Jonathan Vaughters of Garmin-Cervélo is the president of the AIGCP, the body that represents the majority of professional cycling teams. He suggested 10 ideas to reinvigorate the sport to the BBC. Here’s our analysis and a few suggestions of our own.
Words by Lionel Birnie
The first question has to be, what needs revitalising? The start of this season has been promising. The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was a fantastic, anarchic race. Tirreno-Adriatico had some very exciting days and Milan-San Remo on Saturday was a true Classic – even if the drama largely resulted from a crash that split the bunch in two.
There are, of course, problems. The UCI’s governance is far from ideal. The Alberto Contador situation has been appallingly handled and is by far the most damaging thing to the sport’s reputation. What would any casual sports fan with a passing interest in cycling think? The winner of the Tour de France tested positive for a banned drug. Seven months and counting and there’s still no definitive answer. How can anyone engage with a sport when the winner of the biggest event is tainted and undecided? And not for the first time.
The row over race radios is being used by the teams to demonstrate their lack of input to the decision-making process. The teams are demanding proper representation and are threatening drastic measures if they don’t get it.
Vaughters was asked by the BBC to offer ten ideas to improve the sport. It is refreshing to see someone who is prepared to look at things in a progressive and leftfield way. With an ever-more competitive media landscape, cycling does need to fight its corner more effectively.
However, Vaughters’ suggestions require analysis, partly because you get the feeling that this is the next step in the struggle for power between the governing body and the teams who take part.
And while it is worth bearing in mind Vaughters was talking to the BBC, and therefore hoping to reach a broader audience than just cycling fans, his points are worth debating.
1. More races of the highest level outside Europe.
First question is, why? In America and Australia, crowds have been bigger and more passionate for the Tour of California and Tour Down Under than they are for traditional staples such as Paris-Nice and Tirreno Adriatico, so you can understand why the teams want to promote themselves there.
But why create races in China, India and the Middle East, where there is no tradition of cycle racing? Well, because there is potentially a lot of money available in these developing markets. Everyone is rushing to stick their flag in these relatively untapped territories and cycling feels it has to be part of the stampede.
Holding Formula 1, a Bernie Ecclestone-led hegemony, up as an example for cycling to follow is a peculiar one when cycling’s teams are seeking a say in how things are run.
But Formula 1 has 19 single-day events a year. Cycling’s biggest asset is the Tour de France, a 21-day epic. There’s not a lot of compatibility there.
And it seems odd, when riders complain about a 50-kilometre transfer to a hotel, and teams are expressing concerns about the idea of the Giro d’Italia starting in Washington, to advocate a globe-trotting calendar that places strain on athletes and other resources.
One reason to stage events outside Europe could be to take advantage of the time difference. A big problem for stage races, in particular, is that the bulk of the action takes place during weekdays, when people are at work or school. Stage races held in other parts of the world could be broadcast at prime time in Europe.
However, the rush to create events in other parts of the world should be approached with caution. Are people in Malaysia or Abu Dhabi or Singapore suddenly Formula 1 fanatics because the race visits them once a year? And what is more likely to make Indians interested in the sport? Having an Indian event, or having an Indian driver competing at the top level?
The beauty of cycling’s biggest events is that they have history, a backstory and stability. Many of them are a century or more old. Create the Tour of Beijing by all means but what happens if the race folds after a decade? It’s replaced by the Tour of India and we start again.
Look at any other sport. Take tennis. Wimbledon, the US Open, the Australian Open, the French Open – they are the big events that capture the imagination. You can have as many multi-million dollar tournaments in Shanghai and Dubai as you like but the public still recognises the big four as the ones to watch.
2 Consistent, understandable formats for cycling fans
Note, Vaughters’s original email to the BBC said: “Consistent, understandable formats for uber-fans, new fans and casual fans alike.
This is rather vague. The beauty of cycling is that there is variety. There are hilly races and flat ones. Breakaways, sprints and time trials. There are cobbles and cols.
But the basic premise is always the same – the first over the line wins. Or in a stage race, the rider with the lower aggregate time wins.
Talk to someone with a passing interest in the Tour de France and they will often ask: “If Mark Cavendish can win more stages than anyone else, why doesn’t he win the Tour?”
Take a minute to explain it and they get it.
In my experience, it is the intricacies and nuances that actually appeal to new fans. The fact the peloton is a society on wheels with customs and rules, the fact there are different races within a race, the rivalries and alliances that go on. Explain to someone how a breakaway works and why a certain team is chasing and they get it.
3. Long-term guaranteed entry to the Tour de France for professional teams.
Jonathan Vaughters has pointed out that the third point in his list to the BBC was “Consistent, year after year, team branding to develop fanbase. For example, Argyle! It’s our thing no matter what sponsor or riders we have.” The point Vaughters made about long-term guaranteed entry to the Tour was made in his subsequent interview with the BBC. We shall tackle both points.
The idea of team branding is something that is beginning to take hold. There are teams that operate under the name of their management company (Slipstream, Highroad, Leopard). Dave Brailsford once told us that his initial plan was to come up with a name for the team that could remain constant, along that of his chief sponsor so that when the identity of the main backer changed the team’s identity still had a bedrock. Slipstream’s ‘Argyle’ branding does the same thing. Could we reach a stage one day where team management companies are large and prosperous enough to make sponsorship secondary? That appears to be Vaughters’ idea.
The point the BBC pushed, that teams should have guaranteed long-term entry to the Tour de France is worrying.
If, say, 12 long-term licences were awarded, you create an elite. It becomes a closed shop and would be anti-competitive.
Even American sports which are limited to a certain number of franchises are egalitarian. The draft system of player recruitment levels the playing field and prevents strong teams getting ever stronger.
Of course teams want guaranteed entry to the Tour de France. Financially-speaking it is the only thing in cycling that has any value.
But what would the criteria be and who chooses which teams get a licence?
What happens when the sport is split in two, with the haves against the have-nots? The haves would get the choice of all the best riders and those on the outside hoping for wildcard selection would be simply making up the numbers.
What happens to the teams that lose sponsors because they are not part of the chosen elite?
Vaughters developed Slipstream from a small squad of young talent into one of the biggest teams in the world, using intelligent management and creative thinking. In 2008 they didn’t even have a title sponsor, yet they gained selection to the Tour de France and Christian Vande Velde finished fourth. This proposal makes the possibility of developing a team from scratch and going to the very top a lot more difficult, if not impossible.
4. More focus on prevention of doping, in the first place, as opposed to catching cheats
We won’t argue with this one. One of the best aspects of Anne Gripper’s policy when she was in charge of anti-doping at the UCI was that she wanted to change the culture in the peloton. She wanted to win over hearts and minds, not just punish cheats. And there was significant progress, except in the murkiest corners.
Education is key. Explaining to young riders before they even turn professional of the temptations and shady characters that will come their way should be done.
Vaughters will argue that cycling is getting cleaner but the problem is that the damage was not done overnight. The Festina Affair was 12 years ago. And one positive test does more damage to the sport’s reputation than a whole year without a positive can repair. Imagine 197 of the Tour de France riders are clean as a whistle but the winner tests positive? What is the public perception? Cycling needs all the stakeholders and powerbrokers to understand that.
Anti-doping costs millions of dollars and if cycling’s attempts to maximise revenues means more money is spent on research and education as well as testing, that has to be a good thing. However, what safeguards would there be to ensure money is spent on anti-doping?
5. More team time trials more often
We’re not surprised that Vaughters should suggest this. Team time trialling is one of his pet projects. And why not? When Garmin were just breaking into the big time, he identified it as a discipline his team could excel at. He built teams to do well and at the Giro he reaped the rewards, winning the stage and the pink jersey.
From a commercial point of view, team time trialling is attractive because it maximises each team’s time on screen. The sponsor gets nice, long, uncluttered views of his logos in neat, slick formation for a couple of minutes at a time. Unless your team isn’t very good at it and gets set off early, before the TV coverage starts.
But of all the aspects of cycling to choose in order to reinvigorate it, Vaughters picks team time trialling?
Sure, it looks great and in the context of a grand tour it can be a very absorbing afternoon’s racing. But the complicated time bonus systems put in place to prevent key riders in weaker teams from losing the Tour in the first week makes it difficult for casual viewers to understand.
And team time trials can be boring to watch. In the past I’ve watched team time trials with non-cycling fans who have been bored to tears. “Are they trying to catch the team in front of them?” No, they’re not. “So why are they doing it?”
Stand-alone team time trial events are a dead loss. Remember the GP Liberation in the late 1980s? Rubbish. Remember Hein Verbruggen’s parting gift to the sport (well, one of them), the Eindhoven Team Time Trial? Also rubbish. It lasted three years. The atmosphere at the edition I went to could best be described as sterile.
6. Technical innovation, such as cameras on bikes, inside cars, helmets, inside team buses to make the ‘craziness and danger of the peloton more real to the viewer’
Hang on a moment. ‘The craziness and danger of the peloton’?
We appreciate Vaughters is speaking to a broader audience than just cycling fans, but what’s this?
We have been led to believe that race radios are imperative to reduce the craziness and danger of the peloton. Isn’t that the crux of Jens Voigt’s argument? And now Vaughters wants to put this stuff on the screen?
Cameras on bikes, inside cars, on helmets and in the buses are all a great idea. Anything to help people engage with the sport has to be considered. But we have to be careful here. Reducing the sport to a clips show of crash, bang, wallop, what an idiot-type incidents should be avoided.
7. Equipment innovation to see if the smartest team wins sometimes rather than the strongest
So, an equipment arms race, followed by a load of wailing from Team B because they don’t have as much money for development as Team A.
While many of the UCI’s regulations have been anti-technology and some have been downright ridiculous, there is something to be said for restricting the pace of design and innovation.
For a start, the bike industry wants to be able to sell its machines to the public. If you have enough money you can buy the same bike Bradley Wiggins or Fabian Cancellara rides. Okay, that amount of money might be £10,000 but it’s possible. If that amount of money becomes £30,000 then the trickle down to ordinary cyclists becomes slower and the elite pro world takes a huge leap away from the regular rider.
8. Open radios to the public and listen to your favourite team and what they are doing
If race radios are to stay, then this should be considered, although most of the radio contact will be unbroadcastable, either because of the swearing or because the words will be difficult to hear on TV over the howling wind and feedback. That way TV viewers can decide for themselves the influence radios have on the racing.
9. GPS tracking of individual riders to make races fun to watch
More information for the viewer is great – but this is the kind of stuff that appeals to the avid fan, rather than the casual observer. Heart-rate, cadence, calories burned, would all be interesting. But GPS does what? Shows where a rider is on the road? What about when a rider swaps bikes, either with a team-mate or with the team car? Two hours following a dot that’s off the back of the bunch thinking it’s Cancellara when in fact it’s his bike with a flat tyre on the team car roof? We exaggerate, slightly.
10. Have an understandable and consistent way of determining the best rider in the world and the best team in the world. That might mean riders have to ride Paris-Roubaix, and if they do not finish they would be docked points
This is barmy. We already have a system of deciding who the best rider in the world is – it’s called the Tour de France. It’s the biggest, toughest race in the world.
The Tour showed us that Contador [forget the positive test for a moment] was the best climber, Cancellara the best time triallist and Cavendish the best sprinter.
Since the 1980s, cycling’s rulers have been obsessed with ranking systems. The old FICP rankings were complex and didn’t tell anyone anything they didn’t already know. Sean Kelly topped the rankings for years but he didn’t win the Tour de France or World Championships. He was, however, consistently excellent in many of the biggest races there were.
The World Cup at least compared riders in races that were broadly similar.
It is when you start trying to compare the winner of Paris-Roubaix with the winner of the Tour that it all falls apart. What’s the point? What’s it proving?
And no one wants to see Andy Schleck and the other skinny climbers riding Paris-Roubaix to preserve some computer-generated ranking position. The riders (and fans) will simply decide the rankings are irrelevant.
Now, split racing into two separate leagues – one-day races and stage races and compare like for like and you might be getting somewhere.
But the bottom line is that season-long ranking competitions appeal only to riders who are in contention to win the season-long ranking competition. They also reward defensive racing – you run the risk of a perfectly good edition of Tour of Lombardy being raced with several riders keeping an eye on the ranking scoreboard.
Cycling’s problem, if it is a problem, is that it is a sport that was invented in the early part of the 20th century to test endurance and to sell newspapers.
The newspapers published florid accounts of the races by reporters who couldn’t possibly have witnessed what they were writing about. But the stories captured the imagination of the public and played out like a sporting soap opera in print.
As such, road cycling is not conducive to television coverage. It goes on too long and it is unpredictable. Television wants to know when the race is going to finish (it doesn’t want a half-hour delay because of a headwind) and it wants to be able to tell the viewers when the key, decisive moments are going to be.
But the appeal of cycling is that it plays out over hours and you never quite know when the decisive moments are going to be. And that means it appeals to the sort of person who loves watching Test match cricket, rather than the sort of person who has to have their demand for excitement sated by short-format cricket where every second ball is hit for six.
The other issue is that television often misses the best part of a race. Often the first hour of racing is the most exciting. It is where the battle to get in the break goes on. However, television switches on well after the race has settled into a pattern of break versus bunch.
So, how to make the sport more spectacular?
Perhaps it will require some creative thinking. In the past I have proposed an Alpe d’Huez team time trial relay. The mountain is split into nine sections and each rider does one section, handing over a ‘golden bidon’ to the next rider in the change-over zone. The event would be exciting and unconventional and would challenge the teams to select the right rider for each section.
Or how about a three-day knock-out tournament structured like a sprint competition on the track. Pick an iconic hill, say the Muur in Flanders and draw 64 riders head-to-head. They race one against one with the winner progresses to the next round, the loser goes out. Held over three-days it would reach a climax with a best-of-three final. Tactically each race would be fascinating. For spectators at the event or watching at home on TV it would hold the attention. There are dozens more ideas which could all liven up the format of cycling.
Maybe they are crazy ideas but cycling needs to be prepared to consider new ideas, not just the same old ideas repackaged. Many races that were genuinely different (like the motor-paced events in Paris and Amsterdam or the hill time trial at Montjuic in Barcelona) have disappeared).
However, the underlying concern about Vaughters’s ideas is that they are underpinned by a desire to strengthen the hand of the teams and their management companies for their own gain. Unless we are very much mistaken, the desire to replicate the success of English Premier League football or NFL is actually a desire to replicate their income streams.
And of course no one is expecting the teams to participate purely for the love of it.
Finally, that comment about cycling being ‘absolutely transparent’ cannot go unchecked. It is patently not the case. While cycling may be more open than other sports, it insults the public’s intelligence. Transparency means being open and willing to be held to account. And that means doing so publicly, so that the punters and the prospective sponsors know what it is they are buying into.