Friday Group Ride #294

Friday Group Ride #294

I miss pro cycling. I do. I miss milling through piles of magazines, reading badly translated interviews, and reloading pirate internet race feeds in order to follow it. And while it’s true that I do still engage the top level of the sport occasionally, tuning into mountain stages of Grand Tours and some of the one day Classics, by-and-large I have stopped following the pros.

I was thinking about this on my ride into work today. What am I doing with all that time I’m not spending reading about the Euro peloton? As it turns out, I’m spending it reading it about Euro soccer, which led me to thinking about the popularity arc of pro sports.

You might argue that we are going through a “morality” filter with our sports now. Undoubtedly, the relentless cheating of pro cyclists took its toll on the sport. Athletics (track and field) is going through its own doping era now, the continuation of an earlier era, almost quaint now, when anabolic steroids were the problem. Tennis is in a vulnerable moment. Even America’s NFL football is wobbling over the long-term health of its players. Fans are still watching, but fewer and fewer are allowing their kids to play, which is a long-term recipe for decline.

Like any entertainment, sports need to be sensitive to the evolving tastes of their customers. Too many believe in the cult of their own personalities, ignoring new social mores that erode their popularity from the outside in.

I think pro-cycling will make a comeback. Brian Cookson’s tenure as UCI chief has been remarkable for its lack of controversy, common-sense changes being implemented, politics taking a back seat. And while I don’t think Cookson is a real revolutionary in sports management, I do think that calm stability has a lot more value than people think. Now the UCI are negotiating with ASO about the make up of the Pro Tour, and certainly there are landmines within that discussion, but these are the things a sport has to figure out to move forward. This is actually what the UCI should be doing.

The question, and this week’s Group Ride, is how long the road back is. Cycling has never been the most popular sport in the world, but how long will it take to get back to the levels it enjoyed during the reigns of Hinault, LeMond, Indurain and Armstrong I? My guess is 20 years, nearly a generation, based on a societal shift to more active lifestyles and a reaction to global warming. The more who ride, the more who will watch races. But that’s as obscure and facile a theory as any. What do you think? Are we just one charismatic champion away? Or is cycling in its current decline for much, much longer?

Image: Eric Houdas, Wikimedia Commons


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  1. Champs

    Call these my current deterrents: the Pacific time zone and cord cutting really stand in my way. I can no longer DVR the races, and frankly I’d rather sleep in than wake up at 6 to catch the tail end of a race on a shaky pirate stream.

    Other than that I specifically object to the Tour. Watching (paint) dry Sky tactics in the high mountain stages; It suffocates the race even more than the rarefied air of the very cols they traverse. Froome’s head-bobbing and manhandling of the bike isn’t the sort of style to redeem it, either. I want a race with cagey tactics, panache, maybe even skullduggery, and this is none of those things. It’s unwatchable.

    I can’t say when the upswing will come, but I can say how: Grand Tour teams shrink and access to race coverage expands. Less control in the peloton, more legal streaming options. The NFL has people paying $99/yr. for access to *old* games. That might sound expensive, but consider what you spend to get recaps of Northern Classics six weeks later on Versus.

  2. cash

    Address the boredom. Bike racing has become a droll and tired affair. Say what you will about the NFL (and I believe there is much to be said … but it’s rarely boring.

    Pro cycle racing is suffering from a similar affliction as major league baseball. The season is too long. Too many games/races that don’t matter. And a Super Bowl that is a snooze fest of a foregone conclusion.

    One Sagan does not counteract or even counterbalance a Froome-Contador-Nibali triumvirate.

    1. Ron

      I grew up watching and playing football. I haven’t watched an NFL game in a few years now. Why? I think it’s boring. Every play is reviewed or at least discussed endlessly. The commentators all want to be more than just commentators. So negative and annoying. And making up words! You don’t “matriculate the ball down the field.” That doesn’t make any sense! Just some jerk trying to sound smart.

      It all feels so rigged and so corporate. And so serious, as if the balance of the world hangs on the outcome. The sad thing is that millions of Americans are so bored, it really does matter that much.

      And don’t even get me started on big-time college football. That is not an amateur sport and 99% of the players have no interest, and no business, being on a college campus. Same with big-time basketball. As a former DI scholarship athlete who would have gotten into my alma mater without the sport, it truly makes me sick to see the corruption, violence, and scandals. Get ’em off right now, leave the other sports with the true student athletes in place.

  3. Shawn

    I would be interested in seeing some actual numbers. If you use broadcast viewing stats as a gauge, is cycling less popular globally than it was 10-15 years ago? What about in the US? Clearly it has had an uptick in the UK. I’m skeptical that the global numbers are really down, but I could be wrong. If popularity is gauged by mainstream media attention in the US, then only a US contender at the Tour will change that.

  4. ScottyCycles

    I don’t think it has waned from popularity, it’s the lack of live television or internet feeds available to watch whatever race you want, either live or at least a few hours later for us West coasters. I

  5. Scott G.

    In 20 years cycling will be inter-niched, the way TV is now. Shows can be supported by what were
    once considered tiny fan bases. Citizen journos with cameras will provide the feed, sites like RKP
    will aggregate the streams and add commentary and graphics. Drones will replace the helicopters
    and motos. Riders will get some sponsorship and fan clubs will kick in some crowd funding.

  6. Aar

    Athletics (aka Track & Field) never recovered from the Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis, Sergey Bubka, etc scandals before Marion Jones. Then it never recovered from that mess before this new mess. I see cycling as going through the same endless series of scandals that athletics endures.

    The reality is that our fair sport has had a number of suspensions in the past few years. It is a testament to the sport’s return to relative obscurity that the words “high profile” and “scandalous” are not used to describe those suspensions. I suspect that every time cycling starts to get popular again, the never ending wave of suspensions will repeatedly become high profile and scandalous enough to cut it back down to size again

  7. Gary W

    Doping scandals aside for a moment, the financial support structure for the pro teams is not a confidence builder for longer term. Couple that with no rider union, ASO taking their ball and going home, etc, overall health doesn’t look good IMO. I’m no Tinkoff fan but he did have some valid business points, delivery method aside.

  8. Jay

    When I started riding, I taped (yes, VHS) everything that was on cable and network TV. Back then, I subscribed to about five pro cycling magazines (in the days of Winning, Road Bike Action, pre-night-of-the-long-knives VeloNews). Two things led me to really cut back on my consumption of professional cycling. First and foremost was the endless doping scandals, culminating, for me with Armstrong. Second, was the lack of stability with teams and riders. I’m old enough to remember the pre-free agency years of professional sports in the US, when you pretty much knew who would be playing for a team for several years. Today, I can’t name the offensive linemen of my favorite football team. And, I remember the days when greedy owners didn’t move teams in search of ever-more lucrative stadium deals. Stability is key to sports loyalty. Now, in cycling, one can be loyal to a rider, but to a team? Not so much. I’m a Green Bay Packers fan because, as a publicly-owned team, they will always be in Green Bay, and they will always be the Packers. Credit Agricole, Banesto, Discovery, Motorola, Mapei, Vacansoleil, Barloworld, Phonak, etc. All gone. A stable ownership situation would certainly help cycling loyalty. And, pro soccer is not the answer. When one watches a game on TV, one has to know the sponsor to know the team. In my mind, Manchester United was O2; now it’s Chevrolet. Sorry, but it’s hard to root for an ever-changing corporation; easier to root for a stable team.

  9. chuckster

    I think a few things have to come together to make this happen…
    1) Big personalities who can win – Sagan, Phinney when in form, etc, heck, maybe a Quintana…
    2) Team reform, rider pay reform, stable teams via ideas from guys like Vaughters rather than Tinkov…
    3) Exciting and sometimes “epic” races – more ones like… Strada Bianca, Paris Roubaix, Liege – more Giro/Vuelta than le Tour type races…
    4) via #2 and #3, a path to better network coverage than the garbage provided at points by Outdoor Network, Versus, NBC Sports Network, etc… “network coverage” includes (a) BETTER COMMENTATORS (aka Phil and Paul 15 years ago sort of stuff)!!! (b) better footage – i.e., less static and loss of film, maybe drones, ONBOARD LIVE POWER, ONBOARD CAMERAS at times, etc, and (c) coverage that is more comprehensive – follow-ups, decent interviews, critical race analysis, etc – plus 30-60min recaps of big races during prime time (like has existed at points during le Tour but MUST also happen for big one-day races like Roubaix!

    Anyways, I don’t think it has to take 20 years, but it could take 5 or 50… #1,2 and 3 exist or can exist quickly… 4 is the tough one.

    just my $0.02

  10. Ransom

    Largely in alignment with a lot of stuff above:
    * Not “just” a charismatic champion, but it seems like it helps to have one to crystallize things when they’re in the ballpark.
    * Coverage: Commentators matter. The artificial geographic divvying up of whose coverage I can “legitimately” view as a U.S. resident is absurd. The folks making the coverage need to get paid, but I hope at some point the pay structure can support my ability to choose from any coverage in the world. Yes, this raises a bunch of questions about how to sell and serve advertising (or sell subscriptions), but making, for instance, British coverage a banned substance in the U.S. is ridiculous.
    * Look at F1, and to some extent MotoGP (though we usually talk more about non-motorsports here); when there’s enough money involved that sponsors get very finicky about the range of acceptable outcomes of a race or a season (or an interview), it really starts to pull the interest out. Micromanaging the spectacle has repercussions.

  11. Ron

    I follow cycling big-time, watch Euro Cups and World Cups for soccer, and the EPL when I can, which isn’t often, and follow the NHL too. I ride a bike daily and play soccer twice a week. I never thought I’d follow the PRO peloton, but I do. I have wondered if I’ll lose interest at some point.

    I grew up playing tons of sports. Soccer, wrestling, basketball, football, tennis, and lacrosse. I played DI lacrosse on a scholarship, but walked away after college for around a decade. I just started donating my time to helping coach youth lacrosse.

    I’ve never followed sports because I thought they were popular, but because I liked them. In my opinion, most sports get worse when they get more popular. The NBA is a joke, just a bunch of guys cashing paychecks. Baseball is soooo boring. I’ve never watched 9 innings in my life. I used to love football. However, I’ve totally tuned out. The NFL is a corporate hoax to sell fat, bored Americans a) oversized trucks they don’t need b) horrible lite beer c) a new cell phone. It is slow rigged, overanalyzed, over-discussed, and so many calls are review. What is it…over 200 minutes for a televised game and 11 minutes of actual play? And don’t even get me started on the brain trauma and the lack of talk about doping. I bet the vast majority are doping, yet cycling is always bad mouthed. I hate it.

    College football is criminal. You bring 110 dudes onto a college campus who have ZERO interest in being student-athletes. They are hired and paid to be violent and have no business being on the campuses of great universities. The NBA and NFL need to fund their own developmental leagues and get those two sports off of campuses. They aren’t amateur sports anymore. And, football is the modern day plantation. Almost all black players (minus QBs, we can’t trust black dudes to lead) and almost all white coaches, officials, ADs, boosters, etc. I bet the majority of friggin Bama fans use the N word frequently, yet spend money they don’t have following a bunch of kids around. And don’t even get me started on the pollution caused by flying teams all over the country with the new conferences. And basketball. Those guys play like 40 games a year now!

    I firmly believe the NFL is a big reason the U.S. is so screwed up. It used to be on Sundays. Now it’s Sunday, Monday, Thursday. How many dudes are ignoring their wives, kids, jobs, health to watch all those games?

    And seriously, if I have 3 free hours…I’m going out for a bike ride, reading a book, walking my dogs, etc.

    Popularity always seem to compromise the heart of sporting. I hope cycling doesn’t become more popular. Well, I hope motorists would chill out and not be so aggressive towards cyclists, but I don’t see that happening in car culture America.

    1. Jonathan

      Yeah Ron, if I have 3 free hours I’d rather be on the bike, not watching sport on TV.

      As for cycling popularity, I hope it becomes more popular at the road level where it matters: ie, more people out on bikes, riding, commuting, hitting the trails. Every extra person on a bike makes it safer for every other person on a bike.
      I don’t really give a rat’s arse about pro cycling: I catch the odd written recap and watch maybe one Spring classic or Grand Tour stage each year.

  12. Grant Headley

    I love the discussion,
    The image of procycling in around 2005,6 is what got me on a bike and then start racing.
    I had a magazine cutout of Paolo Bettini crossing the line at Giro di Lombardia in his new white world champion kit, in the rain, hands covering tears. All passion color and muscle.
    Or how about Allesandro Ballan rocketing away to win the stripes?
    One aspect of marketing that is changing is that it is not enough to sell with static logos, people are desensitized to eyeballs=dollars.
    It must be a compelling story with compelling characters to watch.
    Let the sport be about guys racing and why they are out there pushing themselves, what it teaches them as human beings.
    When I read the interview the other day with Ryder Hesjedal, he talked about how hard it is to win because how all these different aspects have to come together, how his race would have been totally different if one rider from a big team would have made the break or not. These are the sorts of things that I like to read about, real analysis instead of guys pedaling and the typical “yeah hard day stuff.’

    This sport teaches so much about the finer points of living a life of quality, taking care of your body, mind, machine, (sounds like RKP is in me pretty deep).
    Winning is only a small point, and only matters if done in the right way.

    One big positive is Peter Sagan, his win at Tour of California this year was the most excited I have been emotionally about a pro race since I can’t remember.

  13. chuckster

    Grant, yeah I agree, Sagan’s TOC win this year was probably as cool as anything else anyone pulled off!

    A few more thoughts after some time to think about this (some echoes other comments) – I think technology is a plus if we’re talking numbers, on board video/audio of sprints (live would be wild, but even viewable after would be cool), but Froom/Sky (and others) have shown that teams can make the race TOO much of a numbers game…

    …”ok, GC threat up the road 5 minutes, gents let’s move to the front and roll out at 420 watts for the next 15 minutes”……. 5mins later, team director on the radio: “we’re reeling him in too quickly, I’ve crunched some numbers, so ease it back to 400 watts, no need to burn too many matches right now, we’ve got him”

    Point 1) tech good for viewers, but maybe it should be limited for racers…

    Point 2) get rid of race radio!!! you could probably just get rid of race radio and let teams have onboard numbers (skip point 1) as they still have to do their thinking on their feet, and that’s where exciting racing comes from… can you plan tactically on the fly at 60kph and over threshold while banging elbows and unsure of who just escaped up the road? That makes good racing!

    Point 3) make these damn racing a little safer!! there have always been crashes, but early Tour stages are pure carnage, and not in a good way – this sport makes football look like child’s play. And seeing the best in the business like Boonen and Cancellara out at their prime time after time is something that other sports would NEVER accept. That is seriously bad for the sport and long term viewership. This wouldn’t solve all crashes (or even most) but removing race radio can perhaps avoid all team directors on the horn at the same time demanding their guys get to the front at some crucial bottleneck… THAT causes crashes. Finally, I think I heard the TdF was going from 9 to 8 man teams. That is wonderful news from a control standpoint (i.e. exciting racing), and I think/hope it could also lead to slightly safer racing, though team quality has something to do with that as well.

    1. Mark Young

      reduction in team members for the TdF is a good thing if the ASO does not bring in two more 8 -man wildcard teams.

  14. Michael

    While doping did not create more interest to pro races, race radios made them boring. There are just a couple of scenarios that are played over nad over and one can almost predict what is going to happen.
    While on the trainer in my basement I watch old videos even back to the 80s (still keep VCR just for that).
    And when Tyler Hamilton crosses the line in 2003 L-B-L I sit up and clap my hands. Same for St. Sebastian by LA. Same for 89 worlds same for…long list.
    None today

    1. Padraig

      Word, with one small addition: When Motorola was the first team to use radios, it helped animate the race, but as you point out, by the time everyone had them it really killed racing.

      Three cheers for keeping an old VCR around.

  15. Zabelista

    The Tours bore for all the stated reasons; the Spring Classics are where it’s at but the sport could kill itself even there – with or without race radios. Consider Saturday’s 300K Milan San Remo. Was winner Demare towed on the Cipressa? Did he ride it suspiciously fast? &c. &c. How can fans stay faithful when we’re forced to question the legitimacy of our winners? How can the sport attract new viewers when it seems to be compromised?

  16. Zain Baig

    As for cycling popularity, I hope it becomes more popular at the road level where it matters: ie, more people out on bikes, riding, commuting, hitting the trails. Every extra person on a bike makes it safer for every other person on a bike.

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