A Tale of Two Cars

The USA Pro Challenge had Lexus as official vehicles. The Tour de France has Skodas.

Before you leap to the comments to defend Skodas, I know they’re practically the same as an Audi or VW and one large difference is the branding as well as the price. That’s the point.

There’s a big gap between audiences in the “new” world of cycling in the English-speaking world where cycling is booming and the “old” world where it is established. To caricature the audience in the US, UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand is small… but wealthy; the audience in France, Belgium, Italy and Spain is huge but in a lower income bracket.

The US Tour de France TV audience averages a meagre 288,000 and peaks at close to a million. Nice but less than one tenth of the audience in France. As said before during the season Denmark has ten 100 times the total audience of the USA despite a population that’s 50 times smaller.

Those in the US are typically keen cyclists while the majority of the audience in France don’t ride, even to the shops – a majority of the fans watching the Tour by the road want to see the caravan, not the race. In fact once the caravan’s rolled by you can spot people leaving before the riders arrive. This has ramifications for the audience. It explains why the likes of BMC, Giant, Cannondale, Trek have eponymous teams in the World Tour – it’s a way to crack the large US market.

The American riders will always be most sought after because the big cycling brands are American and behind them there’s a big market
Alex Carera, rider agent, L’Equipe 8 July 2014

Carera explans why teams often need an American rider as an ambassador to help crack the market. It helps explain Chris Horner signing for Lampre-Merida and more. Nationality isn’t the defining point of recruitment but it is a significant factor.

The audience split also explains why French teams are sponsored by car rental, the state lottery, subprime consumer loans, health insurance and why Skoda is one of Europe’s most prolific sponsors of cycling. Skoda’s a brand belonging to VW Group and enjoys a reputation as cheaper brand in terms of value and the typical audience for cycling in Europe is in a lower income bracket. It’s an opposite of Lexus, a luxury brand created by Toyota to sell premium cars that’s backing cycling in the US.

It’s not Lexus vs Skoda either. Team Sky are sponsored by Jaguar, a premium brand owned by Tata Motors, to tap the booming cycling market in the UK and beyond. Cross The Channel and Citroen, a maker of cheap family vehicles and vans, sponsors Peter Sagan, Ivan Basso and others.

The Problem
There’s a hitch. Sponsor a cycling team and you can either reach the mass market in France or you can target a premium niche audience in the US. For a brand this isn’t ideal, it suggests a split audience. US teams tend to orientate themselves to cycling fans, European ones to households. In Belgium the majority of sponsorship seems to comes from construction materials with Quick Step flooring, Renson cladding, Soudal adhesives, Belisol windows and Wanty roadworks.

All this is reductive and caricature. There will be a Parisian hedge fund manager buying premium bikes to put in a Lamborghini and not every Brit or American who’s started cycling in the last 10 years is a dentist/lawyer/architect with a team-issue Pinarello or Cervélo. But marketing is about stereotypes and the simple, even simplified, take is that markets like the US are full of enthusiastic consumers of cycling with the wealth to buy team-issue bikes.

It’s great to see Lexus and Skoda sponsoring the sport. Skoda could be the most prolific sponsor of the sport. But spot the difference between a premium brand in the US and a value brand in Europe. It’s just an example and you’ll find all types of people riding in all places, cycling is neither polo nor boxing. But two car brands help tell us something about the audience for pro cycling in cycling’s new and old worlds. Sponsorship means different things in different markets.

65 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Cars”

    • More like Rapha’s choice to pay up to be Sky’s sponsor shows how savvy they are at getting their name in the right place at the right moment to expand their brand’s reach.
      I’m sure Sky are very happy to have Rapha (somewhat cool, somewhat exclusive) as their clothing supplier, but they wouldn’t be using them if they hadn’t offered to pay more than MOA/Vermarc/Santini et al.

    • I accept I’m not the target market but Ive never got this tie-up. A premium, exclusive, niche faux- heritage brand associating with a team aimed at the mass-market/casual fan, with an unloved multi-media corporation as headline sponsor. Look at Rapha’s own marketing and the people and images are about as far removed from Sky replica-clad hordes as its possible to get.

      I also thought Pinarello selling budget ‘entry-level’ bikes in Halfords (a national auto-parts-and-accessories chain with a growing sideline in bikes, for the non-UK reader) was a bizarre move that would damage the brand, guess it’s just as well I dont work in marketing!

      • I guess if you want to be associated with a team then you need to accept replica kits as part of the deal.

        As for Pinarello in Halfords – if they can use it to get people to buy a first bike from them, then maybe there’s more chance that they’ll upgrade to a fancier model from the same brand. I assume there’s a bunch of British kids growing up right now who will remember the likes of Wiggins and Froome and will want to ride their bikes. They need to provide them somehow, and Halfords is a great way to distribute them.

      • “Halfords (a national auto-parts-and-accessories chain with a growing sideline in bikes…)”

        Halfords is the UK’s largest seller of bicycles, mainly childrens, entry level and commuter bikes that gather cobwebs in the garage. With the exception of CBoardman branded cycles their quality is questionable. What is not questionable is the poor consumer experience and the bike build quality. Halfords mechanics are renowned as being far from experienced or expert.

  1. It may be silly/off the topic of this article, but I wonder if the TV exposure figures aren’t correlated to the time zones difference as well as the market characteristics you explain.

    I am not sure how these figures are calculated or measured, and if they manage to include on-demand replays for example, but from what I understood TV audiences are highly dependant on the time of the day. A good rating figure for an morning show is significantly different than for an afternoon or prime-time show.

    The world tour racing being so dominantly in Europe I wonder if live TV is really the media of choice for people eager to follow cycling outside of the euro time zone.

      • Ironically here in Australia SBS’ live coverage of the Tour and the Giro rates rather well, but there is of course the problem that most bike races take place during the day when people are working, or even on weekends when they might be out of the house.

        Cricket suffers the same problem. The purists love test cricket that is played under the sun and goes on for 5 days, but the advertising dollars are now with Twenty20 that can be wrapped up in 3 hours and happens in TV’s prime time.

      • TV audiences are low in the UK for WT events because none are typically shown on any of the ‘big’ channels that people are mentally trained to watch and the one free digital station (ITV4) that shows the occasional event (Tour live and highlights of Vuelta and the occasional classic) does not have UK-wide coverage. UK audiences will NEVER pick up unless ITV1 or BBC1/2 have events on live.

        The editorial gate-keeping of radio and printed press doesn’t help either – it takes a good deal of dedication to follow cycling in the UK. The main sport station 5Live has an appalling attitude to reporting cycling news. Stannard winning the Omloop was IMO newsworthy on the monday morning main bulletin but not a peep. So long as the UK media sees cycling as Tour only, nothing will change. On the other hand, Andy Murray breaking wind in some 4th rate whackabout in South America or Asia will be a headline that has to be covered.

        There was an interesting article in Pro Cycling this month about TV coverage. There is so much that can be done to improve it without getting all technical (which does seem planned anyway). Informative onscreen graphics (without going down the line of the robotic stuff the US races use) regularly shown would be a start. An audience can only grow if people buy into what is being shown – if it’s gibberish to the casual watcher, they’ll switch off.

  2. “As said before during the season Denmark has ten times the total audience of the USA despite a population that’s 50 times smaller.”

    Almost 100 times the total audience (44.13 vs 0.45).

    • current population of Denmark in 2012 was around 5.59M. If the audience in the USA is 288,000 and the audience in Denmark is 100 times that, then it must be 28.8M. Which would constitute a fairly high birthrate or a huge level of imigration.

  3. This makes a lot of sense. The contrast between the US and Europe is probably exaggerated by the fact that some of Europe’s luxury car brands and German and therefore affected by the general German vacuum effect when it comes to pro-cycling. German car brands seem very anxious to demonstrate their connections to cycling (and to sell bikes!) without getting tangled up in the tortured history of pro-cycling in Germany.

    An Audi bike promo (80 km/h without an Alpine pass in sight): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_h-WxZgMfM
    A BMW bike: http://shop.bmw.com/de_DE/p/lifestyle/sport/bikes/bikes/bmw-cruise-m-bike-2014/80912352294/
    Porsche bikes: http://www.porsche-bike.com/de/die-neuen-porsche-bikes/
    SMART: http://www.smart.de/de/de/index/smart-electric-bike.html

    Some of the bikes sold by German car manufacturers are fairly expensive luxury toys aimed at the much the same demographic that buy the cars – there is a bike/car crossover with brands designed to prop each other up. But it doesn’t seem to be assumed that these luxury car/bike buyers will be avid pro-cycling fans who ride expensive road bikes.

    Speaking from experience, it’s actually very difficult to ride a road bike in Germany – if you follow the signs for bikes, you could be ten miles down a perfectly usable asphalt cycle track when it suddenly turns into a muddy cowpath or gravelly forest trail without any forewarning and leaves you wishing for a cross-bike. If you follow the ordinary road signage, you may suddenly run into a “No entry for bikes” sign or – more likely – be forced to used roads that aren’t especially pleasant or suitable. So you can basically only cycle a road bike on routes you have already checked out on your cross bike. OK for training, not so much fun for exploring. Even people who own road bikes in Germany tend to spend a lot of time on their hybrids or mountain bikes.

    • Sarah …. I´m really not sure what and where you´re talking about because since moving from Sydney Australia to the Ruhr area in Germany I´ve found the experience of riding in Germany to be very good, in general. By and large most drivers are pretty good (as opposed to not even being “good” as much as using you as deliberate “target practice” around Sydney.) Even though most Germans think that in the Ruhr – one of the most densely populated areas of Europe with Dortmund, Essen, Dusseldorf all in close proximity to each other – “it´s too busy to ride a bike” , 20 mins from my door I can ride in beautiful rolling countryside either on bike paths without any cars or quite roads with minimal traffic….many of my friends comment on my pictures to say “is there no traffic where you live?!”….. Give me riding here in the open countryside to taking my chances in Sydney any day! (Plus Belgium is and hour and a half up the road by car and spent the weekend in the Vosges – hard to do that from Sydney!) I´d say to lots of my old Australian friends forget spending the money on the 2nd (or in some cases 3rd) 10,000 dollar bike – get on a plane and come and do some riding in Europe…you wont regret it.

  4. Cycling is also used to market to a population in the USA who values an ‘active lifestyle’. Not only is this evident by the TV adds during race broadcasts but in the growing trend of showing people and their bikes in a growing number of adds shown at all hours. This also seems to be in contrast to the European target demographic.

  5. To your point re hedge fund, I am holiday in the Var at the moment and rode beside a guy from Paris for a bit on Sunday. I was on my PlanetX training bike, he was on a Look 695 top of the range…

  6. It’s always been of interest to me the difference in NW/OW cycle racing.

    Having grown up and worked in bike shops and raced in the US ( California) in the pre-Greg Lemond days, bike racers back in he day, in the broad US were viewed a curious quirky european subculture anomaly?

    Then Triathlon became huge in California and all things changed! cross training, $ 10,000 carbon fiber bikes and Lance Armstrong…

      • I really enjoyed Breaking Away the first time I saw it. Years later, I realized they were clueless about the tactics of competitive cycling. Good flic though!

    • Dunno whether you can blame/credit triathlon for this as those folks don’t much care for bike racing other than TT bikes for their own sport, but it’s certainly true back-in-the-day roadies in the USA were folks who spent all their meager earnings on a pro quality bike and attached it to the roof of an often cheap car to get to the races. The joke was the bikes were worth more than the car! Nowadays with $50K SUV’s, even 3 $10K bikes on the roof (or usually hanging on the back since the damn things are too tall to mount bikes on the roof) aren’t enough to exceed the value of the car. Then the “racers” inside pull out a few pairs of $5K race wheels to slap on the bikes and you can see the demographics are VERY different from European cycling fans. One reason for the poor viewing numbers in the USA TV market might be the generally dreadful coverage if the recent USA Pro Challenge TV show I watched this past Sunday was any sort of example. I consider myself an avid cycling fan but must admit this two hour show was right up there with watching paint dry in the entertainment category. Really awful.

      • “back-in-the-day roadies in the USA were folks who spent all their meager earnings on a pro quality bike and attached it to the roof of an often cheap car to get to the races.”

        Still the same in Italy (mostly).

      • In the US, most are busy engaging in their active lifestyles. After watching the race pass on the roadside, they then continue their activity. Bikikng, hiking, picnic, or whatever. Then come home to catch the recap or replay on tv or the internet.

        • This is an interesting comment because here in Europe the caricature of America is of a nation of gun-toting obese people who while loving the outdoors (hunting, guns), live relatively sedentary lifestyles.

          • Most people in the US are obese, poorly educated, and think bicycles are on the road for target practice with their cars. Living in Northern California however, my town is full of fit, active & educated people that just raised our local taxes to build bike paths! And yes, for most of my life both my road & mountain bikes cost more than the car they were mounted on.

  7. I’m not too interested in the marketing but the recent Colorado State University and visit Colorado commercials have been better/less embarrassing than the senior citizen ‘I’ve fallen and can’t get up’ ads during the Tour.

  8. Brilliant observation.

    I don’t understand the numbers, though: if a stage in the Tour de France – the WT-race – attracts between 288.00 and 1 million viewers, the accumulated(?) number of viewers cannot be 450.000. I think (but have no concrete evidence) that just Paris-Roubaix will have a larger live audience than that in the US as well.
    I also find it hard to believe that the number of viewers in Canada is more than 10 times that of the US, even though they house two WT-races.

    Likewise the total number of Australian viewers has got to be more than 170.000.

    • I read the Australian figure as 17,000,000 which is about 85% of the population so is therefore probably correct.

      0.17 when translated into millions is 17,000,000. ie just add 6 zeros.

      • If that were true more than the French audience would be close to 100 billion. I know they like their cycling, but that seems to be a bit too much. 😀

        • It’s a “cumulative audience” above so someone watching 20 stages of the Tour de France is 20 views, 10 million people watching a TV news bulletin in the evening that includes some stage highlights are added. The methodology seems complex but I put the chart in for illustration.

          • The numbers just don’t add up.

            If on one stage of the Tour de France a million US based viewers tune in, the US should already have a solid 1 in the chart. Now they only get a meagre 0.45 for the entire season.
            If there are only 100.000 viewers for a stage, but those people tune in for 10 stages, the US should also already get a solid 1.

            I am guessing there are about 200 WT race days in a year. If the 0.45 would be correct for the US on average only 22.500 US viewers would tune in. That’s way too few and can’t be rigth.
            (By the way: If it were true WT pro cycling would not be an interesting market for any company in the US).

            However, if we follow MK’s suggestion, on average 4.8 billion (yes, 10 digits) French would watch a single WT race day.
            For France the stated number of ca. 4.8 million viewers (200 race days) seems likely.

  9. After rereading your post, agree nice to have an American on your team (Merida) for promotional value. That said it should be noted that Horner did win the Vuelta last year, and he comes cheap.

    Breaking Away was a great film, and it did get a few more kids out racing bikes in the US.
    I remember the “bad Italians” with a totally black kit throwing a Silca pump into the US kids wheel!

    Only time you saw Euro-cycling films in the 70-80’s was once a year late at night in the art movie houses small crowd and we all knew each other.

  10. Really interesting split! It would be funny if wealthy Americans started buying Skoda cars thinking they were a premium brand. Given that they sponsor cycling and therefore must be a premium brand mentality

    • Except the USA gets only the VW branded product rather than the cheaper Skodas or Seats. Remember also the buy-in to supply a few Lexus SUV’s for a week in CO is a far different project than equipping LeTour. And I believe Skoda has backed away from supplying cars to the Giro as they once did. Same with FIAT – I they replaced Peugeot at LeTour and for awhile supplied cars for a lot of big races including the Giro before cutting down to just LeTour and then getting out of it altogether. I can remember when BMW provided cars and motos to the Coors Classic, but again it was a small program compared to LeTour. The fancy Jaguars supplied to SKY reflect the current MAMIL fad in the UK, which I predict will fizzle out just as road riding in the US has once BigTex was done.

  11. In Australia, Subaru sponsors CA and provides all the official race vehicles for championships and NRS races. I’ve been driving them in week long stage races and championships over last couple of years. Not bad cars but heavy on fuel compared with my diesel Golf!

    • Subaru also provides vehicles for Tour of Utah. Here in the US they promote themselves as being the car for an active lifestyle. Lexus provided vehicles for the USPro. They are trying to reach a more upscale audience in Aspen/Vail/Breck who travel from around the world to be there. Even in Colorado Springs where they started stage four from the community surrounding the Broadmoor .

      In the US it is all about marketing to an upscale audience.

  12. What’s the US market oriented value for Lampre-Merida in having Horner on their roster? Lampre is Italian pre-coated steel and Merida doesn’t sell their bikes in the US at all due to their 49% ownership stake in Specialized. Cheap signing for his ability and results, sure, but not sure he’s the best example of signing for an ambassador to the US, or one at all.

  13. I’d rather a skoda octavia than a lexus! Especially for getting to the races!

    On the level of money spent on bikes relative to demographics I have always found the relationship between road racers and their steeds interesting here in Ireland. Whereas a large demograph of the sportive and weekend rider types are in the middle managment sector with a good bit of casual expenditure, racing, to me, seems like a much more grassroots and working class make-up. Tough men who love sufering for 2 hours in the rain! That being said the amount of Giant Propel Sls, Scott Foils etc kitted out with Zipps and the like at weekend races is huge. The bike worth more than the car (certainly in my case) adage is very true.

  14. There are also reasons to sponsor a team that are not directly linked to tv-viewers- building a certain image as a brand, using the sponsoring to entertain clients, people you’d like to hire etc..
    Being able to go for a ride with a Tour de France winner or to be in the pitlane of a F1 race is a very valuable asset. Even if your main target group isn’t watching all the WT races, you can use the fact that you sponsor a team in all other advertisments to build recognition and become or mantain a healthy image. So the viewers are certainly an aim for sponsors but there are more reasons to sponsor a team than that.

  15. My best wheels cost more than the farm pick up i drive. Makes me laugh when ever i get pulled by the Rozzers, they fail to recognise the value of my bikes compared to the beat up 20yr old Landrover one is driving. I can honestly say in 40 odd yrs of buying push bikes except for the 1st, a Rudge which came out of skip, my formula has not only been ‘spend more on the 2 wheels than 4. But if tis a 100 pound car its a 1000 punt bike.

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