What’s The Point of the Off Season?

Joaquim Rodriguez

Pro cycling’s calendar runs from late January to mid-October leaving a vacuum that lasts longer than three months. All riders deserve a vacation and a chance to do something else. Why stop the show? Could the sport race all year instead?

It’s always good to question conventions and rituals and the off-season is one habit worth reviewing. I can imagine many a reader saying the riders need a break. Of course. In fact they need several and maybe it doesn’t always have to be in October.

A longer season isn’t a novelty. In times past the stars of the road would cash in over the winter with a series of six day races on the track. Before TV this was a way to make money in front of a captive and ticketed audience. A six day race was as grueling as a stage race on the road, certainly no off-season celebrity jaunt. In fact today’s tail wagged the dog back then, some riders would spend so long on the boards that the road season took time to get going. The race we know today as Paris-Nice did start out linking the two cities but first went by the name of Les Six Jours de la Route or “The Six Day Race on the Road”.

In a different sense cyclocross is cycling’s answer to winter sports, there’s even a concerted effort to include it in the Winter Olympics. Like track racing it was a way for road riders to keep in shape over winter but has mutated into a specialist discipline where few roadies venture. You can count the number of pros on World Tour teams who do CX on your hand, think Zdeněk Štybar or Francis Mourey and both are really CX riders doing the road with the Czech now going almost full-time for the road.

So what about a full road season like tennis and the ATP and WTA tours which go around the world once a year without an off-season? As an endurance sport cycling doesn’t compare to tennis. Obviously there’s a lot to be said for a winter break, a chance to rest after a season-long slog. The body and the mind need a break as both get stale, jaded after a long season. But doesn’t this argue for an earlier break in the year? Rather than racing from January to October, why not have some guys take, say, June off and return for winter. It happens a bit already, it’s common for many to take a break in May. Scheduling time off to suit a longer calendar shouldn’t be a problem.

It’s happening already too. The season used to start in March, now it’s January. But it’s still adjusted to suit the Euro-centric calendar. If there’s no racing in winter the calendar could be adjusted. Currently races like the Tour Down Under, the Tour of Qatar or the Tour de San Luis are bunched into Late January and February. Why not have a race or two in November, December and January? Going global means going where the sun shines.

So far all is is thinking aloud. Would we want a never-ending season? As much as we all enjoy the sport having a break means we avoid saturation coverage and TV fatigue. You’ll tune in for early season races but the shine wears off the longer the season goes on. But that’s your problem. You might want a break but if money never sleeps it doesn’t need a rest day yet alone an off-season.

There’s a business logic to it all. The sport was created to sell bikes, newspapers and promote resorts and the commercial imperative continues today. The closer you get to pro cycling the more apparent the transactional aspect and if there’s business to be done in the winter months contracts can be signed.

But for all the talk about business there seems to be a problem with supply and demand. If the sport roll around the world and visit the Southern Hemisphere from October to February it’ll need willing invitations. Only right now there’s not much there. Australia is hardly saturated with pro cycling but there’s not much room for more World Tour races. So where else? The problem is that the UCI is hardly turning away applications from Brasil, South Africa or Indonesia, it’s more that nobody from these countries has made a credible bid for a World Tour race.

In fact the UCI is going against a long calendar. Its 2020 reform proposals involve smaller teams racing fewer events. These changes don’t block a longer season, it’d be up to a team to allocate its resources accordingly, but they certainly don’t make it easier.

The sport is spreading around the world but the calendar remains very Euro-centric. If new races in new places are to appear they’ll have to happen in the right season, typically October to March for the Southern Hemisphere. Tradionalists might recoil but remember the sports traditions are relentlessly commercial and if there’s a bike to sell, a rental car brand to promote it’s only a matter of time until the sport seizes the day.

All riders need a good break but this doesn’t have to mean October-only. It wouldn’t necessarily be new either given some riders would spend winter, or at least a part of it, lapping the boards on the six day circuit. But for now the off season is here to stay.

54 thoughts on “What’s The Point of the Off Season?”

  1. Great article INRNG , living in Australia we don’t have an off season here .. criteriums reign supreme for most of the year even during the “offy” as they say here. You really did hit the nail on the head with the calendar’s Euro-centric focus, which is a shame really. I do wonder though if money never sleeps it might behoove the UCI to entice sponsors to such races as the Tour of New Zealand , certainly a race with the most spectacular scenery money can’t buy.

      • As a kiwi I would love nothing more than taking a week off in Jan or Feb to follow a WT ToNZ. Alas with our small market size and worst possible time zone for European tv viewing I can’t see it ever happening

    • It’s a tangent, I know. But can somebody explain the Australian requirement of adding “y” or “o” to everything to slangify it??

      Gerro and Oppy got together to share a pint to celebrate the offy. wtf.

      • It’s not just the Aussies. There’s Wiggo and Froomey. You find similar things in France, with Juju and Lulu as matey versions of Julien or Laurent. Same in Belgium and Netherlands with diminutive endings, like Tommeke for Tom etc.

  2. Sorry, but I like the rhythm of the off season. Gives me a chance to watch some CX races (which I’d never be able to juggle alongside the main road season), and to follow the Aus scene a bit more.

    Teams need downtime, INRNG! Time to recharge the batteries and run a pre-season camp or two where they can get everyone together in one place (this is impossible if trying to deal with a 12 month racing calendar. As it gets towards the end of the season, the riders – but also the mechanics etc – are counting down the days.

    • I too like a break, but the sport is so commercial if there’s money to be made things could change.

      As you say teams rarely meet in full, sometimes even the riders on a World Tour team won’t race together all year, even attending separate training camps.

  3. Some sports like golf with its Majors and tennis with its Grand Slams work as year long rotations with smaller events that only the hardcore fans pay attention to in between, while other sports such as most football codes build towards a big finale which ends the season. Cycling is odd because the biggest profile event, the Tour de France, occurs about 2/3 into the season. The sport’s timing is dictated more by the European climate than by any logic or marketing design.

    As the above comment notes Australia can make something out of this. With the Tour Down Under, the new Cadel Evans Road Race on Feb 1 and the Herald Sun Tour from Feb 4-8, there is now a mini-season of quality races which hopefully can attract the pros who have seen cyclocross taken away from them as a training method in the official off season.

  4. Why not something like swimming: short pool season and long pool season? Or a short-1-day races season, maybe 1 a week…maybe some criterium style: short (2-3 hrs max), smaller teams (3 max 4) I can see a bunch of cities in Asia, Australia and maybe South Africa / Kenya trying to promote urban tourism financing something like this if approached correctly. Maybe some events like the Challenge Sprint Pro (which I adored) or an application of that on high mountains like climbing challenge pro. Not WT status for the races…and these are just things I came up with reading the article (great article as usual, btw). Thing is the UCI should be the one spear-heading things like this instead of sitting on their behinds ringing their fingers over sponsors being hard to attract.

  5. I have been thinking for a while that there is a real opportunity for the UCI to enhance the existing tours in the southern hemisphere with additional races. The Tour of Hainan is just finishing, with a host of European teams already in Asia, surely it makes sense for the teams to get a bigger block of racing in Asia than to fly in for one stage race and fly out?

    Similarly, why not piggyback on the Tour of San Luis and try to tempt teams to stay in South America for Tours in Brazil and Colombia?

    Perhaps the UCI could look at the way RCS has strung together a series of races in Italy (Tirreno, Strade Bianchi and Milan San Remo) to keep teams on site for a block of the spring calendar. The logistics for teams should be easier to manage and the riders would get more racing in their legs rather than clocking up the air miles.

  6. While there are merits to this idea, the thought of basing around the flawed World Tour formula is what troubles me most. Perhaps this should be discussed in conjunction with other reforms.

    A race doesn’t need WT teams in order to be commercially viable. WT may appeal more to true fans, but the average public doesn’t know the difference. There needs to be more developmental races, and Pro Continental teams need more opportunities to race (as do Continental teams) and shine.

    If there were more race opportunities, perhaps there could be more Pro-Conti Teams. Despite a broad base of Continental Teams, we don’t have a pyramid, but an hour glass shape, which isn’t stable.

    • I have to disagree with you. WT teams contain the biggest names, the riders who pull in the audiences, roadside and TV, certainly in a burgeoning market such at the UK.

      Example: Tour of Britain with its star names such as Cav and Wiggins. Huge crowds at the roadside, at the starts and finishes, along the route. Coverage in the national media. Live TV coverage of the race, plus highlights package in the evening (because of the demand)


      Tour of the Reservoir. Roadside crowds amount to a handful of people and a few dogs. No TV coverage nor appetite for it. No media coverage outside Cycling Media and Velouk.

      • Big names are only big names to those who know them. We are talking cycling here, there are very few household names that transcend the true fans, particularly in these emerging cycling markets, which include much of the English speaking world as well as most regions below the equator.

        Keep in mind there are WT events with TV and few spectators (look roadside at the Vuelta for an example). On the other hand, I used to work at a UCI 1.1 race that had good (not great) crowds, and TV coverage without any WT level teams. The public got a good show, because year after year, the races were action packed and competitive.

        Remember, as pointed out on this site numerous times, most of the TV audiences at the TDF are primarily looking at the scenery.

        • And I’m making the point that the ‘average public’ knows the difference between a team that have a huge name in it like Cav or Wiggins vs a 2nd or 3rd tier team, none of whose riders’ names they know.

          OK, so the biggest name in a UK domestic road race this year was someone like Russ Downing. Think the average punter knows who he is? No. And at none of the races in which he appeared was there any kind of turnout just because it was a bike race.

  7. All year? Heck, I get pro cycling fatigue by like early August as it is. Get really amped for the Spring Classics, the Giro is interesting, and the Tour de France is the big show, but after that…. eh, I even find it hard to get into the Vuelta, though of course Worlds is special.

      • It would have to come with drastic changes to the delivery of the content itself, not the quantity.

        I would be SO down to watch pro road cycling all year if we had cameras on the bikes that the broadcasters could switch to, giving us eyes inside the bunch. As it is, there’s just so many bike races that are completely boring, even for fans. Hell, even the classics can be a snoozefest, this year’s Liege comes to mind, even Roubaix was pretty boring.

        We NEED to overhaul the content delivery. Why can’t we put camera on bikes and let teams charge for broadcast rights? It’s almost a matter of life or death for us. Pro cycling could and should be SO much more entertaining.

    • Basically the same here. I also happen to like football, but start getting footy-fatigue round about Strade Bianchi, which is perfect. Then when post-Tour, I’m a bit pro-cycled out, the football season starts afresh and I’m good with that again.

      I do kind-of follow the Vuelta, ToB, Worlds and Lombardia, but with nowhere near the enthusiasm of the Tour, the Giro and (especially) the Spring Classics. Sorry, cycling hipsters!

      All of which comes to the point – I genuinely don’t think there’s an appetite for year-round racing. Even hardened football fans – a sport which essentially rules the world, let’s not forget – generally agree that they need at least a month and a bit off each year.

  8. I just hope they don’t go the route F1 took with the calendar and that it remains euro-centric.

    F1 has suffered through aiming to expand and increase revenue. Driven by the need for more and more cash to fund a race (the hosting fees to FOM are enormous to start with let alone all other costs) leading to many a soulless new circuit (or Tilkedrome as some call them, after the bloke who designs them all) funded by a government looking to increase their prestige, a race that lacks a sufficient crowd watching and meant the loss of the more established European races to accomodate, as well as the expansion of the calendar to 20 races.

  9. What Ben said^.
    Seems like down under is viable, but traveling to countries that don’t even have bike shops, watching guys , or gals, ride around barren roads with one camera on a motorcycle is ludicrous.
    There’s an idea, have a Real women’s season. August,sept,oct?

  10. I am always surprised just how strongly I miss meaningful races/racing. I miss not so much the races/racing in general (although I’d watch if there were any races on) – I can’t wait for certain races to return, adding new stories to the old ones and compare the different years etc., so part of the “fun”is the anticipation, waiting for the new season and the next edition of a race. I don’t think controlling the season with rules for fewer races, smaller and less teams is the right course as cycling is already so absolutely hypercontrolled. And if there’d be serious racing the whole year, teams would have more room to invest their resources precisely at their targets and breaks could be taken when they are needed instead when it is possible to take them. But as pointed out in the post- as long as there are no races available, this is futile. Organizing a race at the toplevel is very, very expensive, demanding and complicated, so instead of adding new and more rules, the UCI should look into possibilities to support race organizers. There are countless ways to give races more depth, value and meaning, which would help the races, that don’t even cost money. For example, the easiest and first step: A rider gets ONE racenumber for the whole season (or maybe even a career), so he can be easily recognized by the viewers (and for the marketing stuff this would also be nice).

    • I think having one number for the whole season is a good idea. I don’t think you could do it for a whole career, because then you would wind up with a team of mismatched numbers (eg 87 next to 34) and it would be harder to keep track (eg over the radio for the teams). But you could have the same number for a season because the riders don’t often switch teams mid season. Perhaps to make the team rankings more meaningful they could number the teams based on their ranking the previous season. First ranked team, everyone on that team gets a number starting with 1, etc.

      Having one race number the whole race would also mean that (like other sports like football or the other football or even that other football, or hockey or netball etc) you could put large numbers on the back of the racers’ jerseys, to make them easier to identify. If it was always the same it would make it economically feasible, because you could reuse the jersey from race to race. And then more casual fans can go, oh hey there goes #34 again, he was good last week as well, what was his name? Rather than going, oh it’s another Tinkoff guy with a helmet on, not sure who though. Would also be helpful for long distance tv shots.

      I realise this would also mean giving the rider who won the race the previous year the number 1 would therefore not be possible, but they could instead get a different colour number or border or something (like how most combative gets a red number in the TdF).
      It might mean winners of eg KoM jerseys don’t wear a jersey with a printed number on it, because you can’t predict the wearers in advance, but they could just have their standard race numbers and a plain back.

      • But it probably wouldn’t be number 34; it would be more likely number 1034. While I understand the desire for a season long number, it isn’t going to happen without major rule changes.

        You need to keep in mind that under current rules there are 18 World Tour Teams with ca 30 riders each, 17 Pro Continental Teams with 15 – 25 riders each, and ca 170 Continental Teams of varying size, but even if the average number was 10, you have >2000 UCI licensed riders who all have the potential to race with one another at some point during the season (.HC, .1 races). There are even .2 races where PC & C teams race with Elite Amateur teams.

        Race numbers need to be able to be captured by photo finish cameras and clearly identified by the officials, this means an identical ink color and background (not on team colors). Follow the money; jersey space is needed for sponsors; teams are not going to forgo prime sponsor space on a jersey for the sake of large back numbers like in most team sports.

        This is one of the least of cycling’s organizational issues

        • Concur on the 4 digit rider numbers. It’s not like there will be more than 99 UCI registered teams. I’ve always hated explaining that this guy isn’t the same guy we saw earlier who is wearing exactly the same thing, and only the forearms and lower half of faces are not covered.

  11. A lot to think about here. Nice piece.

    I follow PRO cycling passionately, tuning in for all the Classics, the Giro, Le Tour, and a bit of attention to the Vuelta. I ride daily and it’s a wonderful compliment. I played lacrosse for most of my life and when the sport kicked off, it was always the first sign that the winter would eventually end and spring would start.

    I moved on from lacrosse after college and filled the athletic void with cycling. Now, Milan Sanremo is the first sign that winter will eventually end and spring is ahead.

    I follow a bit of futbol and some NHL hockey as well. But, cycling is tops.

    As much as I miss the races, I like an off-season. It’s fun to ride on Saturday and Sunday mornings and not have to worry about scheduling around the PRO races. It’s also fun to just change things up. I watch more hockey and I just do other things for Nov and December. Then it’s Down Under.

    I’m fine with how things are.

  12. It seems always that someone is going on about “fixing pro cycling”. What needs fixing? The world economy needs some fixing but Cookson and Co. aren’t going to do much there. Until there’s more money out there to be spent on things that can be promoted via cycling we’ll continue to see 17 teams duking it out for 18 WT places. Meanwhile the constant stream of doping scandals make even those with products to sell to buyers who might have the loot reluctant to be associated with a sport so prone to doping scandals. Until these two issues are resolved, all the rest of it is just off-season chatter.

  13. Make Cyclocross and Six Day racing part of the WorldTour

    Problem solved 🙂

    Okay, maybe not just that, but you know where I’m getting at. All these sub-disciplines are wonderful because it makes Cycling as a sport so diverse. I’d love it if the UCI would set it up in such a way that young riders are stimulated to actually ride in the off season, and to grow into a more all-round role, to be successful in all disciplines instead of the whole ‘I am just going to focus on my W/Kg and TT skills so I can win the only important race on the calendar’ mentality, of which we have seen far too much in the last decade or two.

    In that sense, my respect for Bradley Wiggins has grown tremendously over the last year. Yes he was a track cyclist who won the Tour, but then he went on to top10 in the Hell of the North and win the TT WC. If he’d decided to try his hands on Cross, he would probably become my favourite rider 🙂

  14. I don’t have numbers to support this but the perception is that cycling is growing fast in Brazil. There is an increasing interest from viewers and now there is direct broadcast of the three major grand tours with local commentary. It would be great if a race could be organised around the Tour of San Luis so that riders can stay in South America.

  15. I had the same idea as what inner ring has said in this article about a year ago, but my idea was to have an Australian/NZ grand tour over jan/feb and fill dec with maybe Asian prep races and keep the Middle East races in march as a prelude to the classics in April. A year round callendar that riders can dip into/out of as they need. Even possible to extend the American races by 2 weeks, push the vuelta back a into October and have worlds start of November to decrease the gap from the end of the season to a mandatory 2wk Christmas break. On another note I also came up with the idea of a breakaway governing body a few months before that storm blew in and out (haven’t heard about it for ages) but I think I do alright for original cycling organization ideas

    • Just as note, the climate of UAE/Qatar means that racing can’t go too late in the year. Even if the March average temperature is only in the high 20s, they do get days in the high 30s/low 40s which would not be ideal for bike racing in a desert environment. That’s why February is the ideal time for such events.

  16. One way to make the World Tour truly international and last the whole year, is to scrap the existing calendar of events and simply have a year-long ‘Tour de World’, a 30,000km stage race that visits 20-30 countries in a single lap of the planet. Just throwing it out there…

  17. I would gladly follow more pro cycling during the winter, but I wouldn’t want to see more road racing, It would be fantastic to have large numbers of pro riders doing cyclo-cross and track events. We could also device, perhaps in the New World, perhaps in Europe, new kinds of events that foster rider cross-dimensionality. I can think of a cycling heptathlon: where riders, for a week, have to show long-distance endurance one day, track pursuit the following day, mountain pass climbing the next, sprint another day, cyclo-cross the following day, also do a good TT, and in the end the most complete rider wins. Would be fun at any rate, but especially if big stars show up.

    Of course, it would take generous sponsoring, but I hope sponsors understand that it’s races where sponsorship should go, not squads (where it only inflates wages). Where there are events, there will always be racers, but the existence of cycling teams doesn’t guarantee the existence of races.

  18. I prefer an off-season. One of the reasons I stopped watching football (other than the ridiculous over-commercialisation and crazy ticket prices) was the saturation coverage with games almost every night of the week and a very short off-season. I grew up in the UK with weekly Saturday matches and big midweek European games. They were something to look forward to because of their relative rarity. All-year round riding would destroy the anticipation of the next season for me.

    • Great point! And I totally agree. Without something to anticipate and look forward to, the magic is gone.

      Waiting for the big game or the big race makes it special. I sure as heck know I trudge through winter rides looking forward to Milan Sanremo!

  19. I enjoy the offseason as it builds suspense for the next season, with all the shuffling of teams and rumors floating around about so and so’s performance and targets. As an American, I’m also a fan of the NBA, NFL, and CFB, and am quite accustomed to the 3-4 month breaks so when I just started to follow pro cycling (back in 2010) I didn’t find the offseason all that jarring, just the opposite and completely necessary and routine.

    Since I began religiously watching pro cyling another person who enjoys the offseason? My fiance!

  20. It seems I’m in the minority here, but my feeling is actually that the season is too long, not too short. I always think that it’s really exciting when the January/early Feb stage races start, but in the end they mostly feel like filler, and they don’t really contribute anything at all to the overall narrative of the season. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, on the other hand, feels essential — it’s part of the story of the beginning of the year, it has history, it sets up the conversation for the early monuments. Feb to Oct somehow feels right to me.

Comments are closed.