Hidden Motivations

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 [1919] 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 thatMauro 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.

63 thoughts on “Hidden Motivations”

  1. Another excellent article.

    I don’t think there can be a pro bike race in Europe who’s parcours is not determined to some extent by politicians, normally Mayors, and sponsors money. Fans may not like it for many reasons, but no politicians and sponsors = no events.

    It’s what makes the wheels go round !

  2. Excellent piece. We might not like to hear it, but we do all know that cycling needs a willing venue and has logistical costs without even paying the riders.

  3. Like you say Sports and Politics are intertwined. So let’s talk politics for real then. It is the right place for it.

    I find it absolutely disgusting that the Giro is being used as a propaganda tool to portray the image of a stable & inviting state, and simultaneously undermine the cause of the Palestinians. We all saw the heat over calling the start ‘West-Jerusalem’, which the race organisers were then pressured to change. It’s ridiculous and sad.

    What’s next? Syria? North Korea? Or should I already follow the pattern here and instead refer it to as ‘Korea’?

    • We’ve had one of your countrymen in Pink, and currently an Aussie (when Cycling Tips tunes in later).
      It’s clearly a personal choice – for us, that is.
      For the teams, and organisers – “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business”.

    • The answer to what next depends essentially on three things: first if a country is a member of the IOC, as long it takes part in international sports then it’s on a list of countries that theoretically can host events. Next comes security and whether La Farnesina (Italy’s diplomats) advise it is safe or not. Third comes whether it is worth it, eg what is the cash payment and would this trump the image/embarrassment factor. Like it or not RCS won’t care much for you or I, only if there’s a vast protest would it matter… and there hasn’t been. We’ll see what the TV audience numbers are like soon.

      PS many readers will have a view on the Israel-Palestine question, if the comments go into “I think this” vs “I think that” and degenerate into a flame war on this it’ll be easier to zap or just lock the comments.

      • In TV terms, in Italy at first sight it was relatively bad but far from tragic.

        We’ve already got the data about the first three stages (which are comparable to past examples even when the Giro didn’t start on Friday given that Friday and Monday are more or less the same – in TV terms, I mean ^__^).

        Over half a million spectators for stage were lost on average when compared to last year (a -33% loss). Yet, this wasn’t as awful as the Netherlands, whose first three stages averaged 300k spectators less… than this year! However, the comparison with 2015 is again a bit worrying: even if it wasn’t as good as 2017, it still averaged 300k for stage more than Israel (which means that 2017 is -22% down when compared to 2015).

        Two footnotes must be added: on the one hand, foreign starts generally tend to have less spectators on Italian TV, even if the most recent Netherlands’ one was an especially low point (sadly, I don’t have stage by stage data for further back years). That would mean that, after all, the Israeli Great Start wasn’t as bad as it looks. Normally, audience goes some 20% down for a foreign start. In that sense, the comparison with 2017 is disappointing, but matching it with 2015 is more along the lines of what we might foresee.
        OTOH, though, the Giro has never been pushed as strongly as this year from its very start through every sort of media, especially generalist ones. Cairo is working very well from this POV, and the marketing growth has been scaled up again after last year, which was already impacting.
        Let me add a specific example, although it’s not about Italy: imagine that I’m seeing – sport! – articles about the Giro in the *local* newspaper of the relatively small town I currently live in (some 100k inh.). They’re partially being filtered down through a national network of local newspapers, but it’s all the same quite shocking for me… even more so given that the Giro *is not on TV* anymore in Spain (just Eurosport, which is pay TV, and the indomitable public but regional Basque TV – and I’m not living there, presently).
        In Italy, the Giro start had a full special first page on Gazzetta and was the very first news for several hours heading the Corriere della Sera website: all normal, given that they’re RCS? You might think so, but it didn’t use to happen at all (I’ve always wondered why…).

        Taking into account this sort of media campaigns, and I’m citing just a couple of situations but hundreds have been put in place, I’d have frankly expected a way better result, despite the ugly highway stages (boring stages aren’t that uncommon during the first weekend). In fact, those were the ones making things better, the worst result was obtained by the Jerusalem ITT, which I’d have deemed as technically stimulating and – I guess – maybe also interesting from a sightseeing POV?

        Probably, there was actually a little backfire in audience terms because of the political situation, but I’d esteem it no bigger than some -10%.

        Finally, let me add that, at the end of the day, the great audience of the first stages in 2017 didn’t translate into great overall figures. The Cairo media push worked great to bring on board the generalist public, but the disappointing spectacle offered by the first week scared a lot of them away. The second week was simply tragic (very poor course, too – you might not believe this, but course design is one of the main factor to achieve great audience figures), while the third was steady, rather good indeed. Curiously enough, the Giro tends to achieve very consistent final general viewing figures: for some reason, when it starts low, for example due to a foreign start, it usually happens that later weeks make for that. Let’s hope that this “unwritten rule” works again this year.

        • Were last years tragic viewing figures in part down to the lack of charismatic Italian stage hunters to fill the gap before the only really charismatic current Italian rider (Nibali) got to work in the final weeks important GC stages? I guess back in the day those sorts of stages would be contested/won by the likes of Cipollini, Peteacchi or Bettini who would have had their own large fan base?

          • No, I’m drawing a comparison among more recent years, say the last ten years. It was simply about one of the dullest 2nd weeks ever.
            For example, that same year the first weekend was a huge success despite the lack of Italian competitors.
            The national effect is noticed a little more when GC is involved (better result when a national rider is fighting for GC) – and it works worldwide.

        • The last five Giro foreign excursions including this one have been an ITT and two (effectively) flat stages, which makes them easier to decide to just look up who has won after the stage has finished. It would be nice to have an interesting lumpier stage, then we’d know if it was parcours or parochialism that causes the viewing figures to drop.

          • Both effects (at least).
            The difference in audience between a rolling stage and a flat one isn’t generally as much as it can be detected between national and foreign stages. TTs are worse (sadly) but we had one in Italy in 2015, too, or in 2013, in 2011… (a TTT, even less liked).
            More generally speaking, it’s not like the very first stages of the Giro are that compelling, not even on paper, irrespective of the country.
            Surely, as you say, foreign starts are usually especially depressing from a technical POV (albeit in 2010…), whereas maybe one out of the first three stages in Italian starts tends to be more interesting: though, translating that into average viewers over three days means that you could explain, say, +/-100k, not much more.

      • “PS many readers will have a view on the Israel-Palestine question … “, that is the issue is it not when sports and politics have mixed as is evident in this situation. The Israel-Palestine question is the politics. Mr. Vegni can advise that we should “stay away from any political discussion” but for many people it is a matter that can not be ignored. Whether the “protest” is significant measurably or not in viewership, I think that this year’s Giro is contributing to professional cycling’s continued downward track in its appeal to the public. What may eventually happen is that equipment sponsors find themselves to be part of a boycott as has happened in the United States to cycling companies owned by Vista Outdoor. It is obvious to me that my local bike store is dumping $150-$200 Giro and Bell helmets when it has lowered the price to $50. The brands may be good but their reputation as part of Vista Outdoor is not.

    • Neither Korea has a geographical restriction in its name: they’re either the Republic of, or the Democratic People’s Republic of, depending on persuasion. Nor does the “Tour de Korea” indicate that it takes place only in the South. (Unless, for some bizarre reason, the name is in Welsh.)

    • Qatar? UAE? Shining examples? No human rights abuses in these contries? Why single out Israel when there are many other countries equally bad if not worse?

  4. I suppose what makes the Isreali start an even more blatant money spinner/political propaganda tool was that the routes were so incredibly rubbish. Two stages mainly on entirely straight motorways is very unsatisfactory. Its like the RCS were only interested in getting the money, and the Isrealis were only interested in having the race, but the race itself was of no importance. You (Inrng) have said that the Isrealis perhaps wanted to show a better side of their country but they have mainly showed off two motorways and a desert. That’s hardly going to get the tourists in. The only other thing I noticed was a huge industrial complex next to a beach. Surely there are plenty of nice mountain villages or scenic tourist beaches, or would they be too dangerous?

    • I imagine the cost of security had something to do with where the routes could go. More interesting parcours might have been much riskier/more expensive to secure. From this perspective the fact that the 3 stages came off without incident is a clear success.

    • It was the same in Ireland – they went out of their way to make the road stages as flat and as featureless as possible.

  5. I was listening to the cycling podcast post stage 1, and Lionel Birnie said something along the lines of “it’s not a country that I had imagined visiting, but now I’m here I can see how beautiful the country is, and how nice Jerusalem is” etc. (I should have listened again to get the correct quote if I was using speech marks – so apologies if I am way off).

    But the principle is that “quote” proves that the euros spent has been worth it I think – ie it got the message out there that it’s worth considering Israel as a destination in a better way than any kind of high gloss advert could do. If that sentiment was echoed in other podcasts or articles then it posits a positive vision of Israel that the money men were after.

    • In the last year i’ve seen quite a lot of TV ad’s for Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that really highlighted and focused on the culture, architecture, food and entertainments. Those ad’s made the two cities look like really interesting and unique places to go and visit.

      The Giro showed me industrial desert for hours and hours and hours… The Ad’s were bright and unique and really made me think Israel is a place worth visiting. The Giro made me think Israel is mostly empty desert and industrial landscape, and frankly if i wanted desert and industry i’d go to the UAE.

      Granted that’s a personal interpretation. But i was also watching the Tour of Yorkshire this weekend and the views and camera work were exceptional, even getting passing parents to stop and take note. I showed them a bit of the Giro and there was a noticeble difference in their reaction. And they are not cycling fans, yet one cycle race got them interested and wanting to go on holiday (Yorkshire) and one bored them to death (Giro/Israel). I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to think more ordinary people, who don’t listen to podcasts or comments from riders/journalists, were not interested.

      • I noticed those Jerusalem/Tel Aviv commercials. My reaction was more to the line: Do people really fall for this Orwellian sh*t? Apparently yes, they do.

  6. Good piece, yes. The funny thing is that it is exactly the problem that Israel has about not being considered by very many a normal country, and about its policies (and its very existence) being questioned, or even rejected or loathed, that drives up the hosting fee. The worse its international image, the more there is an incentive for a country or place to invest in hosting the Giro, and the bigger the fee RCS can charge. Maybe Belarus, Morocco, Ukraine, or Albania will start thinking about reaching into their meager coffers.

  7. Mixing subjects slightly, but still on the subject of money. If a rider has his result rescinded due to an adverse drugs test, would his team be obliged to pay back the prize money won, and similarly would there be a clause written to reclaim appearance payments for the same reason?

    • Prize money is supposed to be repaid (and riders are invited by WADA to sue, eg if they’ve lost out to a doper then they can take action to get what is due). As for appearance money, you’d think so and certainly hope so.

  8. Wow, I didn’t realise that pro cycling’s history was so creepy. Thanks for blowing my mind. I might have to go back to cricket now.

    • Bartali? They have completely ignored Tuscany, Bartali’s birthplace. It does not look as if they were interested in honouring Bartali.

      • The Israelis honored Bartali. For his incredible efforts during the war to shelter Jews from the Nazis. I would imagine that the Giro has honored him before for his cycling.

  9. The three stages were boring, with lot of time riding on highways. But they had to avoid Arab villages, conflicting territories (along the borders with the Occupied Territories), displaced Beduin communities, and so on. Very hard to design an attractive parcours with all these constraints. But Israel and the Palestinian territories is a nice place for biking, with a wide diversity of landscapes, excellent people on both sides. I can only wonder, were the girls in topless paid to show their tits and give an image to the world that the country is very liberal?

    • Have you been to Israel? The parcour would not have been more attractive if they went to the “Arab villages” (although I’m not entirely sure what you mean by this). Have you seen one of the Bedouin communities in the Negev or elsewhere? They certainly wouldn’t have made the route more attractive.

      • To be honest, I am just complaining about not seeing tits when I lived there. Instead, Bedouins and ortodox Jews would throw stones at me. That’s unfair!

  10. I guess I will take the bait – not from inrng tbc, but from commenters here + elsewhere

    I don’t want to excuse anything the Israeli regime has done – the recent border clashes, the wall, the decade plus Gaza blockade, illegal settlements, the list is basically endless. Very clearly the Giro in Israel is prime hasbara. It is grotesque. It deserves vigorous criticism. And even if it’s totally business as usual – look no further than the FIFA World Cup – using sports to legitimize regimes always deserves criticism.

    At the same time – this is a sport that has yearly races in Qatar + Oman, and until recently had a yearly race in Qatar as well as 2016 Worlds, a sport that has one team at its top level directly sponsored by a brutal, corrupt dictatorship and another that’s the vanity project of a Russian oligarch. Vast human rights abuses, torture, migrant laborers held in virtual slavery, endemic corruption, another list that is basically endless. None of it gets anywhere near the same volume or intensity of criticism as the Giro in Israel.

    The selectiveness of the handwringing makes it a little hard to take seriously, I guess. Not that anyone should expect serious political opinions from the comments of any cycling website, even one as literate as this, but the hypocrisy has just been sticking my in craw the last couple weeks.

    Anyway, now it’s passed and cycling fans can get back to basically not caring how the sausage is made.

    • I agree with you that other countries deserve as much criticism, but many have complained about Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Oman’s races – I for one don’t watch them (and didn’t watch the races in Israel and also don’t watch races in China – as I’ve said before, it’s just where one chooses to draw the line). But I’m also a bit of a hypocrite, because I loved seeing Nibali’s victory in Sanremo even though he was riding for the Bahrain-sponsored team (who, like many, I have criticised).

    • You’re right, Israel isn’t the only shithole country propaganda stunt. But the criticism at this site on all the useless new desert races in Arab autocratic states will fill many pages. Like those on the useless Worlds in Qatar and the upcoming one in football too.
      And the criticism of useless foreign country starts of the Giro in recent years. Cause they’re just a TT and some only crowd pleasing, GC wise totally unimportant 2 days for random sprinters to get a day in the jersey. And that’s independent from any political points in these countries. I don’t need 3 days In Denmark. Netherlands or Israel. Or insane plans Japan or the US, where riders have to deal with pretty different timezones, for no good reason, except money. It should be about the sport, not who pays most money. It’s s still d’Italia, not the Giro d’wherever.

    • Tbf it is absolutely true many people here + elsewhere have criticized the various Gulf state races, and teams directly sponsored by repressive dictators + autocrats. And because humans + our societies are imperfect, there will always be choices about where draw one’s lines. I’m certainly not above it, in this instance I still follow cycling despite knowing all these things.

      It’s just hard to dispute that it’s anywhere near the volume/intensity of the criticism specifically directed at Israel. To be sure that’s an ongoing part of the vastly larger Isr/Pal etc issues which cycling is only momentarily brushing up against, and there’s endless counter + counter-counter arguments (Israel claims it’s a liberal democracy so should be held to a higher standard of criticism than dictatorships, etc) but as inrng notes below we’re certainly not going to solve anything on a cycling website. I just wanted to note it briefly.

      Anyway, like I said, now it’s passed. On to Etna + beyond.

      • And those other States don’t organise a cycling race in *direct* connection with a overheated situation they’re creating in that same moment…

  11. I’m sort of curious which of the safe, liberal democracies surrounding Israel that various commenters would have preferred the Giro start it?

  12. Perhaps the incredibly boring scenes from Israel were precisely what the ministry of tourism wanted!

    But in all seriousness Stage 3 was utterly horrible to watch a very very very long trip down a straight motorway through the desert, what was the point.

    BTW the same, very not quite the same but similar, could be said for the awful Armagh – Dublin stage when the Giro came to my country. Lots of terrain that could have been used but instead the riders cruised down the old Dublin to Belfast main road.

    Does anyone know how much input the host country has in picking the actual route?

    • In case of Italian stages, a good deal of work is usually done by the local “stage commitee”. Obviously, Giro staff negotiate that, and I even imagine they fully design some stages, but some others are proposed as we end up watching them by the local groups. I don’t know if the same is true for foreign starts…

  13. Really interesting article. I think that the nuance of how race routes are put together depending on the political aspect of towns wishing to host is something that I’ve not really thought about but is obvious when you state it. Cycling is unlike many other sports in that you need to shut roads / city centres down in order for the race to take place and the decision to do that will essentially be a political one.

    I assume that areas who bid for starts outside the host country will primarily be looking to publicise their country / area for various reasons. Here in Yorkshire considerable claims are made about tourism and visits as a result of the Tour de France coming in 2014. That event was also used to launch the Tour de Yorkshire as part of the legacy which has been phenomenally successful (around 2 million spectators on the roads last weekend with fantastic racing) and has led to the Worlds coming here in 2019 and now talk of the Vuelta coming as well. So from Yorkshire’s point of view the audacious bid to get the tour has been brilliant for cycling fans here.

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