That’s the prize list for yesterday’s Flèche Wallonne race with a first prize of €16,000 for the men’s race and just €1,128 for the women’s race.
It’s one of the most prestigious one day races on the calendar but many might see the cash prize as rather small. For comparison, last Sunday’s Amstel Gold Race offered €16,000, a sum similar to the prize for making the semi-finals of the Dutch Open tennis tournament, in other words coming fourth in a modest tennis tournament.Win the golf tournament in the Netherlands and you pocket €300,000.
But the value of a bike race probably isn’t reflected in the prize list. Instead there are other ways of judging the value of a win.
First up, there’s the salary boost. Win a big one day race and usually a rider’s salary will jump up when it comes to contract negotiation time. If they have won before then they’re likely to win again and this is valuable. It’s hard to put a figure on this as a win rarely comes in isolation, the rider will back it up with other performances. But imagine a second year pro winning the Amstel. They could be on the UCI minimum wage of €24,000 but it is possible to add a zero on to the wage. Thus win the Amstel and you might collect €16,000 in prize money but you can collect 20 times with with next year’s pay packet.
Next there’s the sale value of the race. In most sports fixing the outcome of a sports event is illegal but it happens in cycling and more often than we might think. However, it’s not like races are sold on ebay to the highest bidder for everyone to see. Deals are done in secret, via phones from the team car or between riders as the finish line approaches. Last year we saw the Swiss media seemingly get hold of emails from Alexander Vinokourov and Alexandr Kolobnev with allegations that Kolobnev sold the 2010 Liège-Bastogne-Liège to Vinokourov for €100,000 as the two riders closed in on the finish line. It’s astonishing to think who could have hacked the emails here but that’s another story. Vinokourov since denied the transaction… but partially, stating the €100,000 wired from his Monaco bank to Switzerland was a loan.
Even if we proceed on an academic basis, a figure like this shows a rider could pay €100,000 to buy a win but we can net off the prize money and win bonuses to put a different value on the race. Either way again the value here is superior to the prize money.
There’s the most important aspect: a win is priceless. It might be a touch too romantic amidst the relentless commercialism of pro cycling but winning for the sake of it still matters. But there are fringe benefits that pay out too. If you win big then a lifetime label as a classics winner awaits. Take the Tour of Flanders and you probably never need to pay for beer again in a Flemish bar. Red carpet might not roll after the first win but doors open.
Also note prize money is shared. The race organiser wires the money to the team and there’s usually a formula to pool the winnings amongst riders and staff.
Finally a word to say make a point that might not need saying but it’s worth stressing: it’s not all about money. The thought of more money probably couldn’t make a rider pedal harder up the Mur de Huy yesterday, those fighting for the win were giving it everything. Probably the only type of debt was oxygen debt. If there is talk of selling results, you have to be in the position to deliver the sale, for example with a comfortable lead on the chasing pack. All the same, prize money is relatively low in cycling compared to other sports.
The cash prizes are small in cycling but nobody is racing with them in mind. Winning should be priceless but some do put a price on it. We see the big payouts come from increased salaries. In the rare instances where riders trade the win in a race we see the transaction value is bigger than the prize payout, sometimes by a large margin.
But the value of a race is hopefully more than a cash payout. The sport places a premium on history and a winner may spend the cash quickly but their name can live eternally.