so there’s an element to that area.
“Australia is a world power in cycling now and you can see it’s becoming part of the culture there. So I think this geographic expansion of the sport is really what’s saving it right now because I do think it’s probably at a historically weak level – including in France and even in Italy. They need new faces and new personalities, and in both cases you them trying to adapt events to make them more exciting. We saw Angelo Zomegnan, the director of the Giro d’Italia, just dialing it all up to make it a spectacle; I’m sure he’s soon going to give the riders swords and encourage them to fight.
“The sport really needs to adapt to hold and grow and audience in the traditional countries and it’s got a lot of potential still in areas where it has this participative element and a very attractive demographic.”

Do you see it ever happening that the Tour de France will be swallowed up by another event, like the Tour of California perhaps?
“No. I think they should be positioned so that they all succeed. I think the Giro, the Tour of California and, obviously, the Tour de France are the crown jewels of the sport. The Vuelta probably needs to get moved… but this is one part of what we’ve got to think about with regard to the sport: let’s present a really compelling calendar that is predictable, where events build on each other, where the competition can be easily followed by the fans. Every other sport builds up to a climax. Cycling should do that too. You should be able to follow the key riders and track their progress, how they rank internationally… and all these things are important elements from a fan and entertainment standpoint.
“You can bring technology right into the races. You can see it unfolding, but then there are things working against the beauty of what cycling has become.
“This banning of radio communication, it’s just so short sighted.
“Take what other sports have done, give the spectators a different point of view, put them right into the race – cameras on bikes, cameras on helmets… open the radios up.”

This is something I wanted to talk about. Number one, because I heard that – when you did the Chasing Legends movie – the riders had a camera on the saddle of his bike for the final stage of the Tour de France. Alas, it fell off before the last sprint when he led Cav to victory. What great footage it would have been.
I also heard that there might have been some issues with ASO because you were doing some camera work which may have been outside the parameters of the race. Having said all of that, I’m curious about what you did for Chasing Legends and because of what you did with that movie. It’s been over 20 years that we’ve had the live coverage of the Tour because of the in-air satellite transmission. But, more or less, the coverage hasn’t changed too much in that time. Why don’t you make it an obligation for a couple of riders in each team to carry cameras – even if it’s just for a highlights package.
Why don’t they do this? I’ve been encouraging debate on the topic with Andy Rihs, and Shimano and different organisations about the ability to integrate a camera on a stem or a seatpost… in terms of technology that exists, it’s possible. So why not included, F1 style, into the contract. Do you see that this can happen? And where do you, as a powerbroker in the sport, what do you do to try and make this happen?

“This is a pivotal issue. Let’s set aside who has got rights for what because part of the thing the sport has to do is intelligently reshuffle the rights and basically – from a team perspective – anything that’s on the bike or on the rider, there has to be discussion about. That is necessary and healthy for the sport. Setting that aside, what you’re saying is exactly right.
“The technology exists and gets better weekly on how to bring the audience into the race.”

Like what you did with SRM in 2010…
“Yeah, and that was baby stuff. It would be fantastic and it should be put on every rider in the race. There could be a camera mounted on every rider, telemetry on every rider. It weighs nothing and even if it’s a concern about the performance factor, it will be the same for everybody so that’s fair! But you’ve got to redistribute the rights so that the teams benefit from a part of that revenue stream value. Part of what needs to be done at the same time is stabilise the economics of the sport. You can do that, and produce a winner.
“Grow the pie, grow the market value. Grow the audience – for the sport – with a good cooperation and some open minded thinking. I would pound the table on this because it’s so obvious. And it’s such a fight! But the technology is there. You could create a stunning experience. You could open up the radios at key times of the race. There’s a lot of language and other issues but there are ways to manage that.”

We’ve seen it in Formula One, Bernie Eccclestone just writes it into the contract: ‘You have to have X, Y, Z cameras installed if you want to be part of the race.’ Surely ASO could start to leverage their influence to this degree…
“I’d like to see it be across the whole sport, where that’s the package. That’s what the viewer expects, that’s what they want to see.
“If you really want to make this sport exciting, you can do just that: put them right in the middle of the action. You can’t do it all the time, you probably don’t want to do it all the time, but you can certainly create an unforgettable experience for the viewer. This is such a perfect sport to do this with. There’s no physical contact or any other things that make it difficult in other sports. It’s one of the few things that can be done to make cycling really distinctive against other broadcast experiences.
“We’ve played around with it a lot. It’s so easy. It’s beautiful.
“You’re talking about a few hundred grams of equipment. Even all the delivery systems exist. So it’s realy just about making it happen.
“We were very careful in 2009 because we didn’t want ASO to shut us down.”

So you did it by stealth?
“Largely. They knew what we were doing and I think they were letting it go and we appreciate that. I mean, you have to experiment. This is what brought Google in, the idea that you could change the way people enjoyed the sport.
“Google wasn’t interested in little things. They want to do big things so if they can help change the way people do something – whether it’s searching for something or watching something – they have the capability. Here’s a sporting event that they can enhance. And it’s applicable to a lot of different things. That’s their longer-term interest but to hold the interest of a company like that, we really need to move fast.
“A little bit of cooperation from a few key partners like ASO, the UCI and some technology people, and this sport can be reborn from a media perspective.”

My take on it is that it goes back to these type-A personalities because, alas, everyone wants to keep their ideas to themselves until they can enact it themselves. Why don’t we try to enhance the experience? Let’s put it out there, publish this piece on RIDE Media and, if it comes from that, then we’ve helped increase the momentum.
“This isn’t type-A personality stuff. This is control. It’s all about control. People are snuffing out this innovation because they want to control it. Instead, you should immediately flip the card over and say, ‘We’re going to exploit it!’ Or, ‘We’re going to bring it all in.’ If half of it doesn’t work, then there’ll still be 50 per cent more things to do next year – we just crank it out.
“Maybe it’ll start with the teams. Somebody has to step up. You can’t do it over the objections of the teams. Then it’s just not going to happen.”

But there seems to be a lack of unity amongst the teams. Is that true?
“There’s more and more unity every day. Ultimately that’s one of my confidences. We looked around a few years ago and there weren’t a lot of likeminded teams – I see a lot now. It might be five or 10 this year, but how many will it be in 2012 or the year after? I think that’s one of the salvations of the sport. And it’s probably been the external pressure building: it’s been the global recession, it’s been the pressure on sponsors who are questioning if they want to be in a sport like this. That’s making everybody work better together, far beyond what they would have done a few years ago. I see that very clearly.”

– Rob Arnold (rob@ridemedia.com.au)

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