Lampre-Merida been sold to a Chinese firm. It means there will be no Italian team in the top flight of the sport, a first. While welcoming interest from around the world it’s still astonishing to imagine that the land of Milan-San Remo and the Giro, Coppi and Barali, Nibali and Aru won’t have a major team.
Rather presumptuously the photo includes the UCI World Tour logo but like all teams it will have to be vetted for 2017 by the UCI’s Licence Commission to make sure it’s got the budget, contracts and a strong enough roster to merit a place.
As a bit of background Chinese President Xi Jinping’s communist government has made sport a priority, especially soccer. While Russian oligarchs bought soccer teams and other sports assets as a way of placing part of their wealth abroad to prevent it being looted, there’s a now a wave of spending by the Chinese elite on football and other sports that’s seen by some as a patriotic effort, a pact where these billionaires put some of their wealth into sports with the aim of improving China’s performance. The big sport is soccer – Xi is a fan – so this is where most of the billions with the aims of building a competitive domestic league and developing world class players but now it seems some of the Renminbi are flowing to cycling too.
Long time coming
In reality Lampre-Merida has quietly been a Swiss team for some time, or at least that is where the legal entity behind the team has been based, presumably for tax purposes. In the image above CGS Cycling AG is this same Swiss firm. It’s also been dependent on revenue from Taiwanese bike manufacturer Merida too. Still teams can opt to fly under any flag they wish when it comes to their UCI nationality and Lampre-Merida have been riding as an Italian team ever since the fuchsia kit was first introduced in 1992. The point here is that Lampre-Merida was never 100% Italian with its Taiwanese bikes and Swiss tax base so the sale is almost a continuation of this process rather than a shock.
Other Italian teams have gone. Liquigas became Cannondale at the end of 2013 but we have to jump back to 2005 to find other Italian teams in the top flight with Saeco and Domina Vacanze. In other words there have only been two top flight Italian teams in the last decade.
A Healthy Pyramid
The paradox is that if the teams are going, everything else is going well. The calendar is full of Italian races and the pro peloton is packed with Italians. The chart above shows the number of race days in 2016 with Italy in third place thanks to a rich calendar. Note China is doing well too. As for the pro peloton Italy has the second highest amount of riders, only France supplies more riders to the World Tour, only most of the top Italian pros already ride for foreign teams. There’s also a thriving U23 scene and a rich network of cycling clubs. If anything the pyramid is strong, all that’s missing is the World Tour team as a capstone.
The comparison with France is interesting, the French benefit from the enormity of the Tour de France, a huge shop window that’s simply more valuable to sponsors than the Giro d’Italia. Yet for all this big value it’s not attracting too many new names, FDJ and Ag2r La Mondiale have been sponsoring their teams continuously since the 90’s. Europcar made the World Tour for a while but as good as the shop window is, few French sponsors want a World Tour team. A French federation project to create a Gallic version of Team Sky has fallen as flat as a crêpe.
Where are the Italian sponsors?
Back to Italy and is the recession to blame? The economy’s been in a slump and fears a banking collapse and there are various institutional log jams and none of this will help. It’s not just cycling, Silvio Berlusconi is selling his AC Milan soccer team to a Chinese consortium. Everyone in China must know about Ferrari and its red sports cars but just a short ride up the road from its Maranello factory are other factories belonging to the likes of Ariostea and Panaria, both firms that have backed top pro teams in the past but today they’re surely unable to return given the costs associated, maybe €10 million to fund a team capable of stage win in the Giro. But pedal on and you can pass the Stadio Mapei, a sports stadium backed by the Italian adhesives giant which had its eponymous super team and still capable of backing a team if the will was there. Italy has the companies but it’s a matter of enthusiasm and contacts. Look at Segafredo which has opted to join up with an American team.
All is not lost for Italian cycling. It’s turning out to be very good at exporting it services. Astana is a Kazakh team but has hired in Italians as riders and management alike. The new Bahrain-Merida team is the same with a lot of Italian management and co-sponsors. Now Lampre or whatever it will be called in 2017 will see Italians running the team and providing the savoir faire that no Chinese sports directors or team owners yet possess.
With Lampre becoming a Chinese team there will be no team from Italy in the World Tour in 2017. The death of Italian cycling? Of course not, no Italian team deserves a World Tour licence on the grounds of nationality but it’s astonishing that country with a home grand tour, a thriving calendar, many riders, a conveyor belt of U23 talent and a decent corporate sector won’t have a team in the top flight. A lot of the rationale behind this Chinese takeover is because China has next to none of this.
We can see the Chinese interest as a metaphor for globalisation with prodigious foreign wealth displacing Italian brands but this takeover is more than a trend seen around the world from African mines or European robotics or American laptops. It’s not just the Chinese trying to reach “western” levels of cycling, it’s also the story of the gradual retreat of Italian cycling sponsorship, once Liquigas went it left one team in the World Tour and this was increasingly international. Italy’s lack of a World Tour team is a long term issue rather than the story of a licence changing hands.