“I really view cycling as a team sport… …that in order for their to be a sustainable business model behind cycling you need to have people identify with the team and not the individuals… …if we want the sport to be successful you have got to generate long term loyalty to organisations and not individual athletes”
Those are the words of Jonathan Vaughters, team owner of Garmin-Cervélo in a recent interview with podcasters The Flammecast, explaining his vision for pro cycling as a team sport in the years to come. But glance at the results and it is very much an individual sport, for example the records show Johan Van Summeren won Paris-Roubaix this year. So is cycling a team sport or one of individuals?
The simple answer is that it is an individual sport conducted with teams. But it gets more complicated than that, particularly if we look at the history of the sport and where things might be heading at the moment.
Taking the history of the sport, individuals names stand out from the past but in the early days of the Tour de France it was common for bicycle manufacturers to employ a team of pace-makers to help their star rider win. Some manufacturers even retained riders just to sit them at home instead of seeing them join an opposing squad. We might see names like Maurice Garin and Lucien Petit-Breton in the results but these achievements were partly the product of decisions by the Alcyon and Peugeot teams.
Fast forward to today and the situation isn’t all that different. Aside from the odd exception, bike manufacturers no longer own the teams but we still see teams built around leaders. In recent times we’ve even seen some teams sign a rider because he’s too good to leave to the rivals, for example US Postal signed Spaniard Roberto Heras for 2002. Team work isn’t always necessary or sufficient to win but it helps, any individual looking to succeed will find it much easier with help. Even Philippe Gilbert’s impressive wins this year were in part thanks to loyal service of his team mates.
For me, I can understand Vaughters’ position. It certainly takes a team to win, whether it’s the nine riders on the road or all the support staff that make it happen. And if you own a team licence then you certainly view it from the team perspective. In fact is this not the classic talk of most employers? Find me the Human Resources professional who celebrates individuality and frowns on teamwork.
But this isn’t to debate Jon Vaughters views alone, more the concept of long term team franchises and the idea of teams trumping individuals when it comes to who you support. Vaughters is articulating the ideas here but others are supportive. I can see the arguments in favour of long term team franchises, it brings a certain stability into the sport but one person’s security is another’s inertia. For every embedded squad sitting on a ten year licence you exclude an upstart team, tomorrow’s Slipstream or Sky could be locked out.
Besides we already support teams a little. You might have a favourite team already and maybe a team you don’t like too. I have teams that I prefer and some I’m wary of, to use an example I’d be disappointed to see Philippe Gilbert sign for Astana. But what I really root for is the excitement of the sport: it is not about a single rider nor a team, it is the sport and drama that grips me.
What makes racing exciting?
Above all I’d be concerned if we begin to focus too much on the team. It would mark a very big shift in the sport, the overturning of a century of tradition. We risk losing the very attraction of the sport, namely the human struggle to cross the line first and the gripping TV images of riders duelling, the highlights of a race are often when the bunch has been whittled down to a few contenders thanks to a series of mountain passes or the pounding of cobbles.
When we hear of the “greatest individual sporting rivalry the world has ever seen“, according to John Foot, a professor of Modern Italian History in London and author of “Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling” we are talking about Coppi and Bartali. Nobody mentions Bianchi and Legnano, the rival teams. Similarly the most memorable rides over the years are often when the lone rider beats the odds to claim a big win, whether it’s Hugo Koblet’s Brive-Agen exploit in 1951, Marco Pantani’s 1998 ride to Les Deux Alpes or even the frequent occasions when Thomas Voeckler gets the jump on his rivals.
“we don’t race to win, we race to make our rivals lose”
– Moreno Argentin, four time winner of Liège–Bastogne–Liège and 1986 World Champion
But if these lone wins and individual heroism are brilliant, if I was running a team then I’d play it very differently. I’d work with the odds and probabilities, I’d stamp on risk and squash uncertainty. I’d forbid self-expression during a race, panache would be a dirty word because it rhymes with failure more often than it delivers wins. Give me riders with a metronome for a brain over the likes of Gilbert, Voeckler, Hoogerland and other energy-wasting creatures. I’d create a well-drilled team capable of delivering regular wins. It would be boring to watch but that’s your problem.
One reason why the 2010 Giro d’Italia was a vintage edition was because no team could control it, no squad was able to lock down the race. We had an ever-changing battle between Basso, Evans, Porte, Vinokourov, Arroyo and others. For me the sight of a full team driving the pace over a mountain pass is boring… but the team owner is probably delighted with the control.
Strong teams don’t like risk, whether it’s the uncertainty of planning sponsorship deals or being caught out mid-race by crosswinds. But what a team owner fears can often be the very basis of excitement, innovation and drama in the sport. We should remember too that sponsors come to the sport because of the media exposure they get in return, especially in the Tour de France. During July the peak viewing figures are during a mountain stage, precisely when the race shrinks down to a few contenders.
At times its both a team sport and an individual one. History suggest the teams operates behind the scenes and influence results more than we might think, or at least more than we remember once memories of the race fade a bit. Certainly public celebrates individual heroism, the imagery of the sport is closely linked with individuals and rivalries and since the beginning of the sport teams recoup large publicity gains from this association. But I struggle to imagine the sport, and above the viewing public, embracing the primacy of teams over riders.