Commentary

Stapleton, and his money, at forefront of anti-doping reform movement

Updated: November 28, 2007, 11:49 AM ET
By Bonnie D. Ford | Special to ESPN.com

You could see this coming for months, ever since T-Mobile general manager Bob Stapleton stepped from the team van onto a griddle-hot parking lot in Marseilles to face reporters' questions about a positive doping test that was announced in the middle of the Tour de France last July.

Stapleton had tried to exorcise T-Mobile's past by purging some of the toxic personalities from the venerable bike team's management structure and implementing a rigorous independent testing program designed to discourage and root out cheaters.

But like the family in "Poltergeist," he underestimated how difficult it would be to live in a house over a graveyard. The dead never stopped rising and the confessions and indictments of former team riders and staff continued relentlessly. Bad energy kept hurling objects around the room.

[+] EnlargeBob Stapleton
Jean-Christophe Verhaegen/Getty ImagesWithout T-Mobile's help, Bob Stapleton will now use some of his own money to try and save his cycling team.

When T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz crashed out of the Tour and then admitted he'd dosed himself with synthetic testosterone during a pre-race training camp, it whipped the storm winds into a typhoon that could have no other outcome but this one. The distinctive magenta jerseys have been blown right out of the peloton.

T-Mobile and its parent company, Deutsche Telekom, are out of cycling after 16 years, ending the longest-standing corporate association in the sport. Their evacuation leaves two wealthy Americans as majority owners of teams at the forefront of anti-doping reform: Stapleton, who helped found Voicestream Wireless, and Doug Ellis, the New York financier who owns Boulder, Colo.-based Slipstream/Chipotle.

This isn't necessarily the business model cycling wants, but it may be a prototype the sport needs right now. If we take Stapleton and Ellis' intentions at face value, and they've given us no reason not to, they have the freedom to run their teams ethically instead of being slaves to an investment-results ratio.

Even guys with a lot of disposable income don't want to lose money forever, and most successful businessmen like to win. Both Ellis and Stapleton have made it clear that they view themselves as caretakers, transitional figures who can help wean the sport from its self-destructive addictions and send it into a healthier future. The alternative is to preside over its funeral.

"I hate to say adapt or die, but the sport is going to have to evolve this year [2008] or many more sponsors are going to leave," Stapleton told a small group of reporters on a conference call Tuesday. "Those cards are on the table."

The two men are working with very different material as they try to nurture clean teams and attract new corporate sponsorship.

Ellis bought into Slipstream director Jonathan Vaughters' vision, built slowly and methodically, starting with a low-budget, U.S.-based developmental team. Although Slipstream will almost certainly compete in the Grand Tours and other significant races next year, the team remains registered in the second tier of international competition, the so-called Pro Continental level.

More to the point, Slipstream has yet to face scandal or betrayal. Stapleton, on the other hand, inherited one of the most entrenched Pro Tour teams, a formerly beloved behemoth with a long résumé of success, however suspect, and a deep history of secrets -- a sort of twisted, inbred royal family.

Now he's facing the task of replenishing as much as he can of T-Mobile's $12 million annual investment, out of his own wallet and those of other "well-intentioned investors," as he put it.

Stapleton, whose management company is aptly and ironically called High Road, said he bears no grudge against his former corporate colleagues. He pointed out that Deutsche Telekom is partially owned by the German government, bringing unique pressure to bear on the sponsorship deal.

The Sinkewitz affair led German public television networks to pull the plug on Tour coverage, and as the local media turned on the team in wholesale fashion this year, the negative coverage added up to "fifty times, a hundred times [bigger than] Barry Bonds," Stapleton said.

"For a lot of good reasons, they're saying enough is enough," he said of T-Mobile. Stapleton sounded almost relieved at the prospect of what he called "a clean break," and said his regrets have more to do with the actions of others than his own.

"I had hoped there would be more change faster," he said. "That's the consistent place I find myself. There needs to be a uniform level of testing across the sport. I'm disappointed, and to some extent angry, that that hasn't happened yet."

He outlined the team's new system of internal blood and urine profiling, although he's not ready to name the entity that will conduct the testing. Yet almost in the same breath, Stapleton said team-by-team solutions aren't the answer and decried the institutional fractiousness that he said undermines reform efforts.

"Doping is the edge of the knife, but it's lack of unity that has caused so little progress," Stapleton said. In the end, he thinks solving that will take a big infusion of new money and possibly an entirely new structure for international cycling.

In the short term, Stapleton said he's prepared to bankroll the team for at least one and probably two more years, probably with a somewhat reduced racing calendar and a more frugal approach altogether. He expects some other secondary sponsors to drop the team and others to stick around, forming the financial "patchwork quilt" that Ellis credits for keeping Slipstream afloat.

Although several veteran riders will compete for High Road, including recently signed U.S. veteran George Hincapie, the team has a critical mass of riders young enough to be Stapleton's children, as he sentimentally noted. "It makes a difference to me when they succeed," he said.

Cycling's stock is certainly at a low point right now, which is when you're supposed to buy in. Yet neither sentiment, morality nor economic sagacity fully explain why Stapleton is willing to put himself on the line in this dysfunctional world where so many others have been chewed up.

It's a dangerous job, and no one is obligated to do it. "I have a few arrows in my back, but that's not unusual in business," Stapleton said.

In the absence of a strong riders' union devoted to its members' health, or strong, non-ego-driven organizational leadership, idealists like Stapleton and Ellis may be the last line of defense for athletes who just want to make a living.

Next season could tell us a lot about how long they can hold that hill.

Bonnie D. Ford is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

Bonnie D. Ford

Enterprise and Olympic Sports
Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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