Cycling, an evolving team sport

One of offshoots of the radio debate has been an idea that riders are now radio controlled, mere chess pieces to be manipulated by their manager. Indeed part of the desire from those wanting to scrap radios is to make the sport more reliant on individuals, to diminish the role of the team.

Fausto Coppi

The rise of the team within cycling is one of the unmentioned themes in the sport. Here’s a quick sprint though the last 100 years…

In the early days of the sport riders rode as indépendants and touriste-routiers. Some attracted sponsorship from a bicycle manufacturer and in time others were also sponsored by the same manufacturer but despite riding under the same banner, the riders did not co-operate. Indeed even pacing a rider was banned until 1925.

Follow the money
National teams were common but unity was not. Rivalries on the team were common. Come the 1950s and we had the first commercial teams with St Raphaël and Nivea. The arrival of corporate sponsors outside of the bicycle trade meant more money but it also demanded more professionalism. By the 1960s these squads displaced the national squads, the Tour de France abandoning the format after 1969.

In time, every single team was a corporate venture but it took time to create a structure dedicated to winning. Come the 1970s and French riders were impressed by Italian teams “who ride in the service of a great leader”. The domestique was not new but accounts suggest talented riders were now giving up on their ambitions in service of a leader. A rider capable of the top-10 in a race was now helping a big leader and this brought more spoils to the team. It paid to help.

The team as a machine
Teams had long looked for technological improvements. But for me it was the Gitane team under Cyrille Guimard that really saw the first concerted approach to employ new technology and working methods. Low profile frames were used and Guimard spent a lot of time trying to get the best out of his riders.

Come the 1980s and we saw several “superteams”. Guimard’s Renault team dominated at times. Hinault and LeMond rode together at La Vie Clair and by 1990 the PDM team could start the Tour de France with four potential overall winners. It was PDM that broke other moulds, being the first to use a team bus.

Postal glandon
Teamwork controlling the race

Then during the 1990s we saw the ONCE team take organisation to a new level. Sadly this included a comprehensive doping programme but under Manolo Saiz a lot more was done, from designing bikes to targeting races. This structure was copied to some extent by US Postal, the blue livery now makes up part of the imagery Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France wins, the Texan sitting tight behind several other riders. Indeed you had grand tour contenders in Landis, Heras, Hamilton, Leipheimer and others in service of the team’s goals.

Today we see the team as a very effective unit. It’s very hard to imagine a champion from yesteryear in today’s sport. Could Fausto Coppi or Eddy Merckx launch long range attacks in today’s sport given the capability of some teams to lay on a big chase?

Is the bid to scrap radios a means to rebalance the sport in favour of the individual? Perhaps and this could be why some team managers, in possession of well-oiled winning machines, fear the atomisation of the peloton, a chaotic swarm of riders instead of trains, pacelines and bodyguards?

Froome working for the team
Pawn to D4?

What strikes me today is the visual change. In the picture at the top of the page Fausto Coppi appears very self-sufficient and you can see his face in full. Yes he appears alone in the shot but note the tub on his shoulders and the saddlebag. He’s clearly out there for himself and the photo evokes images of heroism and courage. Contrast that with a picture from the Volta a Catalunya yesterday. Not to single the rider out, it’s an everyday image. But note the helmet and sunglasses obscure facial expressions, the earpiece makes it appear the rider’s waiting for fresh commands. It does feel like the balance has changed from rugged individual to team sport.

Does it matter?
Nostalgia is like quicksand. Wallow in it for a moment and you’re trapped. It’s false to say racing was somehow great in the past and dull today. Anyone who watched Milan-Sanremo last Saturday will know this. There was a good piece on Podium Café earlier this week where the author reminded us that in times past writers “overcame the boredom inherent in the sport by editing out all the dull bits and concentrating on the exciting bits“, indeed they actually made things up. They could romanticise and dramatise to the point where the account probably lost all touch with reality. Not that they always did, in 1968 journalists went on strike mid-race in protest at the demands from race organisers to liven up their reports.

So perhaps the team is a force today that it was not in the golden age of make-believe race reports? Perhaps we are watching a sport which can never bring constant excitement and that hours of TV coverage simply can’t always be compelling. But with the GP E3, Gent-Wevelgem, the Criterium International, the Tour de Normandie, the Coppi e Bartali and the Volta Catalunya all taking place this weekend there’s surely plenty of excitement to come?

Either way, the notion of cycling as an individual sport conducted via teams is an evolving concept that has changed over the years and it’ll be interesting to see where things go as different forces try to shape the sport, from corporate sponsorship to TV ratings and many more pressures.

12 thoughts on “Cycling, an evolving team sport”

  1. The 1912 Giro d’Italia General Classification was for teams instead of individual cyclists. The first and last time it was run like this. The Squadra Atala won.

  2. Excellent piece.

    Occasionally I pine for the bare-headed days of yore, when sport had little to do with business.
    But the modern era of super teams and media coverage has put in an adrenaline surge very few could live without.

    And as much as the UCI tries to slow progress, the future of sport will be intertwined with technological advances, so…

  3. (Don’t know if it’s true but I’ve heard Bobet has been the first rider to share its personnal prizes with riders that actually helped him win a race or a stage.)
    From a certain point of view it looks like cycling’s reluctant to admit being a team sport relying on great individuals. After all license are granted to teams and not to the riders directly.

    Obviously there has been a lot of painful stories beetween teams and doping but there are also plenty with individuals. Besides, I may be too much optimistics but, if managed by the good people, I do think teams are the best vector to improve technology and rider’s physiology and help this sport stay clear of doping scandals.

    One things cycling and medias still have to do is take into account those evolutions and stop pretending that nothing changed by promising spectators and fans that “Coppi style races” are the only one that are worthy.

  4. The nostalgics need to realize that the excitement is not contained in the six hours from start to finish. It is repackaged by TV, video highlights, rider interviews, internet news sites, bloggers etc. The event is consumed differently by fans now using a wide variety of connectivity devices. Race radios, power meters, HRM data and GPS’s are all part of the potential communication tools to bring us fans closer to the action. Bring it on I say

  5. I think a lot of the ” excitement” of a race is in the anticipation of what might happen and it is only once the race with over that, or at least in it’s final throws, that the viewer can decide whether it has been exciting or not. Case in point was Roubaix last year, for me it was quite a dull race effectively over once Cancellara had attacked. Except at the time, although there was nagging doubts that no-one would get back to him you couldn’t be certain he wouldn’t puncture or have a mechanical.

    For me the big problem of radios is the story of Armstrong, when under pressure from Ullrich, had Bruyneel relaying physiological info to him in order to manage his resources and allow him to recover.

  6. Great article. I love the dynamics that team racing brings to cycling. How can you not admire someone like Fabian Cancellara, who might be the best cyclist of this generation, working selfishlessly for his team leader? Or how can we forget Stage 3 of the the ’09 TDF when the Team High Road (HTC) opened a gap in the cross-winds, costing Alberto 40 seconds in the overall GC. If we went back to the stone age scenes like this would be few and far between.

    Btw, I don’t think Levi ever road for Lance at US Postal. After his Vuelta podium he road for Rabobank in the next TDF.

  7. Angelo: in the mid 1920s the Tour was also on a team basis, with each stage seeing teams set off together, effectively a TTT each day.

    Starr: thanks. There have been some great races in the past, there will be some in the future!

    Anonymous: I agree in full.

    Roger: likewise although remember that when millions are watching a stage, most know little about gear ratios, yet alone wattage. I’d offer the data online for nerds but the typical viewer still wants to see a clash of riders, the mano a mano duel.

    Jarvis: yes. Life is like that sometimes, we anticipate and things don’t always turn out right. Cancellara’s ride was exception and goes into the history books… but it didn’t make for good TV. As for relaying info, I don’t like that but it’s been done for a long time, for example Guimard was famous for it, scrutunising the pedal strokes to spot weaknesses and then barking orders to attack.

    PV: thanks, and yes the variety of the sport means a rider can help in one race and win in the next. As for Leipheimer, I think he’s been on the Postal squad when Lance won.

  8. Team racing = boring? Teams have been around long before radio-controlled racing. Opening up the communications to everyone (including the other competitors) would reduce the radio-controlled effect, but why not try a season or two with just an earpiece to transmit safety information from race-control and see what happens? Racing will either get more interesting or it won’t. This issue’s been blown way out of proportion in the pissing contest between The Belgian and other DS’s vs the UCI. Most fans want to see some RACECRAFT practiced by their favorite rider, not some automaton simply following orders barked at him by the DS. The tactical strategies of the big riders are what seem to be lacking, fans want them to think for themselves…or at least watch as instructions are screamed at them from the window of the team car for all (or nobody if it’s windy enough) to hear.
    And PLEASE, will folks stop holding up F1 as a positive example of anything, except maybe rich people fighting over control of what’s become an amazingly boring sport. How many F1 cars are on the grids these days? How many of ’em are actually different cars rather than just slightly altered versions of the big player’s cars with different advertising? MOTOGP is another example of too much unfettered technological development — costs are insanely high, the racing’s getting boring because of electronic rider aids (just ask their biggest star about this) while the starting fields dwindle. More and more expensive technology, whether radios, featherweight, super-aerodynamic bicycles, doping or whatever just take away from the athletic competition we want to see both along the roadside and on our TV at home. Most will say the “throw-back” strade bianche stage from 2010’s Giro was the most exciting of the year (I was there)…perhaps because of the conditions which reminded us of the glory days of cycling…when a whole LOT of folks cared about it? That “fog of war” stuff is what makes it entertaining to watch for me.

  9. What about the actual spectators along the race course. I wonder if those numbers are down or if those fans consider the races to be less exciting. I’m not sure if that can even be determined.

    Here in the US, the big money making sport is NFL, football. TV coverage is fantastic, what with HDTV, instant reply, etc. But the NFL is now faced with the problem that in some cities, less fans are actually going to the stadium to watch the games. They are apt to stay home on the couch, next to the fridge and the bathroom, rather than go through the hassle and expense of going to the game.

  10. You have to be careful when looking at the history of cycling through the lens of the Tour de France. The apparent individualism of the early days isn’t quite true. It again is one of Desgrange’s myths. In the C19th pacing was part of parcel of cycling – Desgrange himself held several pace-assisted records. Look to the first Bordeaux-Paris and the way the Brits blocked French riders from participating and then hired them as pacers. It is probably fair to say that cycling has never been an individual’s sport, there has always been some team eleement to it.

    It is funny that we see Coppi as a hero of individualism – those long, solo breaks – but it is obvious that without his team around him he would have packed an awful lot of races and won and awful lot less. It is also funny that we use Coppi as a hero here in that many of the races he won would have been spectactularly boring for TV, with one rider going for it on his own. They make epics in print but are dreadful on the screen.

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