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
As some of you might be aware, there are sports other than cycling. One of those sports is soccer/football/futbol/futebol/voetbal/fußbal/calcio, and in this other sport with its many names, there is a big tournament coming. They call it the World Cup. This international tournament, which takes place every four years, is, by all accounts, the biggest sporting event in the world.
I know. I know. With the Tour de France on the horizon, who can be bothered?
Well, as I think I’ve mentioned here before, my other area of quasi-expertise is in the aforementioned sport, and here on the verge of the quadrennial explosion of the “beautiful game” it has me thinking about what the future of cycling could be, both here in the United States and in the rest of the world.
I cast my mind back 20 years. I didn’t own my own computer then, and following soccer (excuse, temporarily the American terminology) meant tuning into a one hour highlights show late on a Friday night. Of course, for a man of passion, that was never going to be enough, so I bought a computer and a short wave radio (seriously) and began following matches by live text update and by tuning into local stations in Manchester, London, Derby and Ipswich. It was like trying to quench your thirst by catching rain drops on your tongue.
Over time, the situation improved. Games were available by satellite TV at the pub. ESPN began to show matches. Soccer specific channels came on line. And today, I can say, with some relief, that there is now more soccer available to me than I can possibly choke down in a month of Sundays.
Now, who cares?
Well, you should, and here’s why. Where I was with soccer 20 years ago is, roughly, where I am with cycling now. I follow races large and small by live text feed online. I catch highlights shows. I squint at live Internet video with Belgian commentary. I read and read and read and read. For a man of passion, it’s not quite enough.
And yet, like soccer, cycling is an international sport. It has a governing body which is actively trying to globalize its brand, to raise cycling’s profile in heretofore unexploited commercial markets. It’s hard to say whether the timeline will be the same, but it’s fair to guess that those of us in currently “non-cycling oriented” nations will gain increasing access to coverage of our sport over the next two decades as investment in Asia, Australia and even in the US begin to bear fruit.
It would be easy, and cynical I think, to say that soccer has a distinct advantage over bike racing in that the ready-made market for its matches is much larger and the advertising revenues are so much greater. The point is not that cycling stands to make the same money as soccer, but rather that the potential reach of the sport is similar, and the success of that initiative can probably be attributed to the philosophy of the UCI, which is to globalize as much as possible.
To be sure, globalization has brought soccer to the United States despite the entrenched interests of our peculiar sports, baseball, American football, basketball, et. al. My generation and those older had no access to the more international forms of sport, and so became calcified in our interests. The younger generation lives in a much larger world, and they are curious.
For those outside the US, the “soccerification,” if you will, of cycling will also have the benefit of broadening the sponsorship pool and stabilizing the economics of the pro peloton. While European sponsors may shy away from being associated with cycling’s doping culture, bigger international sponsors will feel comfortable investing in new, clean teams, such as Garmin and Sky.
Traditional soccer nations have wrestled with their sport’s growth in worldwide appeal. What were once clubs have become brands. Tribal lines and heritage have become harder to defend. If cycling does make it down that path, there will be cultural losses in Western Europe. Already, French and Italian races that were once major dates on the calendar have made way for races in other parts of the world. Some will lament. Some will rejoice.
If it means I can watch the next Giro d’Italia live on television with English language commentary, then you can count me among the latter.