Going on the leaked plans received by cyclingnews.com it seems the mooted breakaway league is struggling to get an advantage. As you probably know, anyone can launch an attack, the hard part is making a breakaway last. It’s the same in business, launching a venture is easy but making it work is the hard part.
My eyes were first drawn to the numbers. Projections suggest that by putting in a total of €24 million this will have a value of €330 million in five years time. That’s a compound annual growth rate of 70%. Not 7%, 70%. By then the league could generate €85 million of profits too.
Returns like this look odd. Is the scheme so risky that a high reward is required, like holding a Greek bond only worse? Or is it that by controlling the supply of TV rights would give Rothschild a monopoly stranglehold on cycling’s cashflow, effectively a licence to print money? If this is so then teams look to be getting a poor deal, as the major investor Rothschild will claim all the returns just for stumping up the seed capital. Obviously this is what an investor is there for. But if these returns are real other investors will provide the money for less, giving the teams more control, a greater stake in the venture for the funding required.
But for all the talk of business and finance I think the sport’s biggest assets are its history, tradition and the existing calendar of major races that are build on these foundations.
The exact structure of the WSC racing calendar revolves around 40 days of racing in ten newly created four-day events, with six of them based outside of Europe…. …Each would be structured around a time trial, sprint stage, rolling stage and mountain stage.
Are there even 10 places in the world where you can have a mountain stage? Perhaps but this formulaic race design sounds a touch dull to me. I like the way the racing changes over the year, from one day races to stage races and the way the sport spreads around Europe with the seasons. The WSC plans include slots for the major classics and grand tours but these new events sound a lot like filler.
Who gains from the leak? It’s perhaps no coincidence that cyclingnews’s editor Daniel Benson visited the UCI yesterday and, lo, the leaked plans appeared online within hours. Curiously I’ve discovered the UCI’s subsidiary Global Cycling Promotions own the internet domain rights to WorldSeriesCycling.com.
If the UCI wanted to pour cold water on anyway breakaway plans then this leak is sluicing glacial water from the mountains around Aigle all over the project. In fact by the sounds of this, Pat McQuaid has rowed out to the middle of Lake Geneva, chained the PowerPoint presentation to a concrete block and thrown it overboard.
Dutch writer Benjo Maso covers the history of the sport in his “Sweat of Gods” book:
What has made bicycle road racing so unique has never been its actual history but always its mythical portrait. That is the reason, too, why it continues to renew itself today without losing its special character. In scarcely any other sport does tradition seem to play a more important role. But that tradition is by no means fixed. On the contrary, it is constantly being reinvented.
I think he sums things up well. You can create a new race overnight but there’s no guarantee it will work, you need some ingredients from the past. For example the ENECO Tour doesn’t grab attention whilst the Three Days of De Panne does. It’s why the Vattenfall Cyclassics in Germany is older than the Montepaschi Strade Bianche yet the Italian newcomer is loved, I think because it embraces a stunning finish and uses roads that resemble the cycling of yesteryear. A race’s reputation is dependent on its connection with history.
This isn’t to say everything is frozen in the past. As Maso points out, cycling constantly reinvents itself. The Tour of California is growing. And just as many historic races wither I’m sure you can try new races and new leagues. But you probably can’t start a breakaway unless you are in the company of ASO and RCS who own “assets” like the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Paris-Nice, the Giro d’Italia, Milan-Sanremo and Il Lombardia and more.
There’s much to be said for a new system and one that gives teams greater stability. Having franchises or licences that last for several years whilst revenues are shared improves financial security and ensures team owners can focus on running their squad instead of forever hunting sponsors for next year. But moving to a model that allows this without taking the big races looks flawed. Plus what is good for teams might not be good for riders. For example the UCI’s existing Pro Tour rules set out a range of rider protection such as minimum wages, contract length, insurance and vetting teams for financial stability, like posting a bank guarantee to cover wages. All these things need to be in place to ensure riders have protection, because what is good for the teams is not automatically beneficial for the riders. Similarly if the UCI seems unaccountable at times, a private business could be even more secretive.
Finally the cyclingnews.com piece is only a leaked summary of what is a pitch document designed to entice investors, it is not a full plan. The plans are a work-in-progress. The breakaway’s chances of success look slim right now but the harder those behind the scheme work, the greater its chances of working.
I’m very sympathetic to ideas that reform the calendar and shake up the sport. But just as any breakaway needs to contain the right mix of riders to work, this plan needs the big races.
Based on the crackling information over race radio, this breakaway league is going to be reeled in with ease by the UCI, thanks to some pace-making tempo from ASO and RCS. Unless the biggest races are included then I’ll struggle to get interested and any new league won’t be able to compete. A bike race is not like a boxing match or Formula 1 where you can put a ring anywhere or build a race track. Instead the choice of roads, the terrain and above all the history of the race all count for something. Indeed Jonathan Vaughters has said ASO believes “they could put on a race with amateur riders from France if necessary” because it is the race that creates the stories, not the riders.
Still, if this leaked plan looks very weak for now this could all change if ASO and others can be persuaded to come on board. Within no time the breakaway would pull out a lead and the UCI would be left behind.