The default reaction to hearing that a grand tour will starting outside its home country is a firm “no”. As said here before to see the Giro starting in the Netherlands was to imagine a pizza topped with Gouda and herring: it’s just wrong. Then it happened, you see the crowds and everyone enjoying themselves and it began to look worthwhile.
Israel? The crowds didn’t look that big and often the race was riding past barren landscapes but if this looked boring, maybe this was what they wanted, a chance to show alternative images of Israel to the ones you see in the news. The last three days seemed more of a grande bonanza than a grande partenza with talk of large hosting fees and the usually hidden aspect of appearance fees briefly going public.
To those who say “sport and politics shouldn’t mix” I sympathise, we’re here for the sport. But pro cycling is riven with politics and business, sometimes more than any other sport. The route exists thanks to politicians and money makes the wheels go round. When Giro race director Mauro Vegni designs the route he can’t break out the maps and sketch the route he wants. Instead he works through a list of towns and cities willing to host the race and bid for the privilege. The route is dependent on politicians.
New for 2018 is the race is returning to Rome. It’s great that Giro finally visits and even finishes in its capital city. Now let’s drag politics into this because it’s because the mayor of Rome Virginia Raggi (pictured) has paid for this at a time when she and her Cinque Stelle administration were under fire for bungled management of the city. Bread and circuses in Rome, who’d have thought it?
Go back to the start of it all and the Tour de France was a publicity stunt to sell newspapers in 1903. Specifically to sell L’Auto, a paper whose genesis came about via the Dreyfus affair, a huge anti-Semitic political scandal in France. Once the Tour de France became established its co-creator Henri Desgrange loved to use the race as a vehicle for French identity and nationalism, taking pride in racing right along the German border and stopping in towns reclaimed from Germany following the end of World War I. He used L’Auto and the Tour de France to promote French nationalism. The Giro hasn’t been much different, its own website tells how “the first act of the  Giro was to go to Trieste and Trento, which had been won back from the Austrians. In these two cities, where it was given a triumphant welcome, Costante Giradengo raced by wearing the Champion of Italy jersey with the colours of the Italian flag, bearing the message of reconquered Italy.” See how it visited Trieste again in 1946 under armed escort. A central theme of John Foot’s excellent history of Italian cycling Pedalare! Pedalare! is how cycling has been appropriated for political ends over and over again and if anything you almost lament the way cycling has dwindled in importance today in Italy as measured by the lack of politicians who can’t be bothered to show up at the Giro these days.
The start in Israel shows just how biddable the Giro is. It goes where politicians pay, be it Rome, Herning, Belfast and now Israel. A start in Tokyo has been explored followed by an ascent of Mount Fuji and now there’s talk of a grande partenza in Brooklyn too. Both seem logistically too far but if the price is right it can happen, especially if the teams can be brought on side… or should that bought on side?
Not that the Giro is unique. If you’re excited about Liège-Bastogne-Liège leaving Ans for Liège then it’s just not for the noble reason of reinvigorating the race but instead owes itself to political quarrelling in the Walloon socialist party that went as far as a mafia hit job, a tale that reads like a Belgian version of The Wire. The Flemish classics literally follow the money, to finish where a local mayor will pay, to the point where Gent-Wevelgem – which no longer starts in Gent – doesn’t have to finish in Wevelgem either says race boss Wouter Vandenhoute. The UCI has acknowledged the 2016 Worlds in Qatar being a money-spinner, if the race had a dull course and no crowds then at least it boosted their coffers to fund development work elsewhere. The list is much longer.
Pro cycling has and continues to contort itself for money. What’s galling is the inability to say it out loud. The Giro can’t admit it went to Israel because someone was willing to pay a fistful of Shekels, instead peddles lines about exploring new lands, uniting religious traditions and so on, much like a 21 year old bride might speak of love prior to marriage with an octogenarian billionaire. Whatever the messages and justification the primary factor is the money, the race would not venture so far out of charity. At least the media are open about it, if the exact sum isn’t known then a €10 million has a hosting fee has been quoted a lot in the cycling media and the mainstream press, a multiple of the sum collected for previous foreign starts in Belfast and Apeldoorn (total cost €3-4 million). Still as much as this big round €10 million number gets cited we don’t know if this is gross or net for RCS, eg does the race fund the logistics the cargo 747 flight to ferry all the bikes, wheels and more or do the Israelis pay on top for this? France’s Liberation puts the total spend in Israel at some €27 million.
Another hidden item is appearance fees for star riders, one of those topics that exists but nobody can talk about. “A start fee for Froome? I flatly deny that” Mauro Vegni told cyclingnews.com last year. Yet the other day Vegni was lamenting that he was kept in the dark over Froome’s salbutamol case… when negotiating an appearance fee. So there is a fee, only technically it is paid to the team rather than the rider. Who paid, was it the Giro or the Israelis? Liberation again quotes Sylvan Adams, the Canadian real estate billionaire and now Israeli citizen who is behind the grande partenza in Israel as saying [my translation] “we hope to have Froome, even if it costs a lot” so perhaps the Israelis paid? After all if they’re going to host the race it makes sense to go big and ensure the start list looks strong, so that people don’t question why the country has paid so much only to see the big names not taking part. It means when Froome says making history is “a huge motivation for me, that was part of my decision-making process in deciding to be here, in that I won the Tour last year and the Vuelta” we now infer that another part of the decision-making process could be a seven figure sum but nobody can be open about this. While on the subject Vegni also let slip that the Giro pays teams participation fees linked to the riders they bring. All teams have to get an expenses payment to take part but what Vegni was saying was interesting, that he increases the fee according to each team’s roster. Maybe this explains why Tom Dumoulin is back again rather than be seen to graduate from the Giro to the Tour de France? Maybe, maybe not but because these payments aren’t public we’re left guessing.
Follow the money. The sport goes where the money is and Israel is the latest and the most controversial examples but is part of a continuum, the whole Giro route is dependent on sport and politics mixing, every stage finish happens because of a contract with a local politician. Granted the finish in Caltagirone today or even Rome later on may not be on your political radar in the way Israel is, after all there are probably no UN resolutions about municipal administration of Caltagirone. The race may say it wants to avoid sport and politics but it can’t. When Vegni says “the reality is that we want it to be a sports event and stay away from any political discussion” you can see why he doesn’t want to have his pink party interrupted by politics but the Giro, like all pro cycling, sits in the middle of a Venn diagram with sport, politics and business. If anything the start in Israel and the declarations in the media have helped to shed light on this aspect with hosting fees for the start and appearance fees for riders briefly becoming a public topic.