Increasing commercial pressure… the World Cup… Defensive maneuvering abruptly swept away any instinct for the offense… highly paid riders lured by bigger financial carrots… a greater marketability for the sport globally… tarnished the traditionally promoted heritage… the equation of prestigious races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders with virgin events like the coming Summer International in England.
Changes to the calendar threaten the sport. Riders chase monetary incentives instead of glory. The racing risks becoming boring and defensive and new events are piled on to the calendar for the sake of globalization. A critique of the UCI’s plans for 2020? No, an assessment of the 1989 spring classics season by Australian journalist Rupert Guinness.
That’s an article from Winning Magazine in 1989, thanks to the reader that sent in the copy. The whole piece is well worth a read because it shows anxiety as cycling ventures abroad, the fear that riders are motivated by money rather than glory and the UCI’s plans for a season-long ranking aren’t welcomed. Yet alone understood.
Cycling is by its nature a defensive sport. You have to sit on the wheels in order to win. It’s also been about money from the sport, the biggest difference between amateur cycling and professional cycling is money not speed. A neo-pro will always notice the step up in speed and talent but if the pro ranks are 5% faster or require 10% more watts, that’s a small increment compared to the increase in salary, budgets, prizes and media coverage.
We will always fear the loss of the good old days but in reality there are plenty of dud races every year where riders are risk-averse and TV viewers are left feeling the experience didn’t match the hype. This year’s Tour of Flanders and the Amstel Gold Race weren’t that compelling and the Tour de France has many stages that are high speed linear processions to the finish line that end in a sprint finish. Personally I find sprint finishes fascinating as they’re becoming a team sport and tactics are constantly evolving but market research suggests the average Jean Doe finds it all too boring and besides, even the biggest cycling fan doesn’t have to tune in for three hours of live TV before we get to the final 20km. It’s the same for all sports, there are predictable games and dull matches.
Pro cycling is still trying to find its way today but the world around it has changed substantially. Go back to 1989 and places like France and Belgium had just a handful of TV channels and satellite broadcasting was just starting. A bike race could always count on a decent audience because there was little else to watch. Today race organisers know they must offer excitement. This explains the haste in changing the Tour of Flanders route and the grand tours are embracing shorter distances for mountain stages in a bid to make the peloton a boiling cauldron of aggression rather than a slow stew.
Note the article mentions Edwig van Hooydonck, the Belgian rider was a big classics contender who quit the pro peloton as he felt he could no longer keep up as the use of EPO became widespread in the pro peloton. Now his nephew Nathan van Hooydonck will ride for the Bissell U-23 team in 2014 and could well be a classics contender during the next decade. What will the next generation think in 2030?