A misleading headline but reports seem to be running with a similar title. What’s misleading? The Beijing authorities pulled the plug as opposed to the UCI deciding to call time. Does the causality matter? Yes, substantially so because the sport loses a top race in a key market and the World Tour calendar shrinks, something the UCI probably wouldn’t want if it had the choice. So much for globalisation.
But if it’s a setback for the UCI it could be better for everyone in the long term. No more conflict of interests between promoting events and designing a calendar and if China is going to have a big race, there are some case studies on how to build a sustainable event.
Is it news? Loyal readers will have read on here in August that the race was ending but what’s new this week is that it’s confirmed by the UCI and today L’Equipe newspaper seems have some more info on the background. L’Equipe report the Beijing Sports Bureau didn’t like the change of regime at the UCI and felt it lost its contacts within the governing body (ie Hein Verbruggen has been ousted). Instead the city is putting its efforts and money behind a bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Many riders and teams will be relieved. By this time of year everyone’s looking forward to time off. Nobody’s stupid enough to say it publicly on Twitter but avoiding a long haul flight, the health risks from polluted air and contaminated meat is a bonus for 2015. But the relief of a few riders is small, there are more fundamental issues at stake.
First up is globalisation. Losing a big race in a big country is never good. China has some stage races on the Asia tour but this was a different event with some of the top riders attending. However in the absence of local stars – even when the UCI bent its own rules to allow a Chinese national team to ride – it felt out of place. You feel for the Chinese cycling fans who lose out on a chance to see the stars visit but no race can be run for the privilege of fans only.
The Tour of Beijing did claim a large TV audience but it never had much of a following. A contradiction? Not necessarily, a snippet on a TV news bulletin counts as an audience under some metrics so getting on the evening news bulletin in China means reaching hundreds of millions in one go. But a 90 second clip isn’t enough to showcase the sport nor satisfy its commercial demands. On the ground there seemed to be more police goons on the course than spectators although races from Switzerland to Utah show this can be universal.
The dash for globalisation sounds good, after all who wants a parochial sport? But one race in China doesn’t equate to globalisation, a truly worldwide calendar would see events spread evenly around the globe, each commanding reciprocal TV audiences. We’re far from that and whether the sport can spread itself so far is a big question. Today the top teams in pro cycling are backed by a lot of sponsors with a domestic or European reach at best; you can’t buy a Belisol window in Spain. One of the reasons Belkin are pulling out is because the sport is so Euro-centric for TV audiences. But even Euro-centric is a shorthand label because the sport’s reach varies, there’s excellent reach into France, Belgium or Italy but less so into Britain or Germany, two key markets for any pan-European brand.
German Case Study: Germany is an interesting example because while the sport’s been trying to crowbar intself into China it’s almost ignored a giant market of 80 million wealthy consumers on its doorstep. This is all changing with talk of German TV returning to the Tour de France (ZDF will return but only with race reports and no live airtime “because of costs”), the Giant-Alpecin team which will be registered in Germany and Team Bora plus talk of a Tour de France grand départ in Germany. Note the comprehensive approach with TV coverage, teams, sponsors and races all appearing together.
The UCI’s role
“We don’t think we should be a major organiser of bike races”
– Brian Cookson (L’Equipe, 24 September)
After globalisation the second issue is the UCI, money and its race organising entity Global Cycling Promotions. GCP’s been controversial, relying on money from various sources to stay afloat and even allegations of the UCI threatening teams and their sponsors if they didn’t ride. In the latest annual report from 2013 GCP had stopped being loss making but the accounts report a CHF 77,000 annual profit…but only after billing the UCI 85,000 in consultancy fees, a curious transaction.
Stopping now means no potential for income just as the finances were beginning to turn. But it should be a more sensible decision as going by the translated quote above from President Cookson the UCI won’t try to promote races. This makes sense because GCP was a significant conflict of interest, for example the UCI fast-tracked its own races onto the World Tour calendar when anyone else wanting to get their event there didn’t have it so easy.
If it’s exiting the race promo business the UCI seems keen to find a replacement event. L’Equipe also reports UCI President Brian Cookson saying “we’ll have to find another event to end the road season“. What to do? The Worlds could be pushed back to October but the risk is many riders have already stopped and October could mean dismal weather across a lot of Europe; besides the national team format is at odds with the World Tour. So do we have a new race or use Il Lombardia as the final event?
The UCI unveiled the 2015 calendar yesterday. Beijing is the change, all the other races are the same including the classic Paris-Nice/Tirreno-Adriatico and Dauphiné/Tour de Suisse overlaps. This will all change in future years with the proposed calendar reform.
The World Tour loses a race for 2015. Events come and go but add this to the fact that 17 teams are chasing 18 spots for 2015 and the sport’s top calendar isn’t yet the premium circuit it should be.
Some might cheer the Tour of Beijing’s demise but unless you’re a rider forced to go when tired after a long season that’s mean-spirited. Once a race vanishes it’s twice as hard to resurrect. China should be encouraged to bid for a new race but it’ll have to present a plan that excites the local media rather than being reliant on relationships between a few top officials in Beijing and Aigle. There’s a good lesson here in how to build up a race as opposed to dropping it onto the calendar via a committee meeting.
Lastly the UCI’s getting out of the race promotion business, a good idea and just in time. It can focus on its core duties which become more important with the proposed calendar reforms.