The strange story of the ill-fated Geox-TMC squad adds another bizarre chapter.
Team manager Mauro Gianetti and Josean Fernández Matxin have apparently found a last-minute sponsor in the Venezuelan Tourism Board. According to news reports, the deal is only waiting for the signature of president Hugo Chavez.
However, there now appears to be a second bid for the Venezuelan sponsor. HTC-Highroad CEO Bob Stapleton is believed to have flown to Caracas to meet with tourism officials about resurrecting the HTC-Highroad men’s team.
Gianetti was understandably upset about this latest development. “I cannot accept this and I will not allow this to happen,” said an angry Gianetti. “We work for a month, pouring our heart and soul into saving this team and now Stapleton attempts to steal our sponsor. It’s an outrage.”
Calls to Mr. Stapleton’s office went unreturned but a spokesman for the Highroad holding company issued the following statement. “Mr. Stapleton is on vacation in South America. Any statements regarding his involvement in the formation of a new men’s professional cycling team would be pure speculation.”
Fueling the rumors that Stapleton may have stolen Gianetti’s sponsor is the subsequent news that he has scheduled a press conference for Thursday at 1pm, PST in Los Angeles.
If there are in fact two suitors courting Venezuela, it will prove a difficult decision. The men’s HTC-Highroad squad was the number one ranked team in the world but has formally ceased operation and all riders have since signed with other teams. However, Stapleton has proved highly adept at building a strong operation that consistently delivers wins.
On the other hand, while Gianetti has lost several riders in the last month, he still has the services of recent Vuelta winner Juan Jose Cobo, David de la Fuente and perhaps even Denis Menchov who has yet to leave the squad despite the rumors.
Brian Holm, one of the director sportifs at HTC-Highroad believes Stapleton would have the upper hand in negotiations. “Once he decides on a goal, nothing gets in his way,” said Holm. “Gianetti and Matxin have worked very hard but Bob is an extremely good salesman.”
Gianetti isn’t ready to give up his plans despite the arrival of Stapleton. “His team is dead, he has no riders so there is nothing for him to offer. I don’t understand what he’s trying to do but he will not stand in our way,” said Gianetti. “We have assurances from the sports minister that our program will proceed without disturbance.”
At this point, the UCI has refused comment of the latest, bizarre developments. “When the appropriate documentation is submitted and the required financial guarantees in place, then we will proceed with the application,” said Rolf Dagstrum of the UCI licensing board. “We have tried to be flexible but deadlines must be met.”
Gianetti may also be hedging his bets and widening his list of options. As reported in Cyclismas, the Geox manager has also contacted the tourism bureaus of Iran and Libya in addition to Venezuela. “We have left no stone unturned,” said Matxin. “This is a dream, one that we must pursue to the very end, with energy and hope. I have no doubt we will succeed.”
Still, the question for Gianetti remains: will “Venezuela País de Sueño” –the “country of dreams” — turn out to be a nightmare?