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Comment: cycling’s breakaway league

The leaked plans for a breakaway league of cycling look less like a dynamic vision for the future of the sport than a grab for cash.

Words by Lionel Birnie

Wednesday November 23, 2011

When a company unveils plans for a new shopping complex or a housing development, the drawings are all about the little touches. There’ll be a couple walking a dog or a child feeding ducks down by the waterfront. The artist makes sure there are trees and grass and that the flowers are in bloom. And, of course, the sun is always shining. In short, the artist sells the idea to us and makes it seem attractive.

And that matters quite a lot, even if the reality turns out to be slightly different from the artist’s impression.

That only comes to mind because whoever is leaking the information about the plans for a breakaway league is doing a horrible job so far.

According to cyclingnews.com, World Series Cycling is being planned by Rothschild Group, an investment company, and Gifted Group, a sports marketing agency.

The plans are for 14 teams – or franchises – to compete in a breakaway league of cycling. There would be a completely new calendar, with space for the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, each lasting three weeks, and six of the major Classics. There would also be 10 new four-day events consisting of a time trial, a sprint stage, a hilly stage and a mountain stage. Six of these events would be held outside Europe. These events would form a championship series to crown the season’s best rider and team.

According to cyclingnews.com, “the proposed league claims to put the teams at the heart of the event”.

Actually, the riders are the heart of the event and the riders are the heart of the teams. And spectators play a big part too. Without spectators providing their eyeballs, television companies and advertisers are not going to provide any more money.

The importance of live spectators is often overlooked too. All good televised sports feed off the atmosphere created by spectators at the events. Television wants to provide its viewers with ringside seats at an already popular event. It struggles to convince people something is important if no one has bothered to turn up in the flesh.

It is understandable the teams want a share of the television revenue. They provide the actors on the stage and in most other sports and entertainment industries they are rewarded appropriately. Their existence is precarious because they rely to a great extent on sponsorship or benefactors. They don’t have revenue from supporters in the same way a football club does.

But getting a larger share of the cake currently held by ASO and RCS, the organisers of the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia is not going to be easy. Nor is it going to be easy creating races that capture the imagination and bring the money rolling in.

But it is worth a try. There are great chunks of the cycling season’s calendar that need radically redrafting. Race formats need to be more varied, more dynamic and, yes, completely different in places.

There are races that have tradition and character but are withering on the vine. Paris-Nice, for example, has great potential but without ASO’s support it would have disappeared a decade ago. All the new races encouraged by the UCI have been dreary additions. The Eneco Tour and the Tour of Beijing are two prime examples.

The Tour of Beijing was a particular let-down. What greater opportunity was there to experiment with race formats and come up with something truly imaginative? It was at the butt end of the season and we could have done with something exciting, fun and different. Instead, it was the same formats we see everywhere else. A time trial and four road stages.

We are all for change and innovation if it makes the sport more appealing more often. One of the biggest frustrations of the UCI’s insistence that the World Championships be held at the end of September is that the sport pretty much disappears off a cliff once the Tour de France reaches Paris.

The public’s interest has been sustained for three weeks and what is there to maintain it? Many of the Tour stars disappear for another year and the show moves on to the Tour of Poland or San Sebastian Classic with the understudies playing the leading roles. Do viewers think “I don’t want to watch cycling again until next July.”?

Or are they in the mood for more? Thousands of people still turn up to watch the post-Tour criteriums but how many of them have you seen, unless you’ve been in Boxmeer or Stiphout?

What if there were short, competitive made-for-TV events, rather than exhibition races, showcasing all the riders the Tour has made into stars?

It is logical that television companies and marketers find the idea of the season building towards a logical conclusion appealing.

But the early details leaking out from the Rothschild plan do not inspire a great deal of excitement.

Ten races featuring a time trial, a sprint stage, a rolling stage, and a mountain stage does not sound like the sort of plan that merits ripping up the entire calendar and starting again.

While it is easy to see the logic of having a four-day event straddling the weekend the way a golf tournament or Formula One weekend does, is it likely to be the best way to find out who the best riders in each discipline are? I can give you an answer to that without another pedal being turned. Based on this year, it’s Tony Martin, Mark Cavendish, Philippe Gilbert and Alberto Contador.

It makes you wonder how clearly this has been thought through. The biggest problem with the notion of the breakaway is that the starting motivation is a quest for more money rather than a desire to make the sport better.

While there is plenty that could be improved by better governance and some radical thinking, the detail of the World Cycling Series needs to show an awful lot more promise than the cold water drips that have leaked so far.

Paint us a picture. Tell us a story. How is the calendar going to look? Where will we be starting off? What will be exciting, envigorating and dynamic about it? What is going to satisfy fans of tradition while simultaneously attracting new fans? And most fundamentally, is the Tour de France going to be part of it? If not, you’re wasting your time.

There may well be some visionary thinking going on somewhere, but at the moment all we are seeing is a grab for more cash. There won’t be too many cycling fans getting excited about projected growth figures. But plenty of people will be fed up if the iconic rainbow jersey disappears from view because of a split from the UCI.

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2 Comments

  • blair says:

    the tour of beijing needed a chinese-fire-drill stage, in which every 30-40 km the kommisar would fire a gun in the air, then the members of each team would have to dismount and switch bikes.

    but seriously, a new format isn’t going to create more money, so “cash grab” can’t be a motive. the issue is that the organizers have too much control, and riders and teams have none aside from civil disobedience. the idea seems to be to form a league where the team owners have the political power to make the decisions. this still leaves the riders having to unionize to get a voice, but at least it looks like other pro sports, which any cycling team or rider will tell you are better structured for them.

    as for “Paint us a picture. Tell us a story,” uh, mister, that’s YOUR job. the media has always been the prime mover of public interest in sports. sports news sells papers, and papers sell sports. if you use your imagination to hype the new races the same way you hype the old ones – difficult, i know, because you can’t imbue them with the ghosts of former legends riding their routes anciens – the fans will follow.

    chinese-fire-drill stage…hmm. it might look like jens voigt in toe straps on a yellow kid’s bike. or it might work.

  • Nomis says:

    @blair, surely the media should exist to tell it how it is? Fact is, Beijing was deadly dull, and hyping it up like it was a race on the level of Pari-Nice would be ridiculous. I don’t really want UCI propaganda fired at me when I can see perfectly clearly for myself that that race had hardly any appeal whatsoever. It’s a shame really that there’s this obsession with expansion regarding the untapped potential of the modern superpower that is China (ok, so it’s much more about money than anything else). Global success in sporting terms is exciting, but personally I don’t care if China gets good at cycling over…say…Mongolia, which I imagine would not not useful financially. And really, it’s more exciting to see riders from poorer backgrounds achieve something great and become an inspiration to their nations. We should be celebrating what looks like a small revolution in Eritrea and Ethiopia. Money? It helps, but when the UCI is busy tearing up the sport’s history in the name of it, it’s no fun.

    As for the breakaway league, it looks quite pathetic. But then again I could never support a movement which plans to selfishly destroy a sport I love by re-writing its history and bisecting it in a way that could potentially cause chaos with two rival competing systems. We don’t need anarchy, we need reform. Easier said than done with Pat around though.

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