Posted by: mdegeorge | August 5, 2011

Ramifications of HTC reaching end of the Highroad

In what has been cycling’s most meaningful month in a great while, thanks to a dramatic end to an exciting Tour de France and the crowning of a clean and deserving champion in Cadel Evans, and a momentous time for American cycling with the announcement of the inaugural Colorado race as a destination for some of the sports glitterati, Thursday’s news provided an unwelcome shock.

In a move that has seemed inevitable for a while, the HTC-Highroad squad, the winningest squad in the professional peloton the last three years, announced its dissolution at the end of the year as a new sponsor has failed to materialize. General manager Bob Stapleton, who has been involved with the team through a variety of sponsors dating back to its T-Mobile days, announced the move in a statement Thursday after weeks of feverish attempts to secure a replacement.

“We decided the best thing to do was to release our athletes, staff and management to pursue other career options,” Stapleton said in a conference call. “It is in their best interest to go forward with their career options.”

Mark Renshaw and the rest of the HTC-Highroad team will be looking for new employers. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

The move isn’t surprising by any stretch of the imagination. But it is certainly a disheartening development, especially for the growth of the sport here in the States, the ramifications of which could dramatically alter the cycling landscape. After all, taking a team that has won countless numbers of races the world over the last few years and jettisoning them from existence will no doubt be felt throughout the cycling world. Among those affected are sprinter extraordinaire Mark Cavendish, young German Tony Martin, a premier time trialist and eventual Grand Tour General Classification hopeful and many other talented young riders.

The full impact of Thursday’s announcement may not be felt for many years, as so many of the riders affected are just entering their primes. But here are the first five most pertinent thoughts in the wake of this major shuffling.

What becomes of Mark Cavendish? There’s no doubt that the Manx missile is among the best sprinters in the peloton in any circumstances, as his 20 Tour de France stage wins and 30 total Grand Tour stage wins in the last four years attest. But so much of that ability to bludgeon the peloton into submission is based on the work of his team to control the group, curtail attacks, swallow up those that managed to get away and deliver a fresh Cavendish from the slipstream to the finish line. Cavendish is certainly great, but he no doubt benefitted from a team built with the sole intention of allowing him to get wins. He has not one, but arguably two of the best leadout men in the business in Matty Goss and Mark Renshaw, plus a fantastic pilot fish/cycling personal assistant in Bernhard Eisel whose only purpose in the Tour was to safely guide Cavendish through the rough spots. Tyler Farrar knows what happens when the HTC-Highroad leadout train breaks down: It provides the only window you’ll ever have to inch your wheel over the line before Cavendish’s. The Manxman is a mere 26 and has many great years ahead of him, so I wouldn’t shed a tear for him just yet. While he says he already has a team picked out for next season, he’ll be hard-pressed to find as able a supporting cast as he has now (unless he can convince someone to pick up a package deal).

Time to strike it big for USA cycling. While HTC rides with an American license, their ranks aren’t exactly draped in red, white and blue. Only four riders call the U.S. home: Tejay van Garderen, the most promising of the bunch who has already agreed to a deal with BMC Racing, domestique Danny Pate, Craig Lewis and Caleb Fairly. Lewis, 26, and Fairly, 24, are still young with plenty of upside, and Pate, 32, is a veteran of the European peloton who spent five seasons in the TIAA-CREF/Slipstream/Chipotle/Garmin pipeline. HTC also features a number of English-speaking riders and those with experience racing in the States, like Goss, the winner in Philadelphia in 2009. For the other three American teams – BMC, RadioShack and Garmin-Cervelo – now is the time for a talent grab. It’s especially important for RadioShack, who can replenish an aging roster with some young talent.

You too, GreenEDGE. The new team and first Australian entrant to the pro peloton is looking to make a splash. What bigger impact could there be than snatching up Cavendish, one of the biggest names in the sport? They’ve already struck out with Richie Porte, and Evans looks to be going nowhere, so Cavendish is a bigger and better name than other reputed main target Stuart O’Grady. If Cav doesn’t materialize for them, riders like Renshaw, Goss or blossoming star Leigh Howard are decent alternatives.

GC contenders blessing in disguise. There’s a downside to item number one, a disadvantage felt by the GC contenders on HTC once the road ticks upward and their support vanishes into the mountains’ mist. Martin is always regarded as a hope for future Grand Tour GCs, but there’s little chance he’d be able to mount such an assault under the HTC flag. The desire to be a big GC player probably played a role in van Garderen’s prompt search for BMC. Others like Peter and Martin Velits (who may find it crowded on the Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Frantisek Rabon, maybe even Kanstantsin Sivtsov have potential to be stage winners or integral riders for GC contenders, if not contenders themselves, in the future.

A flood of sprinters to the market. I’ve lamented the lack of first class sprinters in the field before. The disbanding of HTC might remedy that to an extent. Edvald Boasson Hagen and Andre Greipel realized a change was needed for them to reach their full potential, and the fact that they’re each producing wins elsewhere vindicates those choices. Renshaw, Goss and Hayden Roulston are capable of sprinting for themselves and competing in one-day classics. Young German John Degenkolb burst onto the scene this year with two stage wins in the Criterium du Dauphine and is one of the most sought after talents. If Cavendish fails to keeps his leadout train together, the market could be inundated by sprinters.

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