The ProTour, and it’s child/sister project the World Tour, were not created with the intention of creating a more globalised, international cycle sport, although the World Tour’s name has enough inference to suggest this should be expected of it. Instead, it was meant to unify cycling’s calendar and ensure that the top teams and riders would all ride the top races. Predictably, as ever in cycling, what started off as a good idea deteriorated into a political mire, as the race organisers complained that the UCI, the ProTour’s creators, where trying to impose team selection onto their races, from which followed various protests and actions such as the furore with Astana in 2008 and Unibet in 2007.
But one of the planet’s favourite words, “globalisation” has always been closely associated to the projects, perhaps because it is inherent in the “world” title. The usual evidence for this has involved pointing to the races that have been created/included from locales outside of the traditional European heart of cycling, with the Tour Down Under (2008-), the GPs of Quebec and Montreal (2010-) or the much maligned Tour of Beijing (2011-2014) all cited as examples of cycling’s move to the international stage. That’s just the events in the World Tour as well – as anyone with Eurosport will vouch, the Tours of Azerbaijan, Croatia and other East European/Asian countries are newly established, as is the Tour of California and the US Pro Challenge.
But how about in terms of riders? Cycling has traditionally been based in Western Europe, essentially in the three Grand Tour nations of France, Italy and Spain, along with the low countries of the Netherlands and Belgium, perhaps with Switzerland and Germany also included. Have the WorldTours seen a lessening of their dominance?
There are plenty of anecdotal points to prove that this is the case. We’ve had the first Colombian, Canadian, British, Australian and Kazakh Grand Tour winners since 2005 for instance, plus teams have been registered in Kazakstan, Russia, Luxembourg, Australia, Britain and the USA, and again, that’s only in the WorldTour, with a South African team also having formed in MTN Qhubeka.
Although not directly related to the WorldTour, there’s been the first Polish, Australian, Norweigian, British and Portuguese World Champions, which supports the hypothesis that the sport is gradually getting more international. The problem with these is that they are all individual achievements, and whilst a country can produce one excellent rider who pushes them up the win rankings and so on, it is not indicative of the whole nation being more cycle aware, as such. Take for instance the enhanced numbers in the Worlds teams of Poland, Norway and Britain over the last few years, aided by one or two exceptional riders swallowing up a whole load of points.
So let’s have a look at the rider level. A high level view of teams separates them by nation anyway – there are french teams (Credit Agricole, FDJ, Bougues Telecom/Europcar, AG2R and Cofidis), Spanish teams (Movistar, Euskatel), Italian teams (Lampre, Fassa Bortolo) and then the nation based “superteams” that emerged at the beginning of the 2010s such as Sky, GreenEdge and Leopard. Just how diverse are these teams.
The Best measure of whether the top tier of cycling is getting more international is by looking at the number of nationalities present on each team – obviously, the more nationalities, the more diverse the squad, and the less, the less diverse.
This first graph shows all the teams who have been in the Pro/WorldTour, but crucially, it includes years in which they were not a part of structure. To elaborate, a team such as Cofidis is represented from 2005-2015, even though the team did not have a WorldTour license from 2010 onwards.
As should be obvious, there is a slight growth in the number of nationalities across the teams. There are a few teams with just 1, 2 or 3 nationalities represented in 2005-2008, but by 2013, the minimum was 4, although the total number hadn’t really risen by much, with the peak number of represented nations coming in the 2011 RadioShack team (bet you didn’t see that one coming.) Unsurprisingly, Euskatel Euskadi, which had a Basque only policy (although if you rode for its feeder team, you could join) until 2013, has the lowest representation.
The above graph shows teams only when they were in the ProTour, (so for instance, to use Cofidis as an example again, they are not in after 2009). Essentially, it’s the same story, albeit with a more obvious contraction in 2010-2011. One hypothesis might be that the “national superteams” such as Sky (GB), Leopard (Luxembourg), BMC/Garmin (USA) and Katusha (Russia) entered at this point, but the “superteams” are actually pretty well represented by a variety of nations – Sky have never had less then 10 nationalities, and even Katusha has had six minimum, whilst Leopard-Trek and its sibling Radioshack/Trek teams have the second highest average number of nations represented (13.8) after Discovery Channel/Radioshack (15.6).
These teams probably did cause the dip however, as whilst they took, for instance, all the British riders to one team (Sky), these superteams were all founded in countries not traditionally associated with cycling, so the number of their nationality present in the peloton was low anyway. This meant there teams had to be filled with other nationalities, but by removing relatively niche nationalities from other teams, they made the other teams less diverse, hence the drop.
This graph shows the average number of nationalities across all teams in 4 different categories:
– Pro/WorldTour – the average for teams that were in the Pro/WorldTour at some point between 2005 and 2015.
– Pro/WorlTour only – slightly confusingly, the average for teams that were in the Pro/WorldTour, but only when they were actually in it. Hence, a team like Cofidis would be calculated in the average from 2005-2009, when it was a ProTeam, but not after, as from 2010, they were ProContinental/
– Tour de France Competitors – the average for teams that, at some point between 2005-2015, rode in the Tour de France.
– Tour de France teams – again, a tad confusing, but this is the average for teams riding the Tour de France in that specific year. Thus, Garmin, who were around in 2005 but didn’t ride the Tour until 2008, are included in the average calculations for every year of the competitors average, but only from 2008 onwards in the team one.
Basically, the trend lines show that the averages of the number of represented riders is going up, albeit with a slight dip in 2008. This can be explained (I hope) through economics and rider numbers:
Here, we have the average number of riders on teams (I only looked at teams that were in the Pro/WorldTour or got an entry to the Tour de France between 2005-2015), which shows a similar shaped curve to the averages of the number of nationalities. So, it would seem that a growth in the number of riders on a team equals a growth in the number of nationalities represented on it.
I cant help thinking, when seeing the contraction in 2008, of the global financial crisis, which seems to be mirrored in the figures, with teams suffering financial difficulty and thus hiring less riders, and with that, fewer nationalities. I’d have to do a bit more digging to back this up, but it seems like a pretty novel coincidence. For those worried that the graph seemingly suggests that we’re about to dive into another recession, fear not – the reduction is more likely a reaction to the UCI’s reform plans to reduce the size of teams to a maximum of 22 riders in 2017, with a separate 8 rider development team. Basically, to get to that target, they need to start cutting now.
Another measure of diversity is through the representation of the teams registered nation. I looked at 39 teams across 11 years (2005-2015), for a total of 429 different “team years”, and just 29 (6.75%) of these “team years” featured a team other than the registered nation of the team being the most well represented on it. The majority of these were caused by license changes – most notably, Astana, who where Spanish in 2006, Swiss in 2007 and Luxembourgian in 2008 before finally becoming Kazakh in 2009. Likewise, Katusha were registered in Italy for a couple of years when they were Tinkoff, and just to confuse you, when Saxobank became Tinkoff-Saxo, they switched from Danish to Russian. But in general, it follows that the country where the team is registered is the most well represented in that team, in 93% of the cases.
Of course, being the dominant nation can mean you have a 100% share of the team (hello Euskatel) or have a 2% share with loads of others on 1%. Thus, the “dilution” of the major representative shows how mixed the teams are, with a high % for the dominant team showing a low concentration of teams, and a low% suggesting a high % of teams. It’s not foolproof of course, but it gives a good impression.
Of course, the graph makes absolutely no sense, and there’s basically not real pattern to pick out, but in general, I can say from the raw data that in countries with strong cycling heritages (France, Italy, Spain) there is a general decrease in their representation, whilst those with less strong heritages are increasing their share, but because they don’t have many riders anyway, the general trend is of a diversification in the number of nations represented.
A more granular method of looking at internationalisation is by looking at the number of and share of actual riders in the top tier peloton. It is worth a note of caution that this can be affected by the UCI politics. For instance in 2010-2011 (6 and 7 on this graph below) the WorldTour lost 2 French teams, and the number of Frenchmen dropped accordingly, increasing in 2014 (10) with the reintroduction of Europcar and dropping again in 2015 (11) when they were refused a license.
Essentially though, the key point to take is that in 2005 (1), three nations, France, Italy and Spain, made up over 50% of the ProTour peloton, with Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany meaning 6 (15%) of the 39 nationalities that made up the ProTour that year accounted for 70% of the riders. By 2015, that had got marginally better – the same 6 nations accounted for less than 60% of the total, whilst the “Big three” now made up “only” a third rather than a half of all riders.
Lets make that a bit easier to see.
This graph shows the percentage share of the peloton by seven traditional cycling nations across 2005-2015. Evidently, these percentages are generally dropping, albeit by small amounts – it it the cliche evolution, not revolution.
On the other hand, those “emerging” cycling nations, such as the Anglo-Saxon countries that do not have a long cycling tradition, hace been steadily increasing their share of the peloton, aided perhaps by five of them (Australia, USA, Russia, Great Britain and Kazakhstan) having formed nation based teams.
So we can say with some confidence that the number of nations represented in the peloton is increasing, as is their share of the peloton. But are they competitive? It’s all well and good having some far flung nation in the WorldTour, but to be honest, not much use if they are just pack fodder and not able to compete for victories.
Of course, wins can be a little more susceptible to manipulation – it depends what you count (I’ve just used what CQ Ranking lists, but even that varies year on year), and of course a nation’s score can be somewhat altered by one exceptional individual, especially if they’re from a country with a low representation in the peloton.
So, looking at the share of wins, we can see that in 2005(1), Germany, Italy and Spain accounted for about 45% of all wins, with Italy nearly at 25% by itself. Add France and Belgium into that mix and nearly 65% of wins that year were taken by just 5 nations out of 39. However, by 2014 (10), we can see that thishas dramatically reduced, with the biggest reduction coming in 2009 (5), so that Germany, Italy and Spain have 30% of wins in 2014 (10), and that the addition of France and Belgium doesn’t quite get them to 50%. In essence, there has been a reduction in the share of victories by the major cycling nations over time.
This slightly simplified graph of the “major” cycling nations wins percentages should confirm that, although if you took Italy off the graph, the trend lines would all suggest only a slight dip in the win percentage, and indeed the Netherlands and Germany are getting stronger.
The “emerging” nations are however doing much better, with more obvious increases, although again, some are fairly stagnant (Russia and the USA).
So, essentially, yes, the WorldTour is becoming more international, although not at a particularly fast rate. Whilst teams are increasingly employing riders from outside the “comfort zone” of world cycling, these riders aren’t winning at the same rate as their nation’s stake in the WorldTour is. Basically, there are more international riders, and teams are more diverse, but the stranglehold of a few nations remains in both participation and wins. With increasing specialisation and the scientific enhancement/study of the sport, this looks like remaining for a while, as it will be increasingly hard to break into the top tier without significant investment.
Of course, we should also see whether the peloton as a whole is getting more competitive, as that would have an effect on whether the nations, which obviously are secondary to an individual riders talent, are becoming more competitive.
This should give some idea – it shows the number of riders who achieved certain numbers of wins through the season at different levels – 2, 5, 10, 15 and 20 – as well as the level of the rider who took the most wins that year. There isn’t much of a trend, except that in the last few years, the the lines trend upwards for all but the highest win values go up. This means that more riders are winning more races – but its tricky to say if its thus becoming less competitive, because the number of riders winning 2 races+ is going up as well. Certainly, a core of riders is winning more races between them, and this would appear to be backed up by some previous work I did on grand tours that suggested the number of teams winning stages was decreasing
So cycling is getting slightly less competitive across all teams, which suggests the increase in the number of nations winning shows that nations are generally getting more competitive. As ever, this has to be taken carefully, as it greatly depends on which exceptional talents are avaliable to each nation, and how indeed you define competition, but in general, the WorldTour does seem to be living up to its name.
Perhaps a better way of looking at this is through the Grand Tours, the pinnacle of the sport and thus a great way of examining whether nations are at their peak or not.
Of course, as with everything, there are some caveats to this – whilst the Grand Tours are the elite, with races like the Tour de France being attended only by the best, the Vuelta hasn’t been quite so prestigious until recently, and was used as a training ground for the worlds or as an opportunity to blood younger riders. Both of these things thus may have affected the makeup of nationalities involved.
Similarly, the great UCI v ASO/RCS/Unipublic battle that raged at the end of the noughties has had effects, as the race organisers have had to reluctantly accept the automatic invitation of all the World Tour teams. As recompense, they have usually defended the nationality of their own event by patriotically inviting the teams sharing the event’s nationality to the event, further skewing the ratios on occasion. Conversely, some teams have been invited specifically because they are from a, from a cycling perspective, “obscure” nation.
So has the number of nations competing changed?
Well, yes, it has. These three trend lines shows the number of nations represented in the Grand Tours across the last 11 years (obviously the 2015 Tour and Vuelta have not yet occurred at the time of writing.) Whilst not experiencing year on year growth, we can see that the number of nations involved has increased from the high 20s to the low 30s on average.
There have been 55 nations represented in all, with the Giro having seen 51 of those, the Tour 43 and the Vuelta 46. This follows with ideas that the Tour is the most elite race, and thus would be more confined to a core group of countries.
The Giro could probably have a good claim to being the most international event, based on its usually higher intake of other countries.
Looking at the number of countries who win stages (above) in the races isn’t particularly useful,as their is no clear pattern. Winning in cycling is more short term than long term given the dynamic nature of the sport, so established trend in it are pretty rare. Thus, this doesn’t really help much.
We can however look at the relationships between the number of nations in a race, and the number of nations in said race that win a stage. Logic dictates that the more nations in the race, the higher the chance of more nations winning a stage, so an increase in nationalities should see an increase in winning nations.
Oddly though, this isn’t the case in the Giro. In fact, it’s almost the opposite – the winning nations line seems to mirror the nations line so that an increase in nations causes a decrease in winning nations, and a decrease in nations causes an increases in winning nations (if that makes sense.) Only between 2009-2010 and 2014-2015 does growth seemingly create growth. Why?! it’s tricky to say. Perhaps an increase in nations indicates a weaker field, with more “untraditional” nations being represented, and so with less “strong” riders, there is less competition and they hoover up the stage wins.
Oddly enough, the Tour is fairly similar.
Yes, yes, yellow isn’t the easiest thing to see on a white background. And yes, there is limited growth in the number of winning nations, but the winning nations line looks like the number line shifted on a couple of years, just with deeper drops. Again, I’ll have to go with the “weaker field”/Domination theory. So what about the Vuelta?
Well, from 2005-2010, the Vuelta conforms the logic of growth producing growth, but after that is a bit more up and down, although we’re only talking a couple of nations, so its not so bad.
What about the shares of nationalities in the races?
The general picture in the “traditional” (ie Western European” cycling nations is one of decline, except for the Netherlands. France has had pretty much the same share of riders at the Tour, but declining attendance at the other races, whilst Italy has been pretty stable. Spain, Germany and Switzerland, however, are all in free fall in every race, although the Germans are seeing a recent resurgance, though the greater Swiss attendance in 2014 is largely down to IAM Cycling’s invitations. The Low countries are doing strangely well however, slowly increasing their numbers over the period.
Rather than the pictures of booming attendances you might expect, the newer cycling powers are actually pretty stable. Why? Well, because they still have pretty low shares of the total field – for instance, Norway has never had more that 1.6% of the field in any Tour, but has done very well with some exceptionally talented individuals. Great Britain can basically say the same, with a maximum 4.5% share, although Australia have seen more of their countrymen ride, mainly due to their Orica Greenedge tea. However, the low shares represent such small rider numbers that just one more rider can really alter the graph, so it’s best to take them with a pinch of salt.
On a lighter note, I’ve always felt that despite the mood of apparent nationalism in cycling, this isn’t really reflected in the national champions kits. Jonathan Vaughters, one of my not particularly favourite people, for instance banned his riders from having national champions bands on their sleeves, apparently because it distracted from the team aesthetic and togetherness. Uh huh. It seemed to me that perhaps national champions kits were being increasingly relegated behind the team aesthetic and integrated into team designs, rather than emphasising the national pride. So, I had a look at the national champions kits over the years to see if there was any truth in this, or whether I was simply going mad.
First, lets have a look at the last 11 wearers of the national jersey for the traditional cycling nations of France, Spain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Switzerland.
Ok, so perhaps I’m seeing things to a certain extent. It’s clear that from these that the vast majority used the standard national champion template, although there are notable exceptions. Caisse/Movistar, for instance, have had a monopoly on the Spanish Champions jersey since Joaquim Rodriguez won it in 2007, but have strangely relegated the vibrant colours of the “la Rojigualda” behind that of the team. This started in 2008, when they basically just highlighted Alejandro Valverde’s kit with some Red and Gold,but then it’s been an increasing emphasis on the “Movistarness” of the kit over the “Spanishness”, with the size of the bands on the sleeves reduced and the shoulder markings removed.
Italy hasn’t had too many issues, with even Enrico Gasparotto’s Liquigas kit in 2006 being tastefully done in combining the team’s aesthetic into the jersey. Fillipo Pozzato had so many variants of his kit that there isn’t time to go into it here (but please entertain yourself here), but his was different from the usual horizontal bands.
Vincenzo Nibali, however, has set a worrying precedent, particularly when he talked about his jersey being necessary due to the money the sponsors had put in (mainly because Air Astana were removed to fit the Tricolore on)
On the left here we have the 2014 Italian jersey, which was derided as being the “Hungarian national champion”, which shows a, tsk tsk, shocking lack of knowledge for the Hungarian flag, which is the opposite way around (From the top, Red White and Green). Still, the point is about the jersey not representing Italy, especially when the words “Kazakstan” interupt the flag on the jersey flanks. Luckily, they remedied that for 2015.
Otherwise, Radioshack ruined things with their very minimalist national champions jerseys for a couple of years, but other than that its even arguable the jerseys are getting more obviously national – FDJ have foregone their sponsorship on the French national jersey the last couple of years to leave a beautifully clean jersey.
Maybe it’s worth looking at the more youthful cycling nations?
Well, it’s a bit more obvious that teams have taken precedence over jerseys, especially in the case of the USA, which is an absolute mess (give thanks that Tyler Hamilton and Rock racing will nay again see the light of day), whilst Luxembourg and New Zealand have also suffered to the curse of Radioshack and there insistence that the team comes first. Interestingly, Astana, who have also had the Kazakh champion, have made their national hero more obvious by making the background of the jersey white, given that their normal kit looked identical to the national champions.
So all in all, it’s probably all in my head. The problem to some extent is that teams come up with a national champions jersey on a quick turn around and just make it up on the team design rather than putting any effort in, before changing it to something more fitting the next year.
This is hopefully evident in this picture, which shows how jerseys evolved over time. Duggan and Busche were both somewhat shortchanged by their respective teams over their jerseys in the year they won them, although Duggan’s move to SaxoBank gave him a better jersey. Similarly, Peter Sagan’s move to Tinkoff gave him a more vivid Slovakian champions jersey after three years of “integration” the Liquigas/Cannondale jersey.
Anyway, hopefully this all shows that the WorldTour is, at least slightly, succeeding in trying to become more international, and in the nations it introduces increasing in strength. Which is just as well, because the number of spread sheets I had to come up with for all of this was INSANE.