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T-Mobile's Unlikely Cleanup Rider


In the insular world of pro cycling, Bob Stapleton stands out. For one thing, he's an American in a sport run primarily by Europeans. For another, the new chief of the T-Mobile (DT) racing team comes armed with an impressive r?sum? and an MBA from the University of California at Riverside--even if he doesn't yet have any Tour de France trophies.

Cycling, plagued by doping scandals and the defection of sponsors even as its popularity grows in the U.S., could use a dose of Management 101. And few teams need more help than the one sponsored by T-Mobile, whose star rider Jan Ullrich was accused of using performance-enhancing substances on the eve of last year's Tour de France. After the avalanche of bad publicity that followed, the company considered ending its 15-year sponsorship.

Instead, T-Mobile turned to Stapleton. The 48-year-old co-founder of Voice-Stream Wireless pocketed a fortune after T-Mobile's parent, Deutsche Telekom, bought his company six years ago for $50 billion. T-Mobile executives knew and trusted the Californian, who had served on the board of T-Mobile usa after the VoiceStream acquisition. And it didn't hurt that Stapleton was a cycling enthusiast who had been managing T-Mobile's lower-profile women's team. "Bob Stapleton represented a clean break from the 'old school' cycling mentality," says Hamid Akhavan, CEO of Bonn-based T-Mobile International.

Stapleton's plan for the T-Mobile riders, worked out during several months of 18-hour days before he officially took over the team in November, has all the earmarks of a classic corporate turnaround: Reposition the brand (as the cleanest team in pro sports). Find a competitive advantage (with training techniques new to cycling). Recruit fresh management (led by Sporting Director Rolf Aldag, a respected former cyclist). Build revenue (by attracting new sponsors).

RAISING EYEBROWS

A key part of the effort is the team's technology. Its bikes, custom-built by Taiwan-based Giant, are equipped with sensors that gather information on the riders' condition, which is then uploaded to a central database. The system lets coaches make better decisions about who should take the leading role in races, and is part of a culture change Stapleton is pushing on a team once dominated by a few stars. "Merit is the basis for advancement," Stapleton says. "If you're ready to go, you're going to get your chance in the race--not someone preordained six months earlier." And the team may be the only one in pro cycling where every member has mobile e-mail to stay in touch between races.

What has really raised eyebrows in the sporting world, though, is Stapleton's zero-tolerance policy toward doping. He has introduced a testing regime that goes way beyond what the rules require, including a new procedure that can detect minuscule fluctuations in blood volume and pinpoint previously invisible forms of doping. If Stapleton's cyclists can be competitive in the three-week, 2,200-mile Tour de France--one of the most grueling events in all of sports--it will prove that athletes of any kind can win clean. Stapleton's efforts "will rub off on a lot of other people," says Pat McQuaid, president of the Swiss-based International Cycling Union, which oversees the sport's ProTour.

MODEST RESULTS

Stapleton still has to prove that the high road is the fastest road. As he readily concedes, the T-Mobile squad lacks a top contender following the departure of Ullrich (who denies doping, but announced his retirement from the sport on Feb. 26). T-Mobile's best hope is 27-year-old Australian Michael Rogers, who finished 10th in last year's Tour. "There are many people who would say you can't win without drugs," says Stapleton. "I believe you can, but it's going to take time." The early results are modest: Rogers finished seventh in February's Tour of California, though Stapleton was heartened when Gerald Ciolek, a 20-year-old T-Mobile rookie, came within millimeters of a stage win.

To prove the doubters wrong, Stapleton dispatched the team to a seaside resort on the Spanish island of Mallorca in January. There, T-Mobile's riders were subjected to exquisite torture, such as piling into the hotel's uncomfortably cold pool, where they stood shivering in waist-deep water, singing Happy Birthday to a teammate. The point? After a hot day of racing, the riders should soak in a swimming pool or a cold bath to speed recovery time. Stapleton, watching from poolside, looked pleased. "The benefits are well proven," he said.

At the resort, riders also had to participate in early morning drills, led by fitness consultants from Tempe (Ariz.)-based Athletes' Performance. The idea is to develop muscles in the hips, torso, and shoulders that cyclists tend to neglect. The National Football League uses the same methods, but they are untested in pro cycling. There's even a team shrink, in line with Stapleton's belief that being mentally fit is key to victory in cycling. "Bob is trying to give riders everything they can use to win," says Aaron Olsen, a 29-year-old Oregon native who joined the men's team this year in part because he heard good things about Stapleton.

In the final analysis, winning is crucial to building revenue for the team. T-Mobile was once among the best-financed teams in cycling, but after Deutsche Telekom slashed the budget, it now operates on something north of $13 million a year, or just a little more than the average for pro cycling. Stapleton plans to boost revenue by selling more team merchandise such as jerseys, and in a bid to attract American sponsors, the team is entering four U.S. races this year. "My goal," says Stapleton, "is to build this into a major sports franchise."

By Jack Ewing


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