Cycling has to change. Too many races resemble each other and don’t attract the audiences they did 20 years ago. The economic model isn’t strong enough. Teams and races are struggling. We need change.
This could be a synthesis of Oleg Tinkov’s pinot noir induced Twitter rants but it could also sum up the state of cycling over a century ago. The Tour de France was born out of desperation, the mother of all newspaper promotion stunts and the event launched by Henri Desgrange in 1903 has become the greatest asset in pro cycling. Why? Because it makes people dream.
If you’ve got the post-Tour blues, it’s normal. July is what we want cycling to be, a summer party with the best riders and saturation coverage. August reminds us what pro cycling really is, with small races, patchy coverage and the white noise of scandal and bickering over money.
Desgrange and his colleagues created something that wowed people. Today we add the World Ports Classic or the Dubai Tour to the calendar, at best they’re fun for locals who get a race in their town but for everyone else there’s little to spark our interest.
What’s the most successful new race in recent times? You might say the Strade Bianche. It’s hard to know about the financials of this race but it’s made an impact. Racers want to ride and fans around the world delight in the sporti and the scenery. When Oleg Tinkov bemoans that “everything hinges on the idiotic ‘ciclismo storico’” here’s an example of old-fashioned cycling put in a modern setting that’s thriving and popular. But what if the Dubai Tour was the real success? Buried in the accounts of RCS is a line showing €4.5 million of revenue for this four day race. In comparative terms it sits second only to a Tour de France grand départ for revenue, the going rate for the Giro’s own grande partenza is about €3 million. It’s here that you can see the difference, what you thought was an inconsequential pre-season training race in the sunshine is making many team managers get dollar signs in their eyes. But it doesn’t make the public dream.
There other ways to excite. Returning to Tinkov again, cycling’s version of a court jester, his Million Euro grand tour indecent proposal got people talking. We listened, it happens when a billionaire speaks. If Ag2r’s Vincent Lavenu or Giant-Alpecin’s Iwan Spekenbrink had made the same proposal it would have got a fraction of the attention. But money talks so let’s run with this logic: imagine a race with a one million Euro prize for first place. This big fat round number could attract wider attention. Of course it’s an expensive stunt but it’s one way to make riders and fans pay attention. Whether it would draw in the wider public remains to be seen, a million for a win is no big deal for many sporting events. Of course winning the Tour de France will earn a rider a million or more, it’s just the ensuing employment contract and endorsement deals are not as sizzlingly obvious as the image of a rider being presented with a billboard size bank draft in a podium ceremony. It’s as if the public have to see a large piece of cardboard being handed to the rider to believe a race is worth millions. The stunt has to be visible.
Desgrange’s formula was for a race so wild it captured the imagination. Before the Tour de France cycling could pack out velodromes but the idea of riding from city to city was audacious as a test of stamina. Underneath this it was clever too, it took the racing to the people and, in lapping France, was an expression of nationalism which mattered at the time. Today a four week grand tour can’t happen and taking the sport to the people means television. It’s hard to see what more can be done to wow people. Refined production techniques, geolocation and on-screen watts are evolution and will enhance the experience of those who watch already rather than excite, say, Brasilians, Indians and Chinese audiences into discovering the sport.
If Desgrange created something to dream about, if anything the problem today is that dreams have become impossible, a rider only has to win a race to invite suspicion. Right or wrong for now it’s a fact, a legacy of the last 25 years. One big reason blue chip sponsors like Nestlé, McCain, Douwe Egberts and Škoda sponsor the Tour de France and other events but won’t go near a team is because of the scandal: naming rights are a two way street, you can have people painting your brand name on the road but you can also have a scandal named after you. Team finances will look a lot better when squads prove in the long term they can run a clean ship.
You wonder what Desgrange would make of the sport today, amusing “his” race makes money while L’Equipe, the descendant of the Auto newspaper, loses it, the publicity stunt has become bigger than the product behind it. Desgrange was an austere figure, would he think the sport had become too big? Or would he want it to get bigger, to look around the world for new sources of money, perhaps trying to grow his franchise and to put RCS Sport out of business with the same malice he applied to taking out rival newspaper Le Vélo? He was a nationalist, maybe he’d want to replace money-grabbing trade teams with national teams; actually he did this in the 1930s.
Henri Desgrange thought about aborting the race in its early years as it was beset it problems but it contained the spark of genius that allowed it to become wildly popular. Today it seems hard to wow people with a bike race, rather than going for unthinkable distances the winning formula today is shrinking distances, see the 110km stage to Alpe d’Huez in the Tour de France, a spectacle that’s made for TV but a means to allow cycling to compete for market share alongside other offerings. For all the talk of calendar reform, race boycotts, revenue streams and other plans for the future there doesn’t seem to much to dream about.