Flanders Classics, the company behind the Flemish races

Monday, 2 April 2012

You might have heard of Amaury Sport Organisation, the company behind the Tour de France. Maybe you know RCS , the Italian company behind the Giro d’Italia too. But what about Flanders Classics, the company behind several of the Belgian classics? Here’s a look.

ASO and RCS are century old media companies with their own daily sports paper, L’Equipe and the Gazzetta Dello Sport respectively as well as several other activities across the sports and media sectors. By contrast Flanders Classics is dedicated solely to cycle sport, although it has connections to the media in other ways which will be explained.

Flanders Classics runs the Tour of Flanders and five other races: the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Gent-Wevelgem, the Scheldeprijs and the Brabantse Pijl. It was in 2010 that the company acquired these races but first let’s go further back in time.

Five years ago there was talk of a breakaway cycling project with financial backers trying to create a fixed series of races, some whispered it was going to be run on the basis of Formula 1, with a corporate entity gaining tight control of the sport. Here’s the Wall Street Journal in 2009:

In July 2007, Messrs. Armstrong and Stapleton [inrng: Lance Armstrong and business partner Bill Stapleton] entertained another prospective plan to reorganize cycling from Wouter Vandenhaute, a Belgian television executive and former sportscaster, who has a plan he calls the “World Tour.” At the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, Mr. Vandenhaute proposed a series of races with the Tour de France as the de facto Super Bowl of the season. Mr. Vandenhaute was talking with Luxembourg-based private-equity firm CVC Capital Partners.

As we see, the idea of shaking up the format and ownership of the sport is not new. Note the “World Tour” label created by Wouter Vandenhaute.

Wouter Vandenhaute

Vandenhaute wants to clean up

Fast forward
Today Wouter Vandenhaute is the man behind Flanders Classics. He started his career as a sports journalist in the 1980s before moving to more general writing and by the 1990s he switched to television production, founding a production company called Woestijnvis (“Desert Fish”) in 1997 that specialised in Flemish reality TV shows. He pooled his investment in Woestijnvis with others to take over VT4 and VijfTV, two local TV channels.

Vandenhaute also owns a restaurant outside Brussels called Couvert Couvert which recently won its first Michelin star. As well as a successful entrepreneur, Vandenhaute is also a cyclist. Close to Eddy Merckx, he’s raced and toured and is known to spend his summers riding in the Alps. He even goes on the odd ride with the likes of Philippe Gilbert.

The passion for cycling and the entrepreneurial spirit meet in Flanders Classics. Take the decision to change the Tour of Flanders route, bringing it to Oudenaarde and dumping the Kapelmuur climb in Geraardsbergen from the route. If you can smell money here, you are right:

  • Once because Oudenaarde is paying plenty for the privilege.
  • Twice because the circuit allows for profitable beer tents hangars.
  • Three times because the large VIP beer tent in Geraardsbergen last year was run independently of the race organisers
  • Four times because TV production prefers the fixed circuit.
  • And possibly more if he can pull off the shock tactic of ticket sales to roadside fans for the Kwaremont-Paterberg combo in the future.

21st century sport
You can see the takeover as a way to grab a monopoly over the prime assets of Belgian cycling but there’s an obvious need for a shake-up, to drag the sport into the 21st century. Take the internet and social media. Now a blogger might say this but many races struggle with small things like a functional website – the Tour de France website is dated –  yet Flanders Classics offers an app for your smartphone. Little details like this expand the reach of an event for almost no cost and should be elementary for a large public event but most of the sport hasn’t realised this yet.

No overall control
Vandenhaute might have taken control of some of the biggest races in Belgium cycling but he doesn’t control everything. For starters in the French speaking half of Belgium both Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Flèche Wallonne race are owned by ASO and the French company has added the “World Ports Classic” later this year. The organisers of Flemish races like the E3 Harelbeke and the Three Days of De Panne are apparently wary of Vandenhaute and the E3 organiser Bart Ottevaere alleges Belgian TV chopped 30 minutes of airtime from his race under pressure to please Vandenhaute. Vélo Magazine’s Philippe Le Gars has written that the UCI awarded the E3 Harelbeke World Tour status as a way of counter-balancing Vandenhaute and his ambitions.

The ambitions are to promote the business side of the sport. Dropping the Kapelmuur (part of a selective trilogy with the Tenbosse and Bosberg) from the Tour of Flanders symbolises this. Out goes the iconic climb in this most historic race, largely so his company can sell VIP packages. But the decisions are not taken lightly, in an interview with La Libre, he explains a range of marketing experts and ex-pros were asked about the route changes.

The future?
A sports journalist in the past, a cyclist, once voted as “Belgium’s top manager”, a reality TV producer, restaurateur, entrepreneur, mini media magnate, Wouter Vandenhaute hasn’t bought six of Flemish cycling’s top races just to sit back. Cycling is “2% of my business” he told Vélo Magazine. Adept at making the other 98% very successful, at least on the whole, it’ll be interesting to see where he takes Flemish racing next and if he is involved in broader plans to reshape the sport in the months and years to come.

fat pat April 2, 2012 at 11:57 am

bring back the kapelmuur wouter!

Patrick April 2, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Ladies and gentlemen, the Belgian Bernie Ecclestone…

Mike April 2, 2012 at 12:17 pm

His hospitality/VIP “village” at the top of the Kwaremont was just like something out of F1.

jkeltgv April 2, 2012 at 12:19 pm

once again inrng goes behind the scenes and gets the real stories of cycling that the mainstream chummy media outlets ignore out of commercial interests or just incompetence. If this is the basis of his/her “hidden” identity long may he/she continue to be unknown.

rode_ridder_ April 2, 2012 at 12:30 pm

I was there yesterday on the Kwaremont in a VIPtent.
I was a super day with a super winner. People complained a lot about Kwaremont being for VIPS only. But in truth of the more than 2km uphill Kwaremont only 300meters or so was reserved for the VIPS.
All the rest was free for the public. Moreover at my tent we where somewhat higher than the street. Hence the street side was again free for public where I chose to stand.
So for me the combination of commercialisation and free entrance for public was more than OK.
If this is the compensation for not letting the race go bankrupt, I am more than willing.

The 3x loop Kwaremont/Paterberg is good but I would cut it back to 3x Kwaremont. I believe this would make space free for other climbs and further away.

Cyclebilly April 2, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Eh, it is too bad to lose the Muur and the Bosberg, but I support any ambitious business type who wants to bring cycling into the new era. And we all know innovation is driven by profit, and in cycling there are limited ways to beat the margin (TV, VIP, sponsorship, extortion from teams). The last thing we need is another stuffy, archaic organization like ASO or the UCI running things. So if sacrificing the Muur and Bosberg means, for example, the funding of a reliable (and free) webcast for American viewers, I think it’s a great trade off.

Rooie April 2, 2012 at 2:13 pm

First question that pops into my mind: “What if RCS, ASO and Flanders Classics form a break-away league themselves?”

Second question: “What if the teams can find the equity to buy RCS, ASO and/or Flanders Classics?”

Third question: “What are the annual profits for RCS, ASO and Flanders Classics? Is that information openly avalaible?”

AndrewAlpen April 2, 2012 at 2:24 pm

I support the efforts of races to turn a profit. I guess the majority are still fighting to break even. Alternative income streams are a logical place to start. In the past, many races were organised like a community sports club. If this new model helps races to survive, then I am all for it. I would even pay for a ticket to watch a circuit race, however my expectations would rise. I want toilets, grandstand seating, quality food and more….
Although helping the races to survive, this model still doesnt help the teams to pay the bills ….

INRNG/ Commenters: As sponsorship is the main income streams for teams and this is also becoming harder to find, what are the potential alternative income streams which the teams can look to? Licensing of gear is one, but would you pay a membership to be an offical supporter of Team X for example? What are some other ways the teams can reduce their dependence on sponsors in the way the races are trying to?

Ian April 2, 2012 at 3:13 pm

@jkeltgv – whole heartedly agree with your sentiments.
@Rooie – that first question in particularly is interesting

Larry T. April 2, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Nice piece as usual for Inrg! I think it’s dangerous to paint these things as “either – or” as if Joe Moneybags is not allowed to make a fortune at X, then it faces extinction. It’s not that simple. Does the government make these race promoters pay for 100% of the costs involved in using the PUBLIC roads for the races? It’s hard to say citizen tax monies are not used, if for nothing else than to maintain the roads the rest of the time. When/if it gets to “buy a ticket or else” time, like they can do when events are held on a private circuit (heaven forbid cycling ever gets forced into this!) BUT public roads are used, there’s a real conflict. To me the French people have an “ownership” of sorts of LeTour just as the Italians have for Il Giro, etc. NOBODY, whether it’s a new super league, RCS, ASO or Flanders Classics should be allowed to totally own these events while using the roads – which belong to all the citizens, UNLESS they pay 100% of the costs involved. It’s a very complicated situation, especially when big profits become involved.

Duluth Baptist Clydesdale April 2, 2012 at 3:52 pm

I have no problem with a race looking to maximize profit, and in almost any other race I actually think the triple-circuit idea with VIP viewing space is a great idea.

Unfortunately the Muur is one the top three iconic scenes of the sport, and it is hugely disappointing to lose it.

It would be nice to see them forge a compromise, for example, using the Muur once but securing admission space on the Bossberg and using that three times. If I were a Belgian race fan, I would pay cash to get a good spot on a piece of track that saw the race three times and had a big screen of the race and some other features.

Go ahead and make money (the sport needs it), but find a way to do it without gutting the product.

Ken April 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm

That Flanders Classics managed to get NBC Sports to televise the race live in the US tells me they’re doing something right. NBC was rewarded with an interesting and competitive race. Makes me wonder what a super league combining talents might look like.

Regarding circuits, most races have long, boring stretches of bland roads between key testing points. I know the idea is to force riders to manage their energy, but, unless the course traverses spectacular scenery, it doesn’t make for the greatest TV. If a circuit increases the number of challenging and scenic segments, I think it makes the race more interesting to watch. Imagine a stage which climbed Mount Ventoux a couple of times!

Rooie April 2, 2012 at 5:46 pm

@Ken Climbing the Mont Ventoux more than once is already possible, but ypu would have to do a loop

Roadie61 April 2, 2012 at 6:16 pm

INRNG: You guys do impressive in-depth journalism with a “fair and balanced” look from multiple perspectives. So rare in this 21st Century. This feature makes for interesting thought and questions and gives us fans an unrivaled breadth into the modern-day business of pro cycling.

Thanks for admirable journalism with a personal touch…like the close-up of Pozzato’s wheelset which some of us wondered about (Flanders feature)…though I don’t have a comprehensive understanding of materials [metals] used in wheels for different applications, I appreciate your expertise of why he might have used the “box-section alloy rims” for the last part of the race.

I had read about headwinds being a factor in Flanders and wondered if deep-dish rims would have cut through these winds with greater ease than more traditional rims? So many factors involved in choosing the “best” wheels for a race (or changing wheels mid-race): wind direction, cobbles, smooth pave, durability, lightness-strength ratio, energy-saving rims, etc.

Great cycling/sport journalism, INRNG, you’ve indeed given us the “inner ring” to our beloved sport!

Now bring on the “Hell of the North!!”

Frogboy April 2, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Next idea from Wouter Vandenhaute: The Ultimate Cycling Championship, a reality TV show where contestants compete in a series of races exhibiting different abilities for the right to a contract with a yet to be named professional team…

Bundle April 2, 2012 at 6:42 pm

Very good point, Larry T. There is indeed a lot of taxpayer money in cycling (probably too much), especially when regions and townships are directly subsidizing races. Basque Country and Volta a Catalunya are both run on a non-profit basis (and both have been struggling lately). There’s a considerable debate to be had between social and private race managements. On one hand, I’m all for freedom, and everyone shoould be able to organize the races they want, at their own cost. On the other, there is only one L-B-L and only one Volta a Catalunya, you cannot organize a parallel one, so free competition between races is not an applicable concept. Does this mean historic races should be nationalised? (I can well imagine the French saying something like “l’Histoire ne se privatise pas”).
Very interesting debate.

Stephen April 2, 2012 at 7:11 pm

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…everyone gets up in arms when the UCI nixes any advancement or progression of tech, yet when a race tries to evolve to stay afloat, it becomes heresy. In their essence, both situations boil down to making changes to generate revenue. But somehow one is wrong and the other is right?

The Inner Ring April 2, 2012 at 7:12 pm

In response to the comments above, a few things.

First, this is just a blog and the piece above isn’t proper journalism. I was too lazy to ask for an interview with Vandenhaute or to track down the company accounts of Flanders Classics and Woestijnvis. I just wanted to educate myself a bit about this company and a recent piece in Vélo magazine (the French one) was the inspiration to hunt for some info on the web.

As for changing the sport, Vandenhaute is clearly interested in new ideas. He invented the World Tour and still has plans with financial backers to reshape the sport. The trouble is convincing the likes of ASO.

Finally, when it comes to public funds behind races, this is normal. Many football clubs in Europe get tax breaks or lease their stadium from municipal authorities. Formula 1 races get big subsidies. The idea with cycling is to promote the region. But it’s not well done, you could invent much better websites. For example Catalonia is a great place to ride – many pros based in Girona – and you can eat very well there too. You could really promote the race as a destination for riders.

Bundle April 2, 2012 at 10:05 pm

One more thing… Has Wouter anything to do with Ferdi Van Den Haute?

The Inner Ring April 2, 2012 at 10:11 pm

Bundle: no, like you the name stood out and I couldn’t find a link.

Tim Farrar April 2, 2012 at 11:33 pm

What I find interesting is that pro tour team sponsors pay zero towards the production costs of the races they need for publicity. At the local amateur level riders, through their entry fees bear the brunt of 80-90% of the costs of a race. At the lowest level UCI race the organizer get zero revenue from the teams seeking exposure, and in fact has to negotiate expenses and appearance fees to get any of them to participate. Its a historical model, but I really wonder if it doesnt need revisiting. Some team sponsors appear as sponsors of events, but most do not. Somewhere between the industrial park crit and the Tour, the organization and sponsorship of teams and events needs to re-evaluated.

Cat4Fodder April 3, 2012 at 3:19 am

Can someone provide some of the feedback in regards to how the Belgium public received the new route? I guess I was saddened to see the race turned from something which felt organic (i.e. a race where climbs, pave and other routes that felt organic, versus this route, which felt contrived.

I guess the question is why can they not instead use the Muur as part of the circuit.

As an aside – Inrng: please tell me you are independently wealthy, and therefore have time to put this blog together, or else I will feel depressingly inefficient in my life.

Hans Peeters April 5, 2012 at 11:54 am

This Wouter Vandenhaute might be an entrepreneur but he has done NOTHING to get these classics where they are today. All classics has a substantial history before Vandenhaute started buying them out.
You can be sure 100% that the very moment he gets the right price for “his” classics, he will sell out.

The majority of the population in Belgium has voted that the new race is worse than the previous one, that tells enough.
The charm of the previous “Ronde” was that it was a real “Tour”, with a start and finish without having recurring laps or the like.

The real cycling fan is clearly the victim here. This year there were already less spectators, I would not be surprised to see a further decline next year.

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