How do you make a race survive?

The GP Plouay sits on the World Tour calendar of top races. Held every year in August in the town of Plouay in the Brittany region of France, last year’s edition was won by Grega Bole. It is the sort of race the needs an introduction like this because many are not aware of it or its details. The other one day race in France on the World Tour is Paris-Roubaix and that needs no explanation.

The GP Plouay is struggling. Last year’s edition was subsidised by the UCI to help make ends meet. The region is a hotbed of French cycling, packed with holidaymakers at the time and it was Thomas Voeckler’s first official race since the Tour de France. But it didn’t get a great audience and the race often comes down to a bunch sprint. The organisers have been thinking of new ways to liven up the race and they give us a clue as to the future of racing.

The organisers have been speaking to the media and covers the story. To summarise the finish in the past has been wide and open, it has not broken up the field, providing a procession. Now go and ask a participant in the race and they’ll tell you of the pressure in the bunch, the power needed to be near the front and how the uphill finish means nobody can win by chance. Only for a TV producer these are details that go unnoticed and viewers with their fingers hovering on the remote are not likely to tune in. Indeed many are watching to see the scenery.

Faced with viewers demanding action and landscapes, the organisers have responded. The race is likely to be rerouted towards a nearby valley with pleasant woodland and the course will now include a ribin which is the local term for a stoney track, not cobbled but paved with stones and dust, the sort used in the Tro Bro Leon race every year. This should be surfaced in time for the race but will come after a series of sharp bends and the road is no more than three metres wide. More sharp bends, a descent and then a double-digit gradient for the Ty-Marrec climb which has been part of the course already. “There bunch will split, in as much that some riders will ease up in this technical section after placing their leader at the front“, Jean-Yves Tranvaux tells Velochrono, “then the racers will put on a display“.

This is not new, look at the Tour of Flanders where we celebrate the cobbled climbs but the Koppenberg was not added until the 1970s, if it is legendary… it is also from the modern era too. The same for the Arenberg cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, they did not appear until the late 1960s. Plouay’s move to hunt out better roads to please TV audiences is not new.

The cycling man
But how far do we go? If there is a farmtrack available, why not send 200 riders down there at 50km/h? The prospect of carnage will make TV audiences soar. Hopefully some sense is applied here. But cycle sport is awkward to televise, the costs of production are huge but a six hour race can often be reduced to the last 20 minutes. I like it, you like it but for the sport to thrive it has to attract the millions of casual viewers.

New ideas
Plouay is also trying a new idea, the street sprint. I covered this before when it was used in Canada. The idea is simple, a short course, maybe a kilometre long is used for two riders to go head to head in a sprint duel. The winner goes through to the next round until you have just two left and they ride for the win on the day.

Efforts like this hurt and they are distinct from the long race. The sprinters in the bunch today like Cavendish, Kittel or Greipel have backgrounds in endurance track racing and time trialling, 1000 metres is too short for them and if the competition is held on the eve of the main race, it would blunt the legs of sprinters. But you can have a show, perhaps bringing track sprinters and even local celebrities to keep the crowd happy.

What is it about?
Plouay isn’t the only race struggling to make ends meet. Race organisers want to make their events exciting and rightly so. But Plouay has never been that boring. See the video clip from last year’s race where the winner isn’t known for a long time and previous editions have seen plenty of exciting racing.

For me the race lacks an identity, for example we know Roubaix rhymes with cobbles but I don’t have anything much in mind to associate with Plouay, just visions of wide roads in green countryside with lots of parked camper vans. Perhaps they could play on the regional identity more?

Race organisation is all about innovation, if you copy last year’s edition again and again then don’t be surprised if the race slowly fades away. By all means borrow from history but the best races have constantly evolved, whether the Giro or Tour or Paris-Roubaix or Il Lombardia. Hopefully route changes can be done with an eye on safety and we don’t end up in an inflationary spiral of races outbidding each other with excessive spectacle.

Plouay lacks the history of other races to anchor it in the sport, whether in our conciousness or on the sporting calendar. I think they could work on the branding and imagery of the race but the landscape does not offer any many geographical features to make the course unique.

Many races struggle with budgets but this race is a World Tour event. I wish the race well by itself but given its position as a marginal event on the calendar it’ll be interesting to see what happens. If they innovate, will this work and what will it mean for the future of racing because outside of a handful of historic races, much of the calendar struggles to attract crowds, audiences and profits.

The sport has never stopped changing so what you enjoy today may well change notably in ten years’ time.

20 thoughts on “How do you make a race survive?”

  1. That was a great finale! Many fractured and transient alliances. I guess the problem is as you say a lack of identity, when i hear the name i recognise it but do not have any idea what the race is all about. Maybe it needs to become harder and more selective but of course this is dependant on local geography.

    Lets hope it can maintain interest and keep going.

  2. Inrng, this is a great article. Your coverage of what goes on behind the sport to make for what we see is always very welcome, and this is just one superb example of many. Thank you for a great service.

  3. Maybe this race does not belong on the World Tour circuit? But it does seem strange that money gets thrown into events held where little actual cycling interest has been demonstrated, especially when they’re instantly awarded World Tour status despite never being held before. UCI as race promoter and sanctioning body creates at least the appearance of conflict-of-interest but until someone screams loudly enough (and maybe not even then) not much will change. I’m starting to warm to the pro league idea being floated, if for no other reason than their goals will at least be clear – it’s all about the money. The UCI flip-flops from sporting value to business interest as it suits them.

  4. So Gilbert was occasionally human in 1 day races in 2011! Great finish to watch yet (and this is no doubt part of the problem for the race) I somehow missed it.

    Admitedly I’m a fairly casual fan but I remember the acute post Tour de France blues being alleviated by San Sebastian – Plouay then got lost amongst my daily dose of the Vuelta.

    Not many World Tour 1 day races (Canadian duo given) clash with a grand tour. Maybe stick it closer to the end of the Tour de France and create a run of races like the 1 dayers that fall before the Giro?

  5. No race deserves a place on the calendar, many have been famous but now go. I like the idea of watching this race. If you want to see innovation, look the pair of races in Canada where they copied the ‘street sprint’ idea because the organiser has to start from zero.

  6. When I traveled to Europe I actually caught an edition of the GP Pluoay. It was a beautiful location and seemed like a course I would want to race on. That said, bike racing is boring to watch. That finish was exciting, so I don’t know what else can be done. As Inrng has written about before, this “paid” sport is really about large benefactors, whether for teams, or sponsors to bring the races to exotic locations (Oman/Qatar). So as rad as I found Plouay to be, it’s unfortunate that the money isn’t showing up to keep the race out of trouble.

  7. “… because outside of a handful of historic races, much of the calendar struggles to attract crowds, audiences and profits.” ~~~ very true.

    We might as well face it, bicycle road racing is basically boring, and especially so for those along the roadside. What attracts people is the spectacle of the event, not so much the racing itself. Most fellow racing fans I know (USA) are fans because they are riders themselves, participating in various forms of bicycle racing. I suppose in Europe this is much less the case, but even so …


  8. In the UCI’s defence they did send money to the race last year, the only event to get a subsidy from the UCI’s Pro Tour fund.

    I started off the piece thinking “will they have to make the race more dangerous to attract people” but the course changes are not too wild and reflect the changes many races have made over the years. It’s not a memorable race but the only other one day race on the World Tour in France outside Paris-Roubaix so it has a certain status. In time it’ll be interesting to see if this status helps, it should bring in precious TV coverage.

  9. This is something I’ve thought about quite a bit, and I have two points to add.
    1) As Paris Tours was part of the World Cup I’m curious why it didn’t get WT status over GP. Not that one is particularly more exciting than the other, though it could be argued that PT has the more well rounded winners list.
    2) You’re spot on regarding a race identity. Name two Italian one days? That’s easy; MSR and Lombarida. A third? Most may come up with Montepaschi Strade Bianche. But that’s a level below Italy’s Tre Valli Varesine, Giro dell’Emilia and Gran Piemonte which only the most enthusiastic fan could name (let alone their recent winners). While Montepaschi is only a couple of years old it’s gripping due to its unique and selective course and that Gilbert and Cancellara are recent victors. It’s a model for what race organizers can do to draw in the publics interest.

  10. Very interesting subject.
    The problem that riders should acknowledge is that the field splits less and less, breakaways almost never succeed, and that’s very bad for the viewer and for the business. The bunch has to break, more often than not, and organisers, Zomegnan the first, are fully aware by now. I don’t like the risk of crashing to be increased in order to create movement (although we shouldn’t shy away from giving a premium to skill and risk-taking). The alternative (beyond banning some radio uses and heartrate monitors) is clear: INCREASE MILEAGE. 375km is no exaggeration with today’s material, roads, and preparation. Such a lengthy race would, first, decrease the average speed (thus decreasing the advantage of drafting and benefitting breakaways), and second, it would give “personality” to the race. It’d be good if only 20 riders made it to the finish. THAT can be a show worth watching!

  11. I think this problem extends beyond just this race, but to the coverage of racing in general. By racing in general I extends this auto racing et al. One issue I see a lot is lack luster filming of the races. Part of this stems from camera men who know nothing about the sport they are filming. In auto racing this can be seen by where cameras are setup in corners where nothing ever happens and camera men who don’t know enough about braking zones to properly track a car going into a corner.

    Rather than just have camera men on motorcycles, put Go cams on every 3rd cycle in the pelaton. Get stationary cameras on points of interest and shoot through the Pelaton or stage these points with the pelaton going through them… you know use a little art. The helicopter shot is OK, but it is not the best way of highlighting scenarie and it isn’t the most interesting shot to watch a race from all the time. Last put people in the editing room, who are actually watching the race. How many races have you watched were the annoucers are desperate for footage but are stuck watching a helicopter fly circles over a giant smiley face in the grass? Get camera shots from those guys on the mopeds driving by churches and landmarks, all I can tell about a 14th century church from a helicopter is that it is made of stone… usually gray stone. Make people want to ride through these places themselves, that will drive tourism. Basically watch Top Gear or those guys on Drive for examples of how to stage shots, use filters and capture the sensation of movement… I am pretty sure I could get 4 people and film a better race (although it would have to be edited after the fact and it would involve a lot of driving at above the speed limit) than the dozens who currently slock it together. I am kind of tempted to try this with the upcoming Amgen.

  12. I would suggest running races through Safari parks with packs of lions being cut out of food for some days beforehand. I can imagine millions with their remotes sticking to cycling channel

  13. Free Concert; stick Mylene Farmer on the back of a hay trailer in the race caravan. Free Roller Derby; Put Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond on another while both of them go head to head in La Vie Claire jerseys, Lord Sugar the MC. Free Beauty Contest; Moving Miss Pageant of past and present podium girls, call it let’s say Miss Photo Finish? Also maybe they could introduce barriers for the riders to hop over every 20 km, just like in cross.

    Can’t be that hard to get things rolling.

  14. Easy way to make it survive is to invite Lance Armstrong…oh wait no, that’ll take up two thirds if your budget in appearance/jet fuel money. Then you have to ensure your testing package is correct, oh wait, ensure that the first three don’t get picked or that Lance isn’t picked for random…….

    In all seriousness I think the identity thing is the priority, with the right identity you have more chance at drawing in sponsorship money which is ultimately the answer to survival unless you have the budget to run you don’t run

  15. Easy way to make it survive is to invite Lance Armstrong…oh wait no, that’ll take up two thirds if your budget in appearance/jet fuel money. Then you have to ensure your testing package is correct, oh wait, ensure that the first three don’t get picked or that Lance isn’t picked for random…….

    In all seriousness I think the identity thing is the priority, with the right identity you have more chance at drawing in sponsorship money which is ultimately the answer to survival unless you have the budget to run you don’t run

  16. @MKent
    agree about getting different angles. horse racing and athletics have cameras that ‘run’ with contestants to the finish line. motor sport may not be perfect, but at least is somewhat innovative with in car telemetry (speed, revs, gear, brake and clutch use) and driver cam. if every second commuter in england (well judging by youtube) can strap a HD camera top their helmet it can’t be that hard to have one fashioned to integrate within the helmet. actually i think ‘ data driven athlete ‘ and others on youtube provide sometimes more interesting race footage (albeit at club level) from their local industrial park crit than some of the footage we get. the tour de france always looks brilliant, and oman’s little 2 minute wrap ups have been making great use of the backdrops, so it proves it can be done. i’m not sure how UCI races are funded and licensed, but maybe part of the fee (to the UCI, i’m assuming their is one) could purchase some of these features.

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