Is cycling a team sport?

Rabo team

“I really view cycling as a team sport… …that in order for their to be a sustainable business model behind cycling you need to have people identify with the team and not the individuals… …if we want the sport to be successful you have got to generate long term loyalty to organisations and not individual athletes”

Those are the words of Jonathan Vaughters, team owner of Garmin-Cervélo in a recent interview with podcasters The Flammecast, explaining his vision for pro cycling as a team sport in the years to come. But glance at the results and it is very much an individual sport, for example the records show Johan Van Summeren won Paris-Roubaix this year. So is cycling a team sport or one of individuals?

The simple answer is that it is an individual sport conducted with teams. But it gets more complicated than that, particularly if we look at the history of the sport and where things might be heading at the moment.

Taking the history of the sport, individuals names stand out from the past but in the early days of the Tour de France it was common for bicycle manufacturers to employ a team of pace-makers to help their star rider win. Some manufacturers even retained riders just to sit them at home instead of seeing them join an opposing squad. We might see names like Maurice Garin and Lucien Petit-Breton in the results but these achievements were partly the product of decisions by the Alcyon and Peugeot teams.

History repeated
Fast forward to today and the situation isn’t all that different. Aside from the odd exception, bike manufacturers no longer own the teams but we still see teams built around leaders. In recent times we’ve even seen some teams sign a rider because he’s too good to leave to the rivals, for example US Postal signed Spaniard Roberto Heras for 2002. Team work isn’t always necessary or sufficient to win but it helps, any individual looking to succeed will find it much easier with help. Even Philippe Gilbert’s impressive wins this year were in part thanks to loyal service of his team mates.

Corporate talk
For me, I can understand Vaughters’ position. It certainly takes a team to win, whether it’s the nine riders on the road or all the support staff that make it happen. And if you own a team licence then you certainly view it from the team perspective. In fact is this not the classic talk of most employers? Find me the Human Resources professional who celebrates individuality and frowns on teamwork.

But this isn’t to debate Jon Vaughters views alone, more the concept of long term team franchises and the idea of teams trumping individuals when it comes to who you support. Vaughters is articulating the ideas here but others are supportive. I can see the arguments in favour of long term team franchises, it brings a certain stability into the sport but one person’s security is another’s inertia. For every embedded squad sitting on a ten year licence you exclude an upstart team, tomorrow’s Slipstream or Sky could be locked out.

Besides we already support teams a little. You might have a favourite team already and maybe a team you don’t like too. I have teams that I prefer and some I’m wary of, to use an example I’d be disappointed to see Philippe Gilbert sign for Astana. But what I really root for is the excitement of the sport: it is not about a single rider nor a team, it is the sport and drama that grips me.

What makes racing exciting?
Above all I’d be concerned if we begin to focus too much on the team. It would mark a very big shift in the sport, the overturning of a century of tradition. We risk losing the very attraction of the sport, namely the human struggle to cross the line first and the gripping TV images of riders duelling, the highlights of a race are often when the bunch has been whittled down to a few contenders thanks to a series of mountain passes or the pounding of cobbles.

When we hear of the “greatest individual sporting rivalry the world has ever seen“, according to John Foot, a professor of Modern Italian History in London and author of “Pedalare! A History of Italian Cycling” we are talking about Coppi and Bartali. Nobody mentions Bianchi and Legnano, the rival teams. Similarly the most memorable rides over the years are often when the lone rider beats the odds to claim a big win, whether it’s Hugo Koblet’s Brive-Agen exploit in 1951, Marco Pantani’s 1998 ride to Les Deux Alpes or even the frequent occasions when Thomas Voeckler gets the jump on his rivals.

“we don’t race to win, we race to make our rivals lose”
– Moreno Argentin, four time winner of Liège–Bastogne–Liège and 1986 World Champion

But if these lone wins and individual heroism are brilliant, if I was running a team then I’d play it very differently. I’d work with the odds and probabilities, I’d stamp on risk and squash uncertainty. I’d forbid self-expression during a race, panache would be a dirty word because it rhymes with failure more often than it delivers wins. Give me riders with a metronome for a brain over the likes of Gilbert, Voeckler, Hoogerland and other energy-wasting creatures. I’d create a well-drilled team capable of delivering regular wins. It would be boring to watch but that’s your problem.

2010 Giro
2010... or 1910?

One reason why the 2010 Giro d’Italia was a vintage edition was because no team could control it, no squad was able to lock down the race. We had an ever-changing battle between Basso, Evans, Porte, Vinokourov, Arroyo and others. For me the sight of a full team driving the pace over a mountain pass is boring… but the team owner is probably delighted with the control.

Strong teams don’t like risk, whether it’s the uncertainty of planning sponsorship deals or being caught out mid-race by crosswinds. But what a team owner fears can often be the very basis of excitement, innovation and drama in the sport. We should remember too that sponsors come to the sport because of the media exposure they get in return, especially in the Tour de France. During July the peak viewing figures are during a mountain stage, precisely when the race shrinks down to a few contenders.

At times its both a team sport and an individual one. History suggest the teams operates behind the scenes and influence results more than we might think, or at least more than we remember once memories of the race fade a bit. Certainly public celebrates individual heroism, the imagery of the sport is closely linked with individuals and rivalries and since the beginning of the sport teams recoup large publicity gains from this association. But I struggle to imagine the sport, and above the viewing public, embracing the primacy of teams over riders.

27 thoughts on “Is cycling a team sport?”

  1. One of my biggest concerns about any attempt to create long-term franchises and an ethos to “support a team” is because that is the way to create tribalism amongst the fans, the worst sort of which is brought out in soccer. Apart from the reported, sometimes wayward partisanship of the Belgian fans, there doesn’t seem to be anything but support for all cyclists from fans of all nationalities. There has always been an element of nationalism, in that it is a natural thing to support teams from your home nation and although this is something that has increased in recent years, it is as much to do with the sport increasing it’s global reach that any change in fan’s attitudes.

    But introduce long-term team contracts and the support and stability they want and you introduce a risk that teams will start producing negative PR about other teams, as much for a psychological edge than to deliberately antagonise fans, but this can happen. Then you risk fans on mountains fighting each other because they support the “wrong” team.

    I can understand the desire to reduce the uncertainty in their business models, but ultimately I see it as a matter of greed. The sport will survive without long-term team contracts. Cycling just might not be able to attract more money and more share of the sports market than in currently does. Is that a bad thing? I don’t think so. I’d certainly rather the sport remained at it’s current financial/market-share levels than sell it’s soul for more money.

  2. This is a debatable topic and you have really done justice to it. If Vaughters think that he can make cycling close to football or other big sports in terms of franchisee following, he’s way mistaken. But again, if you think Cavendish can win so many World Tour stages in any other team, I doubt that too. As you mentioned, we like to see the individual heroism and our favorite rider clinch the victory but at the same time we do appreciate the efforts of the team to set up their top rider for the win. During this process we develop our preferences for different teams. One example to bolster the view of rider primacy over his team is that I never rooted for Griepel to win a stage with Highroad, even though I will jump out of my seat to see an unknown rider from Highroad fighting for a top 10 finish in a stage.

  3. I doubt it would ever be viable until the names of the teams become constant. You wouldn’t call Manchester United “team Aon” would you?

    Slipstream would have to be slipstream as a constant instead of whatever the current sponsors are.
    Team Slipstream powered by Chipotle
    Garmin-Chipotle Presented by H3O
    Team Garmin-Cervélo

    Would the average punter know that this was the same team?

    Highroad is another example.
    Team High Road
    Team Columbia
    Team Columbia-High Road
    Team Columbia-HTC
    Team HTC-Columbia

  4. Neil brings up an important point that makes the sport of pro cycling much different from other sports. It’s the major sponsorship aspect. In the US, all the major sports have corporate sponsors, but the team names are always the same. NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, etc… It’s easy to find a team you can follow for life. Cycling is much different, as Neil pointed out. The Garmin example alone happened over the course of a few years. If you went on a three month vacation from the sport you may not recognize a few teams once you came back.

    I am much like the author in the fact I follow a couple of teams closely, have some I dislike, while the others I don’t lean one way or the other. The other fact that makes the team aspect different are the different types of squads out there. Over the years we have seen teams that are built for the classics, and others that target the grand tour or a single grand tour. So for example if you are a hardcore fan of team built solely for the classics, you aren’t going to have a lot to cheer for during the Grand Tours.

  5. My guess is that it depends on your definition of the word “team” and what kind of sponsor you have.. In other words were “the magnificent seven” a team or not ?

    I think building a team should mean hiring different type of riders able to get along well (which often takes time) and allow different strategies not to mention that teams should also be able to help young riders to developp which implies stabilizing your budget and thus your sponsor by having long term goals.

    (Such teams should prevent us from seeing Ricco being hired by structures that only search media exposure for instance)

    But one of cycling biggest contradiction is that licence is granted to the team but necessary high sport value remains at the rider’s level. Thus cylicng is endangered not only by losing a sponsor but also by losing riders. I may be naive but , i think that a solution could be that a certain % of the total sport values of the riders stays within the team.

  6. You make no mention of the national teams that competed in ‘regular’ races like the Tour, which did mix things up a bit, because people are more likely to cheer for the Italian team rather than the Bianchi team.

    Still though, yeah, people remember Bartali winning more than the Italian team.

  7. Regardless of the support from teammates, true fans of the sport tend to appreciate the panache of riders rather than the team as a whole, even though we recognize that the performances don’t happen in a vacuum.

    I suspect that the majority of fan interest in a particular team, regardless of the sport, is based upon a) their location/city (nation) of registration, b) appreciation of the individuals that are members of the team (which can be based upon their nationality/residency, as well as their personality, and performances) and c) results.

    In cycling, long term team licenses is one thing, but what about longer term rider contracts? In order to build a strong team identity, and build sustainable fan following, the rosters can’t go through major shuffling every year or two. I don’t see teams offering longer term contracts, thus loyalties to the riders will tend to follow the riders, rather than their former teams.

    While it is understandable that JV believes longer term licenses will yield stability on the sponsor front, this isn’t necessarily the case. Sponsoring a team is a marketing function; all marketing campaigns have a beginning and an end; some last longer than others. T-Mobile and Rabobank were/are both long term sponsors, without long term license guarantees. T-Mobile left after too many scandals (though this could just be an excuse). USPS left after a medium term, even though they had Lance & Contador poised to win additional TdFs.

    If JV wants stability and loyalty, he might be better off pushing for fewer ProTour teams rather than longer licenses. Supply & demand might lead to larger/longer contracts with sponsors who want in at the top level of the sport. If the teams perform and meet the standards of renewal, they’ll most likely get their renewals.

    As for building loyal following, as Neil already addressed, you need to build a team brand, and can’t completely hand off naming rights. Soccer (football) have corporate sponsors, but teams are known by the club name, not the corporate name. Of course these teams probably rely more on TV rights, ticket sales, and jersey/cap sales for revenue than sponsorship. Since these doesn’t widely exist for cycling teams, naming rights are important to grant in order for the sponsors to gain the publicity sought.

    JV’s vision isn’t flawed, it just requires a complete reorganization of the sport. But without longer term rider rider contracts, his model will be missing a key point of stability.

  8. I sometimes think it’s odd that so few Americans struggle to understand cycling when the sport they love the most (football) is so similar. In pro football, 10 players on offense all work to advance the ball, carried by one player — usually a running back, or a quarterback-receiver pass. One player is designated to carry the ball because the situation on the field matches that player’s abilities, and the others fulfill their role, working (pretty anonymously) to advance that goal. It seems exactly like pro cycling to me — only one guy can cross the line first, just like there’s only one ball. Shoot, both sports even have the guys in the trenches “blocking” for the benefit of a single player, etc.

    The difference in fans is that American football fans both idolize their team’s star players, but remain loyal to their team first. I think that in pro cycling, our allegiances go to the individual — if a certain rider changes teams, I doubt if affects few fans interest in that rider’s performance. In American football, when a player leaves my team, he’s dead to me.

  9. I like the team aspect of cycling and wish that was emphasized more. I think the announcers could do a better job explaining the team tactics at work. I also think the practice of world tour points staying with the rider really undercuts teamwork and continuity from year to year. They should be awarded to the team. One of the things that High Road does so well is maintain a lot of continuity. They have a solid system for bringing up young riders through their program. They teamwork that they have displayed at the Tour in delivering Cav to so many stage wins was extremely impressive. So often you see a rider get good results then get bought up by some other team. I like the direction that Vaughters is pushing.

  10. In team sports the team has a “home.” The fans get to watch their team at “home” on a regular basis. The attraction is mostly regional, even for those few teams like Manchester United, Real, and the New York Yankees that have national or international followings.

    Cycling will never have that. Franchises would encourage more loyal following, but with the major events being by definition tours of whole countries, you don’t get those regular home games. I realize that you have races close to home regions, but that’s not quite the same. Who is the “home team” in Flanders? There are several. Who is the “home team” in France? There are many. It’s not the same.

    What franchises would accomplish would be to make the sport a bit more accessible to the casual fan, and to stabilize the teams a bit. These effects are minor, though–the casual fan is helped if he recognizes the name of a well-known team when he hears about the Tour de France, but he still doesn’t watch. The team stability helps riders and support staff predict how much they can afford to pay a mortgage, but it won’t increase their jersey sales.

  11. RE: Gilbert

    I have had the same fear if Gilbert chased the money to Astana or Kathusa. I would not be able to cheer for him…at all. The man has the right to get whatever people are willing to pay but please I pray that Phillippe does not sign with one of the cold, bland and faceless teams. But really I guess that would be my problem. It is his career, his livelyhood.

  12. I love a bit of chaos and a mano a mano every now and then. I am a fan or certain riders, well, I like certain riders. When Greg LeMond won the 89 tour he had no team, God bless him! Maybe I’m old skool but cycling seems a tad bit more boring these days. Just a tad. Go Slipstream!! Go Cervelo Test Team!

  13. Rider Council:

    I disagree with the cycling being boring. I feel that some races are boring and it will be the Grand Tours. The Giro was dull and I have a feeling the Tour will be the same. Now the Spring Classics on the other hand was griping! I can not wait until the one days return in earnest.

  14. Since the majority of cycling fans are cyclists themselves, they relate better to the suffering of an individual rather than the collective. Even massive sports like F1 have problems with people identifying with teams. Sure, the tifosi would cheer a monkey if it drove a Ferrari, but ask any true F1 fan, and they will talk about favourite driver ahead of favourite team. The true team sports, like football, always have a tradition based around a location (even if the NFL try to ignore that basic tenet)and this is something that cycling doesn’t have. Will it ever? Well, the Astana cycling project has 11 Kazakhs on a roster of 27; Sky has 9 Brits; Katusha is at least half Russian; the French teams have always been very, er, French; and it will be interesting to see how “Australian” the new Green Edge team will be. So, rather than going for the rather vague notion that I should be supporting Team Slipstream or Team Highroad, it seems that the team managers are going for a nationality based support. Maybe Mr Vaughters needs to hire a few more yanks?

  15. One example of a team that was greater than its riders is TI-Raleigh. The great team of the 70’s and 80’s with Peter Post as manager. Incredible performance of the whole team. It doesn’t matter who wins as long as we win.

    And a major problem for teams in cycling is that don’t have a stadium or some kind of fixed homeground. In football, American football, baseball, etc. they have stadiums where supporters live close to and thus easy to visit. And only then you can create a solid basis for a long lasting team. A team needs a home.

    And @JN, don’t worry, Gilbert will never ride for Astana or Katusha. The 4 times stage winner of the TdF 2011 does’t like the maffia.

  16. I have always followed the man rather than the nationality or team, perhaps that’s as a 60yrs+ Brit their have been some lean times for national success (not so now thankfully) and as someone who has raced an appreciation of a good ride from whoever. Teamwise, some I like to see doing well and others, like some other posters, I am dissapointed when they come to the fore and when riders I have admired sign for them. It would be a shame to see cycling go the way of some sports and their fans single minded tribalistic support for one team. Or am I looking through rose tinted spectacles and thats the way it already is for many cycling fans?

  17. Bring team sizes down, lets have it capped at 5 or 6 (?) per race.

    It would allow more teams to compete in the Grand Tours and also means that teams lack that the volume of riders to control things.

    Then let the fun begin!

  18. @ Jii,
    i’ve been a fan of teams, and individual riders as well. It would be interesting
    to see more teams compete w/fewer riders in pro tour events & w/o radios.
    Nice article….as always.

  19. As an Aussie there’s no one obvious team to support due to patriatism. Instead I find I support particular teams more than others based predominantly on them having riders I admire regardless of the rider or the team’s nationality. It’s a cool thing that I find myself cheering for a rider from Country X on a team based in Country Y, but my focus is definitely on the rider, not the team. Perhaps this will change a little when Green Edge hit the peloton?

  20. i guess another interesting thing to witness are the roadside fans, who for the most part hold up their favourite rider’s national flag or perhaps a message going out to an individual rider, but you never (well hardly ever) see fans dress in team kit. this comes back to the sponsorship thing, with team colours usually dictated by the sponsor. it’s gotten a bit silly this season with all the black, but i guess the point we are making is the only thing constant is the rider and their nationality (haussler is the exception that proves the rule). if the team’s are in some way nationally based, give the team kit some relationship with the national colours, and then change the sponsor as needed. you could still multiple teams from a single nation, plenty of ways to represent the same flag but differentiate kits. even if people don’t like the idea of such obvious national teams, surely the very first thing to do is at least keep the colours constant.

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