The end of the Tour de France gives most of us back our lives, but not Bjarne Riis. The erstwhile Dane spent much of the Tour answering media questions about his next team sponsor and what he’s going to do if (when) Fränk and Andy Schleck leave to start their own team. After announcing software giant SunGard as one of his future sponsors and confirming that he does, in fact, have a new title sponsor lined up as well, Riis goes back to trying to convince his other stars to stick with the cause.
With SaxoBank exiting the picture, we’ll have yet another iteration of the Bjarne Riis show, much the way we had 7-11, which begat Motorola, or US Postal, which begat Discovery Channel, or Reynolds, which begat Banesto, which begat Illes Balears, which begat Caisse d’Epargne, or the Rabobank team which went this way: Kwantum Hallen-Decosol-Yoko to Superconfex-Yoko to Buckler-Colnago-Decca to Wordperfect-Colnago-Decca to Novell Software-Decca to Rabobank.
Between fickle sponsors, inconsistent management and unstable rosters, one might argue (I am right now) that pro cycling teams have, at best, a loose grasp on coherent identities. We’re calling Bjarne Riis’ team SaxoBank at the moment, but we’ll call it something else next year, all the while aware that it is, at root, Bjarne Riis’ team. He is, for better AND worse, their identity.
This state of affairs stands in somewhat stark contrast to other sports where clubs or franchises maintain a consistent character for decades on end, an attribute which allows them to develop quite loyal followings based on a set of characteristics which transcends the current management, ownership and roster. It also allows them to sell a lot of merchandise.
As a result of its erratic nature, cycling is a harder sport to write about than others. So much of the shorthand that’s available to media when discussing soccer or baseball for example, just doesn’t exist for cycling. The current “rivalry” between HTC-Columbia (Team Telekom, T-Mobile, High Road, etc.) and Garmin-Transitions (Slipstream, Chipotle, Jingleheimer-Schmidt) contains a kernel of the sort of narrative that can emerge from a more stable peloton, but that kernel disappears once a title sponsor leaves and a few riders defect to other teams.
Instead of teams, cycling focusses very much on personalities, usually the transcendent riders like Merckx, Coppi, Anquetil, Hinault, Indurain, Bobet, Stablinski, Indurain, LeMond, Gimondi, Cippolini, Kelly, etc. etc. etc. For a team sport, the stories of individuals far outstrip the stories of great teams, and when we do talk about great teams, the stories are these ephemeral whispers about groups of men that came together at random, crushed all comers, and then slowly slipped away into the mists.
There are myriad reasons for the sport to have developed this way. The governors of the sport, from newspapers to private companies to the UCI and national federations, have never had a clear vision of what they wanted pro cycling to look like. Perhaps no other sport has undergone the transformations cycling has in terms of equipment, rules, team structures, and tactics. The current iteration of the Tour de France, as but one example, bears very little resemblance to the races of 30, 50 and 100 years ago.
In as much as cycling has survived and succeeded, it has done so in spite of itself. With its ever-shifting structure, the races have emerged as the true stars. If the teams have, by and large, failed to hold themselves together, to market themselves effectively, the races have, by sheer force of persistence, elevated themselves in the eyes of the fans.
We may, on a rainy, spring day, cheer on this rider or that one as they approach the velodrome in Roubaix, but none of us turns off the television when he, invariably, crashes out. The drama and spectacle of the events stands in for the tribalism of team support.
Perhaps this is at it should be. We may not have a favorite team (at least not one that lasts very long), but we have the races. You can not paint without a canvas. You can not ride without a race. And maybe, in the end, the fluid nature of a team sport dominated by individuals is best organized by the current system.
Still, as Bjarne Riis puts together the next version of his traveling circus, one has to wonder if a system based on franchises might not make more sense for pro cycling. The UCI already sells licenses for ProTour teams. The next step would be to attach some identifying characteristic to each license, a color, a name, something that would stick with the team, regardless of sponsorship. This would allow identities to form and grow. It would allow shirts to be sold, memberships offered.
There are a million possibilities, and if cycling is to go on, it will need to avail itself of some of them, for the UCI needs new ways to sell our sport in the wake of the doping era, the Age of Armstrong and the brief, wondrous life of Team SaxoBank.