Can a U.S. mobile-phone entrepreneur clean up professional cycling? And, given that he's wealthy enough not to work at all, why would he want the grief? "It definitely seems like a contrarian move," concedes Bob Stapleton, co-founder of VoiceStream Wireless, known as T-Mobile USA since it was acquired by Deutsche Telekom (DT) in 2000.
Stapleton, 48, who became a multimillionaire when he sold his stake in VoiceStream, has temporarily forsaken his home in California for the banks of the Rhine to manage the scandal-ridden T-Mobile professional cycling team. It's no cushy retirement job. On the eve of the Tour de France in July, T-Mobile star rider Jan Ullrich, a Tour favorite, was forced off the team after being implicated in a doping investigation that has also embroiled dozens of riders from several teams.
In fact, T-Mobile, once the best team in the pack, seriously considered pulling out of pro cycling, which has become emblematic of the doping epidemic afflicting professional sports in general. Instead, the company brought in Stapleton, a cycling enthusiast who for the last year has managed T-Mobile's relatively obscure women's cycling team.
Looking relaxed, but serious, as he chatted with a few reporters after a press conference at T-Mobile headquarters in Bonn on Sept. 27, Stapleton said he relishes the opportunity to try to rebuild the battered squad. He kept repeating one of the few German words he has learned so far: Mannschaft, or team. "I think we can achieve something here,"Stapleton said.
In a measure of how much the drug issue has come to dominate pro sports, Stapleton appeared at the press conference not with any riders or even a bicycle, but with a pair of doctors. They're part of his program to make sure T-Mobile's 27 riders win races without chemical help. It's the toughest anti-doping regime in cycling, if not the entire sporting world. "We're leading the pack," Stapleton said.
From now on, T-Mobile riders must submit to regular testing far exceeding that required by the sport's governing bodies. One test, so new it's not even used yet by anti-doping enforcers, allows doctors to monitor riders' blood volume and detect whether any are injecting themselves with their own, stored blood—one of the methods athletes use to increase endurance.
In another novel measure, T-Mobile riders must sign contracts agreeing to pay back previous earnings if they are found doping. Previously, riders caught doping could still enjoy the millions they already had in the bank.
Can a clean team win? Stapleton and Rolf Aldag—a former T-Mobile rider with a reputation for being clean, who is the team's new sporting director—have recruited a mix of promising young riders such as 20-year-old German Gerald Ciolek and veteran 34-year-old Belgian Axel Merckx. But the 27-man squad includes no cycling superstars in the mold of Ullrich, a former Tour winner, who denies the accusations he has used performance-enhancing substances.
Stapleton and Aldag say the team is capable of winning Spring Classics, the one-day races held in northern Europe early in the season. And they'll go for attention-getting breakaways during the big stage races. But a Tour de France win is not likely in 2007. "This is a very unrealistic goal for us," Stapleton said.
To make his job even more difficult, T-Mobile imposed a substantial cut in the team's budget. T-Mobile doesn't disclose the size of its cycling outlay, except to say that it's in the double-digit millions. But Stapleton estimates his war chest is 40% smaller than competitor Astana, a team backed by a group of companies from the oil-rich state of Kazakhstan. The U.S. based Discovery Channel, Lance Armstrong's team, has also competed aggressively for riders, Stapleton said.
To win, Stapleton is betting that he and Aldag can bring superior teamwork and organization to the sport. Individual riders rarely win without support from teammates who ride ahead, blocking the wind during the early part of the race and fetching fresh bottles of water and energy bars from the team car. But for much of the off-season, riders go their own way, typically training with personal coaches of sometimes-dubious reputation.
That's no longer the case at T-Mobile. Stapleton and Aldag plan to impose a coordinated training plan on their riders, beginning in October when they will meet in Italy for a team-building session. The riders can still work with personal trainers, but only from a list approved by team management.
A FRESH START?
For now, Stapleton says his goal is simply to fashion a team that will reflect positively on T-Mobile, which is the whole point of sponsorship. But he also sees a chance to change the culture of pro cycling. A new generation of cyclists is entering the sport as veterans retire, or in some cases are forced out by doping charges.
There is also likely to be turnover in sponsors, as companies such as Swiss hearing-aid maker Phonak pull out because of the scandals. That presents an opportunity for new sponsors to push cycling's governing bodies and race organizers to do more to root out doping. "The economic forces need to exert muscle," Stapleton said.