One of offshoots of the radio debate has been an idea that riders are now radio controlled, mere chess pieces to be manipulated by their manager. Indeed part of the desire from those wanting to scrap radios is to make the sport more reliant on individuals, to diminish the role of the team.
The rise of the team within cycling is one of the unmentioned themes in the sport. Here’s a quick sprint though the last 100 years…
In the early days of the sport riders rode as indépendants and touriste-routiers. Some attracted sponsorship from a bicycle manufacturer and in time others were also sponsored by the same manufacturer but despite riding under the same banner, the riders did not co-operate. Indeed even pacing a rider was banned until 1925.
Follow the money
National teams were common but unity was not. Rivalries on the team were common. Come the 1950s and we had the first commercial teams with St Raphaël and Nivea. The arrival of corporate sponsors outside of the bicycle trade meant more money but it also demanded more professionalism. By the 1960s these squads displaced the national squads, the Tour de France abandoning the format after 1969.
In time, every single team was a corporate venture but it took time to create a structure dedicated to winning. Come the 1970s and French riders were impressed by Italian teams “who ride in the service of a great leader”. The domestique was not new but accounts suggest talented riders were now giving up on their ambitions in service of a leader. A rider capable of the top-10 in a race was now helping a big leader and this brought more spoils to the team. It paid to help.
The team as a machine
Teams had long looked for technological improvements. But for me it was the Gitane team under Cyrille Guimard that really saw the first concerted approach to employ new technology and working methods. Low profile frames were used and Guimard spent a lot of time trying to get the best out of his riders.
Come the 1980s and we saw several “superteams”. Guimard’s Renault team dominated at times. Hinault and LeMond rode together at La Vie Clair and by 1990 the PDM team could start the Tour de France with four potential overall winners. It was PDM that broke other moulds, being the first to use a team bus.
Then during the 1990s we saw the ONCE team take organisation to a new level. Sadly this included a comprehensive doping programme but under Manolo Saiz a lot more was done, from designing bikes to targeting races. This structure was copied to some extent by US Postal, the blue livery now makes up part of the imagery Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France wins, the Texan sitting tight behind several other riders. Indeed you had grand tour contenders in Landis, Heras, Hamilton, Leipheimer and others in service of the team’s goals.
Today we see the team as a very effective unit. It’s very hard to imagine a champion from yesteryear in today’s sport. Could Fausto Coppi or Eddy Merckx launch long range attacks in today’s sport given the capability of some teams to lay on a big chase?
Is the bid to scrap radios a means to rebalance the sport in favour of the individual? Perhaps and this could be why some team managers, in possession of well-oiled winning machines, fear the atomisation of the peloton, a chaotic swarm of riders instead of trains, pacelines and bodyguards?
What strikes me today is the visual change. In the picture at the top of the page Fausto Coppi appears very self-sufficient and you can see his face in full. Yes he appears alone in the shot but note the tub on his shoulders and the saddlebag. He’s clearly out there for himself and the photo evokes images of heroism and courage. Contrast that with a picture from the Volta a Catalunya yesterday. Not to single the rider out, it’s an everyday image. But note the helmet and sunglasses obscure facial expressions, the earpiece makes it appear the rider’s waiting for fresh commands. It does feel like the balance has changed from rugged individual to team sport.
Does it matter?
Nostalgia is like quicksand. Wallow in it for a moment and you’re trapped. It’s false to say racing was somehow great in the past and dull today. Anyone who watched Milan-Sanremo last Saturday will know this. There was a good piece on Podium Café earlier this week where the author reminded us that in times past writers “overcame the boredom inherent in the sport by editing out all the dull bits and concentrating on the exciting bits“, indeed they actually made things up. They could romanticise and dramatise to the point where the account probably lost all touch with reality. Not that they always did, in 1968 journalists went on strike mid-race in protest at the demands from race organisers to liven up their reports.
So perhaps the team is a force today that it was not in the golden age of make-believe race reports? Perhaps we are watching a sport which can never bring constant excitement and that hours of TV coverage simply can’t always be compelling. But with the GP E3, Gent-Wevelgem, the Criterium International, the Tour de Normandie, the Coppi e Bartali and the Volta Catalunya all taking place this weekend there’s surely plenty of excitement to come?
Either way, the notion of cycling as an individual sport conducted via teams is an evolving concept that has changed over the years and it’ll be interesting to see where things go as different forces try to shape the sport, from corporate sponsorship to TV ratings and many more pressures.