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The team of winners: HTC-Columbia

In-depth
8 Apr 2020
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On 17th October 2011, High Road Sports uploaded its penultimate post on Facebook. Under the headline ‘Neben and Martin win final two races for HTC-Highroad’, the post detailed the successes of Amber Neben and Tony Martin in the Chrono des Nations that had been held the day before.

‘Both the men and the women won their first race of the season in January and now they have both won the last race,’ team owner Bob Stapleton said. ‘It’s testament to the attitude of all of our staff and riders over the years and I’m very proud of their success.’

And what success that was. ‘HTC-Highroad finishes the season with 121 victories and 513 wins since 2008,’ concluded the post.

The journey to that remarkable haul started in September 2004, when Stapleton formed High Road Sports. Two years later he took the reins at the scandal-hit T-Mobile team and, when Deutsche Telekom withdrew a year later in a bid to distance its brand from cycling’s doping problems, Stapleton, whose company now held the ProTour licence, established a team from T-Mobile’s ashes.

‘We basically nuked most of it, salvaged a few really good, competent people, and rebuilt the thing into a really international powerhouse of young talent,’ the American reflected in 2011.

Team High Road started its first ProTour race at the Tour Down Under on 22nd January 2008 and didn’t have to wait long to taste success.

André Greipel had already claimed the Tour Down Under’s opening (non-ProTour rated) criterium, and two days later he recorded High Road’s first ProTour victory. In Hahndorf, a city with German heritage, Greipel burst through the bunch to claim the stage on the line.

‘I’m proud of the team,’ he said afterwards. ‘We began training from November so we could be good at the Tour Down Under and win races.’ The hard work paid off handsomely – Greipel would end the week with four stage wins and the overall title to his name.

Cav crashes onto the scene

Three months after Greipel’s win in Hahndorf the outfit bagged its first major Classic – Kim Kirchen winning La Flèche Wallonne in the rain on the murderous Mur de Huy – but it was a young British sprinter who helped establish the team as a real force at the very biggest races.

Mark Cavendish had ridden his first full pro season the previous year with T-Mobile, picking up a number of wins. In April 2008, now wearing the Highroad jersey, he won the Scheldeprijs for the second year in succession.

The final few kilometres had been dominated by QuickStep, working to deliver Tom Boonen to the line. And he was in prime position, with Cavendish seemingly too far back, but then the Brit closed in and deployed the double kick of acceleration that became his trademark.

As Boonen raised his arms in celebration Cavendish lunged for the line and nicked the win. The Briton later likened his sprint through the bunch to ‘dodging traffic islands’.

Cavendish went on to secure two stage wins at the Giro d’Italia and four stages at the Tour de France that year. The 2008 Tour was the first under the Team Columbia name – the new title sponsor having just come on board – and while Kirchen wore the green jersey early on, it was during the fifth stage that the team offered a masterclass on how to lead out a sprinter.

With 4km to go and a three-rider escape 20 seconds up the road, Columbia had the entire team at the head of the peloton working to deliver Cavendish to the finish.

French National Champion Nicolas Vogondy attacked his fellow escapees in the final kilometre in a last-gasp bid for victory after more than 200km out front, but to no avail. His attack was snuffed out and Cavendish won by more than a bike length.

‘When you have a team like I have, it’s impossible not to win,’ said a somewhat modest Cavendish afterwards.

Cav was undisputedly the team’s star rider. He claimed 20 Tour stage wins (including three in a row on the Champs-Élysées, perhaps the most notable being in 2010 when the side-on camera view showed Cavendish blasting past his rivals like he had jet-propelled pedals), the green jersey and victory at Milan-San Remo. In his book, Boy Racer, Cavendish describes the sprint in San Remo as ‘the best 10 seconds of my life’. But he wasn’t the only winner on board.

Other standout results include Michael Rogers winning the Tour of California in 2010, Matt Goss claiming Milan-San Remo in 2011 and Tony Martin winning Paris-Nice in 2011.

For Stapleton, one of the most satisfying performances came at the Giro in 2009 when they took the race-opening team time-trial by six seconds. The result put Cavendish in pink, making him the first Brit to wear the jersey.

‘This is probably the biggest win we’ve ever taken,’ Stapleton said. ‘A team time-trial is all about working well together as a unit.’

The women’s team enjoyed success too, with Judith Arndt and Ina Teutenberg among those to secure notable results by winning the Tour of Flanders in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

Thank you and good night

The Columbia/Highroad adventure ended at the end of the 2011 season. Stapleton had spent much of the second half of the season trying to secure sponsorship, but ultimately he failed.

‘What ended Highroad was the need to raise not €10 or €15 million but €30 or €35 million to remain competitive and to try to do it in an environment where people, if they would talk to you, were still deeply concerned about doping,’ Stapleton told The Cycling Podcast in 2016. ‘Anyone looking to spend big money had a lot of other places to put it where they didn’t take any risks.’

This jersey is part of Paul Van Bommel’s collection of memorabilia, on display at the Bike Experience Centre in Boom, Belgium. Go to deschorre.be/develodroom.html