Friday Group Ride #101

If you had asked me where the Willunga Hill was five years ago, I’d have probably guessed New Jersey. Now I know the aforementioned topography can be found in Australia, and serves as the major climbing obstacle in the Tour Down Under, the January kick off to the pro-cycling season.

The TDU hits the Willunga Hill tomorrow and wraps up on Sunday with a circuit around Adelaide.

Shortly, the world’s top pros, the lion’s share of them Europeans, will battle head winds and dash for finish lines in Qatar. They’ll move on to Oman after that.

There is a reason to this globe-trotting rhyme having to do with climate, sponsorship and expansion of the cycling brand. While some small races (Etoile Besseges, Challenge Mallorca, et. al.) do stud the late winter calendar in Europe, the UCI has sought to jump start its season by traveling to the weather. In this context, Australia, Qatar and Oman make a lot of sense as venues.

Further, deep pocketed sponsors in those countries want pro racing. Qatar, in particular, is forcing itself into the international sporting scene, not only hosting an annual, but also securing the football World Cup for 2022. The UCI, in pursuing a more global strategy to growing the sport, are understandably happy to sanction big bike races for big money in small, wealthy nations.

But while the Tour Down Under stokes the fire of sporting passion in Australia and the burgeoning presence of Aussie riders in the pro peloton, one has to question the strategy behind events in the Middle East. With exactly zero representation on the ProTeams, Qatar and Oman are not exactly hot beds of cycling passion. Race video shows long straight stretches of dusty roadway occasionally dotted by small bands of curious onlookers.

Other than cash and carry commerce, what is the real point?

The Tour of Beijing this fall highlighted the profit-centered strategy of the UCI in stark detail. Many top teams were reluctant to participate but were then seemingly strong-armed into showing up by UCI head Pat McQuaid, who wrote a memo threatening the sponsorships of teams who failed to toe the line. The Tour of Beijing is put on by Global Cycling Productions, a for profit organization that lives within the UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland and staffed by senior UCI officials.

Over the last two years the UCI has been assailed from most quarters, criticized for their stewardship of the sport in the areas of doping control, equipment standards and rider safety.

This week’s Group Ride examines the nature of globalization, its positives and negatives. Few would argue against the good of expanding cycling to a global audience, but is simply following the money the best way to do that? Without connecting top level races to roots level organizations, is the UCI actually succeeding in making cycling more popular? Or do you see the shift of the race calendar out of Europe as simply a dilution of the cycling brand, designed to enrich the governing body? What are the positives and negatives to this new paradigm?


Image:  CJ Farquharson, Photosport International

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  1. Ransom

    Wow, that’s a toughie.

    To take a swipe at one tiny and simplistic fragment, cycling is a pastime and interest with a heavy emphasis on tradition and history. As an American cyclist, I know that for me there is so much tied up in the European history of cycling. Things French, Belgian, Italian, etc…

    But is that truly intrinsic to the sport? Or is it just a dilution of the pure endeavor of cycling? Riding a bicycle, and racing a bicycle, can obviously be a wonderful thing in any country and any culture. Is the emphasis on history and associated Europhilia just an anachronistic elitism serving to make the perception of cycling elsewhere somehow less than it really is?

    Both the history and the pure pursuit have value. I’m not sure how to draw a conclusion. Clearly, I’m not even sure how to draw a summary…

  2. todd k

    More events can actually enhance the depth of the sport by allowing more opportunities for drama to develop. Example: Griepel has some nice results, but has he closed the gap any to Cavendish. I am interested in this story in January only because of the TDU. It also allows for more opporunities for more obscure pros, neo pros or developing pros. Example: Will Clarke.

    The current approach seems pretty favorable. The newer races out side of Europe tend to fill gaps in the calendar that are otherwise unraced by a significant pro event.

    I do think there is a saturation point, however. I don’t think folks want to choose between watching a Classic race such as Paris Roubaix and a small stage race that occurs on the same weekend. I am also unsure that folks want 52 weeks of racing. Given that, I have a hard time seeing more races on the calendar. And most folks don’t seem to want the current races to dissappear.

    What I have yet to see, however, is clear evidence that this has grown the audience, increased the participation of folks in cycling or provided professional cycling an improved revenue stream. Does anyone have a link or evidence that supports this?

  3. David Hendry

    It is so much fun to read about people who think that the business of “name whatever sport associated activity” has anything to do with the fun of or love for the sport. At the turn of the last century cycling was huge in the USa, because big money was involved. then nascar happened and cycling died, cause big money was not involved. Now the UCI chases money around the world instead of just Europe, just like most European and North American businesses and the fans wonder if it is good. Who cares, there is money to be made and as long as there is, the pros will follow it. Even to the USA if s deep pocket sponsor hoves into view.

  4. Jesus from Cancun

    I think that the romance of cycling will always be European racing. Alpe d’Huez, Mortirolo, San Remo, Lombardia, Koppenberg, Carrefour de l’Arbre, Champs Elysees, Mur de Huy…
    All the ‘places’ that mean something to cycling are in Europe. I think the heart of the racing season should stay where it is.

    But I think is good to expand the cycling calendar to other remote places around the globe. There are now good races and racers from Malaysia, Singapur, South Africa, Middle East… The peloton’s country flags keep adding, and the sought after globalization of cycling is slowly happening.

    So why not? Give Oman, Malaysia, China et al their races, either at the beginning or the end of the season. For the big guns they can be great good weather training races, for others they can help save a bad season.
    For upcoming riders, these are their chances to shine in the presence of some big names who might have their minds elsewhere.

    And for us who can’t wait for Milano-San Remo and who feel that Lombardia was eons ago, these races keep us loggin in searching for cycling stories and results. That can only be good for the sponsors!

  5. Boz

    The expansion is, in my mind, is pure and simple marketing. The growth of the higher end products needs new market to open to move said products. Wealthy countries that are major markets for the exotic autos are a good place to move carbon and titanium $5k + bicycles, clothes, shoes, etc. Good business is all it is, and those rolling billboards that are pro racers have become are an effective marketing tool at a fairly reasonable price. Emerging markets need love too!

  6. Jank

    I think it’s a good thing, and hope that pro cycling continues to grow until there are overlapping races that Pro Tour teams have to consider which one to attend.

    My mental model is kind of like the model that exists in soccer/football – strong, strong national or continental teams that get together periodically to beat the snot out of each other. Picture a world in which American teams race their own spring classics, like the Tour of the Battenkill and the GP Montreal, north American ‘Grand Tours’, etc, in parallel with the European schedule. Ditto an expanded Pacific schedule – TDU, Tour de Langkawai, and more. As South America continues to grow, expect to see more Colombians and Brazilians staying home as pros.

    Then each July, the best of the best duke it out in France. Different racing styles, a first week of racing where there’s action as the continental big dogs feel each other out …

    I’m all for it. Get bikes on the road, get cycling in the global culture. Europe has been a great incubator, but holding on to the idea that the old ways are the best ways gets stuff placed in a museum, or cared about only by those with both disposable income and time.

  7. randomactsofcycling

    I think if you follow the money, you’re heading for disaster. If you’re goal is to expand ‘the sport’ you are also heading into murky waters. If the goal is to expand cycling in general, then Pro Cycling is not the way to go. There’s a lifestyle choice that has to be made and lycra is not a lifestyle choice many people want to make.
    To truly build the sport, the governing body cannot be involved with the promotion of races for profit. That is insane. They must also have an arms-length relationship with an independent drug testing organisation. The UCI has unfortunately not moved ahead under Pat McQuaid’s stewardship (I refuse to call it leadership). There certainly is more money in Pro Cycling, but it is concentrated more and more at the very top level. I think the grass roots is suffering and the general push for the use of a bicycle as a lifestyle seems to be lost in the smoke and mirrors of the Pro Tour.

  8. Simon

    Globalising the sport’s fine, but the UCI’s ignoring places which do have a cycling history – witness the farce going on with the Vuelta Columbia. Qatar, Oman and Beijing get fawned over. Plainly, it’s about the money. I’m more equivocal about riders from other places – the Iranian dude on radioshack(?) springs to mind. Plainly, the racing isn’t at the same level, but again, you can only beat what’s in front of you. It’s tough for the riders who take hits off the back of it, but is it all bad? I don’t think so.

    I would agree with randomacts that the money there is is being concentrated at the top. I’ve heard several arguments from team principals for TV revenue sharing, and that makes me nervous – it’s kind of like the chosen ones being-handed-the-keys-to-the-kingdom thing – I can’t articulate it any better than that, I’m afraid, but I don’t think it’s the answer for the good of the sport. My benchmark is – could Cafe de Columbia – Luis Herrera et al – happen now? Right now, I think the barriers to entry to the top level are just too high.

  9. Gnome

    Mass appeal (or simply, the desire to have it), by its very nature, dilutes a brand. Of course, that is also a question of relativity. Those of use who have been entranced by the classic days of doping on the Euro stage (and its days of yore as well), can certainly see this as a breech of contract. But even then, with only three grand tours, we did not have enough. Thus, the current expansion in no way reduces the value of what cycling should be when the stage becomes the world. The question then, is a reflection on where cycling has been, and the uncertainty of its new found growth (all while disregarding, of course, that Pat McQuaid is at the helm). It is all good from here, and if it is not, then we’ll just have to be happy with what it already is.

  10. Moose

    I think folks are connecting the wrong dots when they equate the proliferation of races in exotic locales (Qatar, etc) with an expansion of the sport’s appeal. The UCI’s main prupose is to connect sponsors with new markets for their products. Cycling isn’t the product, it’s the tool for delivering it. That said, I don’t think UCI’s profit/sponsor-centric focus necessarily hurts cycling. As long as races are fair and clean, whatever UCI does is either neutral or slightly helpful to our involvement in the sport. Aside from product development and the occassional “Lance-effect”, the particpation in cycling (local racing, centuries, weekend warriors, etc) seems rather indepenedent from the sponsorship-driven professional circuit.

  11. Doug Page

    Putting on a race is one thing, getting viewership for the race is another. Quatar et al may be good for UCI coffers in the short term, but showcasing boring races not well attended in the host country devalues the sport- IMHO.

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