A Plea: Don’t Reform Cycling

Remember the World Cycling Series? This was the breakaway league idea put forward in late November 2011 that was to create a “new, truly global racing competition” with “teams at the heart of the event.” Jonathan Vaughters, who anyone familiar with this blog will know I love and adore, proclaimed that it “would definitely happen.”
Three years on and the Saintly Mr Vaughters’ prediction is yet to come to fruition, yet perhaps this is no longer necessary thanks to the newly established and highly corporate sounding “Velon” project, which encompasses 11 teams, rather than the 14 that were to set up the WCS.
What is Velon? Well, it claims to have three core principles, which are “more exciting sport”, “new technology” and “sustainable, creditable teams.” Essentially then, it’s the plan of the WCS, except without quite as much detail, and without the ludicrous suggestions that the calendar would be torn up and that teams would have to race newly created 4 day “Grand Prix” events which sounded as dull as ditchwater and were poor window dressing for what WCS and ultimately Velon are all about: money.
For yes, it is money, more precisely the lack of it that is driving the ever more outlandish claims and attempts to reorganise/mutilate the sport of cycling into some kind of behemothic economic model that benefits the teams. Whilst persuing a financially stable team is admirable – the romanticism of having teams fold and pop up on a regular basis quickly fades once you realise people’s jobs and lives are toyed with – the ideas bandied around to supposedly create such a model are frankly ludicrous and insulting to the people who seem to being told an awful lot about what they want, rather than being listened to – the fans.

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The Calendar

We’ll return to fans later, but first, let’s look at the calendar changes that these grandiose projects apparently require. For the WCS, it was the aforementioned “Grand Prixs”. Essentially, the sport would maintain the three Grand Tours and the five monument classics: everything else would go. Quite like E3 and Ghent Whevelghem? Sorry, gone. Hmm, which to watch, the Dauphine or the Tour de Suisse? Oh sorry, wiped off the map. Instead, we apparently required 10 4-day races, each consisting of a flat stage, a mountain stage, a hilly stage and a mix of 5 individual and 5 team time trials over the ten events. No worry, you might think, at least there would still be the worlds to look forward to. Except their wouldn’t, because they’d be replaced by the points system we need for the “narrative”, which is becoming the be all and end all of cycling reform.
The problem with that format was simple – cycling’s appeal is not just its sporting excitement and accessibility, but also its rich cultural heritage. Races and mountains are eulogised because of the symbolic attachment of history and people to them – events have defined the arenas of cycling and give them the mystique and grandeur that today’s riders and fans seek to emulate. Casting this off to one side is frankly criminal, and sterilise a sport in which history is entwined into the very fabric of its being into a dull, unimaginative and by the numbers sport.
No fear though, because the UCI entered the arena with their own idea of how to fix the calendar. There would be no hacking and mutilating a la the WCS, and so events like Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico would still be there. Trebles all around? Unfortunately not…
You see, the UCI’s plans involve the idea that races cannot possibly overlap, informed by the notion that “fans want to see the best riders ride the top races, week in week out.” This oft repeated line appears to have no citationary evidence to back it up, but is now being treated as gospel. It is thus necessary, apparently, to manipulate the calendar so that Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico, to name one example, run consecutively, rather than overlapping briefly, so that the best riders can ride them both.

Grand Tour challenges and rider welfare

Carlos Sastre was the last man to ride to strong overall placings in all three Grand Tours in a year.
Carlos Sastre was the last man to ride to strong overall placings in all three Grand Tours in a year.

Now, in an age where we are simultaneously talking about shortening grand tours to make it easier to ride/win all three, telling riders they need to ride all the top events seems counter intuitive. Let’s say Contador was going to attempt the Giro-Tour double, as he hopes to next year (2015). Under the proposed rules, he would be required to ride both Paris Nice and Tirreno. First off, that would essentially mean he was riding three Grand Tours anyway, as the two weeks of P-N and T-A would basically become such an event. Alberto is probably not going to be too chuffed about this, and he’s going to have to go and ride the Dauphine and the Tour de Suisse as well. It is simply unrealistic to expect riders to do this, which is why these changes shouldn’t happen.
That’s before we even get onto the idea of the “Grand Tour Challenge”, an idea dreamed up by Mr Tinkoff, presumably in a dozy state. Few riders have even ridden all three Grand Tours in a year, let alone tried to win them, but apparently this is something that must now be attempted (the rationale as to why is still hazy). The solution? Why, shorten the Giro and the Vuelta of course! Call me stupid though, but if you shorten these events, cut them down to a couple of weeks rather than three, but does that not rather lessen the challenge that was being laid down in the first place?! If a marathon runner wanted to win three big races, but asked that a couple of them were made shorter they would be laughed out of the sport.

The next problem with such an idea is again related to history – cutting down the Giro to two weeks rather than three means the resulting race is no longer the Giro d’Italia. It would be a lesser race to the Tour, whose power as the undisputed toughest race would be unprecedented, given its position in the calendar and resulting flexibility from being the only race with three weeks to play with. Whatever races emerged as faux Giri or Vueltas would lack the prestige and interest of their predecessors if they were relegated to bit part players that were just there to try and bolster interest in some unworkable challenge.

Contador's last Giro/Tour attempt saw him tired in the mountains.
Contador’s last Giro/Tour attempt saw him tired in the mountains.

Finally, in a plan all about economics, cutting down races violates some pretty basic principles – less race days means less towns bidding money (and they definitely won’t bid if you increase the prices to try and make up for the lost weeks), whilst ideas such as Patrik Lefevre’s one to cut the Tour de France to 18 days causes other problems. Such an event would presumably want to start and end on weekends still – after all, this helps the paying public attend and the knowledge of this helps prospective bidders. 18 days doesn’t go into 3 weeks unless you want to have extra rest days, and rest days are already dull. Adding more to plug the gap would hardly meet the criteria of “more exciting racing” promised by the schemes.

“Narrative” and fans

 

However, perhaps the most insulting and annoying request from the calls for reform is that cycling needs a “season long narrative” with “simplified formats” to help “fans understand” what is going on. Again, this is born from the idea that we want to see the best riders competing week in week out, but as we’ve briefly looked at, this is unfeasible to start with, and fans understand this anyway.

Narrative is something that cycling has been trying to grow into for along time. There have been various season long competitions, (see https://sicycle.wordpress.com/2012/10/03/a-history-of-season-long-competitions-all-the-winners-1948-2012/) with much loved iterations such as the World Cup, which was about one day races, through to the ProTour/WorldTour, which has been mostly despised and ignored by riders and fans alike. However the notion that one is somehow essential implies that one is missing, which is frankly nonsense. The season already has a narrative: there are the early season races that build up to the Spring classics, which are sub narratives in themselves – they build up towards the “Belgian Week” of the Tour of Flanders and the rematch at Paris Roubaix, whilst the Ardenne Classics allow rivalries to build towards Liege. We then have the Giro which moves into the Tour warm up races, the Tour and its honeymoon races, then the Vuelta and the build up to the Worlds. But the key thing to recognise is that these are all different races which suit different riders. Cycling is becoming increasing specialised in how riders approach events, so they are not going to attempt to win Paris Roubaix and the Tour -these are for different riders. Thus, trying to shoehorn some overbearing narrative strand between every race misses the point that they cater for different needs.

The era of grand tour riders mixing it in the cobbled classics is over
The era of grand tour riders mixing it in the cobbled classics is over

Finally, the concept that fans need things simplifying to understand them better is frankly insulting to fans. Sure, everyone has a brief period figuring out why the sprinter winning all the stages isnt winning the Tour when they first get interested, but this is just a quirk that any sport has. American football can be intelligible to English fans, just as cricket can be the reverse – but that deep tactical intrigue is part of their appeal. Stripping the sport back to…well, however the UCI think it is possible to make a race where whoever crosses the line first wins simpler (…), may make it more “exciting” in the same vein as 20/20 cricket, but the comparison ignores the intricacies and talents of cycling and its competitors.

Ultimately, the goal of reforming cycling for teams economic stability is a fair aim. We want to see teams sticking around (as long as they are competitive, in all meanings of the word – we dont want 2-3 teams hoovering up all the talent a la football) but ravaging the sport from head to toe for some pipe dream economic plan is not the way to go about it. Cycling is a sport that needs to look back at itself to go forward – Velon and the UCI seem keener to ignore the past. Given that is the foundation that cycling is rooted in, it would be a mistake to do so.

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