Plus ça change

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?

18 thoughts on “Plus ça change”

  1. There are many variables which may contribute to make bike racing exciting, and they should all be considered. I hope the UCI under new management and race organisers will take notice. Getting rid of those dam controlling race radios would be an excellent start ! If safety is the cry – and I for one do not buy this line from those advocating it, then let the organisers inform the riders of safety concerns by radio.

    • Sensible can be good but it can be boring too. What makes the sport unique today is its audacity with events held for 3 weeks, in the snow or searing heat. These things interest and inspire people to watch but the 2020 plans just look “sensible” without a lot of inspiration.

  2. But….the ‘plans’ are preliminary and subject to a great deal of change between now and 2020…

    One of the biggest challenges is the continuing disappearance of European races. And no new stage race in the Middle East is going to make up for that. But with the model so firmly rooted in the traditional racing countries of races being fully or part-funded by local or regional govts that are now bankrupt…personally I struggle to see what the UCI can do to shore them up.

    • European races are disappearing because of the UCI’s efforts to demote them by raising fees and requirements.

      Their goals remain to turn the UCI into a closed loop of the UCI/ASO/RCS running the sport.

  3. Ahh, Winning magazine….whatever happened to that!?

    I remember watching the 1989 Wincanton Classic (the “Summer International” that Rupert Guinness refers to) on the TV. I remember the novelty factor much more than I remember the racing, let alone the winner.

    • Wincanton Classic (also known as Leeds International Classic and Rochester International Classic) was a cycling classic taking place in the United Kingdom as part of the UCI Road World Cup.
      It was first held in 1989 in Newcastle, moving to Brighton in 1990 and 1991. The following year it was moved to Leeds, to be known as Leeds International Classic between 1994 and 1996. In its last year it was held in Rochester as Rochester International Classic. In 1998 it was replaced in the UCI Road World Cup by the HEW Cyclassics.

      1989 Netherlands Frans Maassen (NED) Superconfex
      1990 Italy Gianni Bugno (ITA) Chateau d’Ax
      1991 Belgium Eric van Lancker (BEL) Panasonic
      1992 Italy Massimo Ghirotto (ITA) Carrera
      1993 Italy Alberto Volpi (ITA) Mecair
      1994 Italy Gianluca Bortolami (ITA) Mapei-CLAS
      1995 United Kingdom Maximilian Sciandri (GBR) MG-Maglifico
      1996 Italy Andrea Ferrigato (ITA) Roslotto
      1997 Italy Andrea Tafi (ITA) Mapei

  4. Sim1 is quiet correct to point to the ever growing reliance by race organizers in the ‘old world’ on local government support. With the euro economy looking in difficulties for the foreseeable future, this has proved to be an unreliable model. Outside the WT things are equally difficult for organizers, and many events are only surviving because of the immense efforts and dedication of race organizers. Not sustainable for the long term future. Some of the newer global WT events are also on shaky ground. New ideas and models for sustainability are urgently required. Team finances are not the only issue.

  5. World Cup, World Tour, Pro Tour, etc. I believe Mr. Mars and Co. sent cycling down a dead-end road with this idea. Their intentions may have been good, but what has actually improved in pro cycling since the article was written back in 1989? As a guy who started paying serious attention to pro cycling in the early 1980’s as Greg LeMond had success on the world stage, I’m scratching my bald head trying to think of what benefits this scheme has produced over the old Super Prestige format?

    • Agree – a season long competition, covering one-day races only (ALL the classics and semis, plus the odd “novelty” race if needed) seems the way to go. Including GTs and the other stage races just doesn’t make sense.

    • The big change is certainty of a ride in the Tour de France for teams with a World Tour licence. Get a licence and you get a ride.

      But trying to make a season-long ranking to compare GT riders and classics contenders is confusing and still little more than a game of arithmetic.

      • Lots of changes (mostly for the worse) but I asked about BENEFITS. As Gerard V. pointed out elsewhere, his team was able to get into Le Beeg Shew without being forced into this expensive top-tier scheme. Sure, all the big teams show up to all the big races, but how many are just making up the numbers and fulfilling the requirements ala Euskatel at Paris-Roubaix? Meanwhile, the cost of running a team large enough to fulfill these commitments went through the roof with more riders, staff, equipment, etc. All for what? Besides putting money into the pockets of Mr. Mars and Co. of course!

  6. A few years ago, I threw away all my copies of Winning magazine. I hadn’t been into cycling for many years.

    I remember reading about Sean Kelly, Lemond, Fignon Fondreist, etc.

    Now that I am “coming back” into the sport, I regret immensely throwing away those Winning magazine. It hurt.

    • Ah yes, I’ve fond memories of Winning magazine – carrying a stack of them around in my school bag in place of perhaps more relevant reading material. Mine disappeared too but I do still have my first ever cycling magazine, the Inside Cycling guide to the ’87 Tour. Anyway, enough reminiscing…

  7. Not to hold football (euro or usa) on a pedestal too long, but replicating the lessons presented around ‘team’ and ‘franchise’ could benefit cycling. In both, you follow a team, not an individual. Teams compete while the franchise is the presenting cover – whether that supported through strict guidelines limiting individuality or the tight grip on content produced. Every game counts and every score matters. Limit further the number of teams that can compete in events (take 10 teams of 15 to the Tour) – spreading the opportunities across the globe (no automatic entries based on ProTour status). There are too many teams that ‘mail it in’ and use as training. Larger teams will change the competition equation. Increase team scoring frequency – allowing for individuals to shine but only in the context of a team win.

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