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AG2R - La Mondiale

How to play the cycling numbers game

By:
Inner Ring
Published:
March 27, 2012, 12:23 BST,
Updated:
March 27, 2012, 13:38 BST

Just how easy is it to build a ProTour team on a budget?

AG2R-La Mondiale is now the only UCI Pro Team yet to win this year. In 2011 the brown short brigade took five wins, crowned by John Gadret’s stage win in the Giro d’Italia. With a modest record like this it’s easy to be dismissive but this ignores the squad’s budget, it just doesn’t have the funds to match Team Sky or Omega Pharma-Quickstep.

Big teams squashing small ones is not a new story. A film last year called Moneyball showed one way for small teams to compete. Originally a best-selling book by raconteur Michael Lewis, Moneyball is about baseball and statistics. The Oakland Athletics had less money than rivals but mined data on player performance, hunting for hidden patterns to build a team capable of grinding out wins instead of a collection of superstars.

What if we could do this in cycling? Can you build a team on a modest budget with unheralded riders and make it to the top level? This is a difficult and different task. Baseball is full of stats. There are algebraic formulae to determine the slugging percentage and other data. In cycling we have nothing similar. Cycling Quotient offers an efficiency ranking, dividing kilometres raced per year with success but that’s about it. Yet both sports share a love of history and stars of the past are celebrated. Given these facts it’s easy to understand why myths, nostalgia and accepted wisdom can cloud rational thought.

Many teams have operated on thin budgets and ridden with a jersey resembling a patchwork quilt of corporate logos. But rather than how you raise money, here I want to look at how you make your money go as far as possible.

Boringly, tax is your starting point. As a team owner, wages are the biggest claim on your budget by a long way. If you’re a French team your payroll is taxed at around to 40%, in other words add up all the team’s wages and the French government slaps a hefty levy on top. It’s not unique to France but teams can shop around. For example the Farnese Vini squad might seem Italian thanks to its wine and olive oil sponsors and its Cipollini bikes but it is actually registered in London, not Lombardia. This allows the team to benefit from lower British payroll taxes. Tax dodging might raise ethical issues but for now the rules seem to allow it.

Next there’s the matter of rider contracts. Many riders are not salaried employees of a team but instead are contractors who rent out their services to a pro team. It might be a legal nicety but it means the team can shrink social security or pension contributions, a significant saving. Again this solo status is not allowed in some countries. In France for example riders have to be full-time staff of the team. Tax and contractual status might sound boring but in a sport where finding an extra one percent gain helps, saving 40% on the wage bill is massive.

Unlike baseball, cycling does not have the binary outcome of winning and losing, instead only one rider wins as hundreds “lose”. So the UCI rankings are not the same as league table. You don’t need to win a race to top the rankings, indeed crowd the top-20 of the overall classification of a race and your riders win plenty of points, even if nobody notices them. This can change how you race, a team might aim to secure, say, seventh overall in a stage race in order to bank points rather than try risky moves for a stage win that won’t bring many points. A similar route is to hunt far and wide. Ag2r and Lotto-Belisol both recruited an Iranian rider over the winter and were open about their motivations - they were hired thanks to their haul of UCI points, mostly gained from the UCI Asia Tour races. Aiming for a modest overall position or hiring Iranians doesn’t make you win more races, instead it is a response to the “sporting criteria” set by the UCI to be amongst the top-18 teams. In other words, maybe you cannot win races so at least win the points needed to stay in the top league of teams.

Based on this our prototype “Moneywheel” team would be registered offshore, use the tax savings to sign winners from Asia and South America and European riders with a proven track record of finishing around tenth place in a week-long stage race. Done right, this could get a UCI ProTour licence for the least outlay possible although dodging taxes and hiring unremarkable riders probably won’t sound like the fan’s choice. But we’re not here for popularity. The start line of the top races, including the Tour de France, awaits.

As for actually winning races, this is harder. A shoestring budget means fighting the top sprinters, climbers, stage race and classics specialists on their terms is too expensive. Probably the cheapest opportunity is to specialise in opportunist attacks and long range breakaways. A thankless task, but try it often and one day the move will work. You won’t win big but you’ll have a team in the top tier and the chance to dream of landing a big win.

To conclude, it is possible to play with the arithmetic of points and rankings to help engineer a team into the top-18. Shopping around for a country to register your team can save big money that can be spent on hiring some valuable riders. But any team on a modest budget will probably still be picking up the crumbs left by the big teams. This is probably true for Ag2r and several other squads too. But it'd be boring if every team was the same, no?
 

Paris-Roubaix: Tom Boonen (Quick Step) saw his Hell of the North dreams dashed in the Forest of Arenberg.

The ever-evolving classics

By:
Inner Ring
Published:
March 08, 2012, 23:35 GMT,
Updated:
March 08, 2012, 23:35 GMT

One-day racing just a sign of the times

If you play word association with the spring classics maybe you'll think of legends, history and longevity. After all the word classic is often used to describe long-standing or ancient things, like a classic car or classical Greece.

But take a closer look and the classic races on the cycling calendar are forever changing. What we might think of as long-running races are constantly changing and evolving to suit their environment.

Take the new Tour of Flanders route for 2012 which brings big changes to the format used in recent years. Many were shocked to see the Kapelmuur climb dropped from the route, it was almost sacrilegious to remove the climb with its chapel from the race. But big change is quite normal. Over the years both the start and finish town have changed many times. Above all, the organisers have changed the nature of the race with the addition of the "hellingen" or the steep climbs in order to reduce the probability of a bunch sprint. The Koppenberg, often viewed as integral to the legend of the race, was only included in the mid-1970s when a local informed race organisers about a hidden farm track.

As for Paris-Roubaix, well it's been almost half a century since the race actually started in Paris. Instead it actually starts some 75km away of the French capital in the town of Compiègne. Many complain when low-cost European airlines advertise flights to Paris only to land in a provincial airport far from the city but cycling fans don't seem to mind the false name of Paris-Roubaix, perhaps because it makes the race sound even longer and harder than it is, perhaps because it reaches back in history too. Moving the start isn't the only change. The nickname "Hell of the North" has nothing to do with the bone-shaking, frame-snapping cobbles. Instead it came about after riders discovered firsthand the devastation caused by the trench warfare of the First World War. For a long time cobbles were the norm when it came to road surfaces, some northern cities in France still preserve their cobbled streets for reasons of heritage and tourism but most have vanished. But a race from Paris to Roubaix on normal roads and would be flat and almost certain to end in a bunch sprint. So like their Flemish cousins, the organisers went on the hunt for cobbled farm tracks perilous enough to fragment the peloton and promote attacks.

It's the same with the other races. Milan-San Remo has seen several course changes over the years and the finish location is often a subject of dispute between the organiser, the municipal authorities and local shopkeepers. Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Flèche Wallonne have been modified in recent years. And this year's Amstel Gold Race sees the organiser adding more climbing into the final moments before the traditional finish on the Cauberg.

By contrast last weekend's Strade Bianche race in Italy feels like an event that's been on the calendar for years. But in fact it's almost brand new since the first edition was in 2007. Race organisers RCS have made a modern race into a classic almost overnight thanks to an exciting course, but also by borrowing heavily from cycling's past. The unpaved sections, the images of dust-coated riders and the uphill finish into the walled city of Siena lend a retro feel.

All the big classics might date back a century or more but they have evolved over time. Once upon a time these races were there to sell newspapers or publicise velodromes, today they are run with TV viewers and event sponsors in mind. So the next time you watch a classic, remember it is a race with tradition and history but often a modern event that regularly adapts to suit the times.

 

The junior women's lines up for the first road race of this year's UCI World Championships

Inner Ring: UCI financial accounts published

By:
Inner Ring
Published:
September 29, 2011, 12:55 BST,
Updated:
September 29, 2011, 14:19 BST

Breaking down the numbers from 2010

Accounts are boring but often the money is not. I’ve done the hard work for you and here are some “highlights” of the UCI’s annual financial report.

First note it is from the year ending December 2010. Some time ago, but the wheels seem to turn slowly in Aigle and despite being approved by auditors in May, it took until September to agree to publish the accounts. The numbers are in Swiss Francs (CHF) and today’s exchange rate is at the foot of this piece.

• The 2010 World Championships brought in CHF 11.9 million, accounting for 47% of the UCI’s annual income.

• Of this, the road races in Geelong provided the majority of income, some CHF 8.5 million, or one third of the UCI’s total income.

• The road competitions generate more than the combined income from track, MTB, cyclo-cross, BMX and other disciplines by a considerable margin.

• Despite several big name sponsors like Tissot, Skoda, Santini, Shimano and others, oddly not a centime of income from sponsorship was reported but some goods were received in exchange.

• The strength of the Swiss Franc, one of the world’s last hard currencies, has been a headache for the UCI. Many of its costs are in Swiss Francs but many streams of revenue come in Euro and US dollars. This has led to an unfavourable move in the cost-revenue ratio and has prompted financial losses of over a million francs.

• Overall, the UCI made money from its activities, taking CHF 2.2 million in “operating profit” but lost on financial results.

• The separate anti-doping body, the Cycling Anti-Doping Foundation is notionally profitable, collecting more in revenue than it racks up in expenses.

• About 60% of the money used for anti-doping comes from the teams, with 40% from the UCI Pro Tour squads and 19% from the Pro Continental Teams - that’s three times as much as race organisers contribute during the season.

• Unlike many Swiss companies, there is no mention of salaries paid to senior executives. The UCI spent CHF 6.3 million on payroll and it employs 63 people, implying an average salary of CHF 100,000.

• The UCI now has a full-time finance director in Alain Siegrist, formerly an accountant at Ernst & Young.

The UCI accounts also include notes on the Pro Tour, the top “league” of teams and the calendar of races. Whilst not a separate legal entity, some useful numbers are explained.

• The ProTour has an income of CHF 2.2 million and over half comes from the teams.

• It seems very expensive to run, with some CHF 602,000 being spent on “Council Management”, CHF 498,000 going on marketing and CHF 632,000 on “legal and finance”. I had assumed the set up costs last year were high, but expenditure seems to be ongoing.

• €445,000 was siphoned off to create the Global Cycling Promotions company that will run the upcoming Tour of Beijing.

• It awarded €30,000 to the GP Plouay in order to help the race with a tight budget.

Summary

Overall, the UCI seems in decent financial shape although it has got its fingers burnt by moving exchange rates. The sport is heavily reliant on men’s pro road racing, which alone appears to generate more income than every other aspect of the sport combined. Note that the use of €445,000 to create Global Cycling Promotions is something that has caused private frustration amongst some teams.

The full accounts are available at uci.ch.

1 Swiss Franc = €0.82 / US$1.12 / £0.72 / AU$1.10.

 

The gruppetto on its way up.

Inner Ring: spare a thought for the gruppetto

By:
Inner Ring
Published:
July 18, 2011, 19:56 BST,
Updated:
July 18, 2011, 21:08 BST

The race behind the race

It's normal that the TV cameras focus on the race for the yellow jersey but when the lead group slims down to less than ten riders during a summit finish don’t forget that mean 160 riders are somewhere else on the mountain.

The race might be on up front but for many it further back it can be a battle to finish the stage. Three time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond once said "it never gets easier, you just go faster" so let's spare a moment for those who don't go faster in the high mountains.

On a big day in the mountains the heavier riders will often get dropped on a climb. This can be deliberate, many don’t want to go too far into the red, it’s better to control the pace and conserve energy for the mountain passes still to come rather than try to hold the wheels and risk cracking.

Once several riders are dropped, cries of “gruppetto” go out, this is Italian for “small group”. Riders regroup and even rivals who tussle for the sprint finishes become allies on a mountain pass as they take turns to reach the finish in time. Note these riders are certainly not sitting up, few can afford to relax.

The cut off time for last Saturday’s stage to the Plateau de Beille was set at 28 minutes from the moment Jelle Vanendert crossed the line. Whilst the Belgian was celebrating many riders were still on the lower slopes of the final climb. A group of roughly forty riders made the finish with just 90 seconds to spare. But FDJ’s William Bonnet was fighting knee injuries and refused to give up, only to arrive a few minutes later. The wrong side of the time limit he was eliminated.

The gruppetto relies on precise timing. The formula for the daily cut-off time is based on the average speed of the winner that day, and the type of stage and then calculated as a percentage of the winner’s time. It would make a good school maths exam question. Only try calculating percentages and average speeds once you’re five hours into a mountain stage after several days of racing. It’s not easy, the sharpest minds are blunted by fatigue.

Riders might count on team managers for information but the pace is down to the group, they run the numbers on the speed needed both uphill and downhill. Too fast and the group blows apart, too slow and they’re going home.

Right now Mark Cavendish wears the green jersey but he, like several other sprinters, is not built for the high mountains. If winning the green jersey means sprinting faster than the others it also means surviving the mountains. Indeed as well as getting a lead out in the last kilometre he can also count on his team in the high mountains.

The slowest schedule for Stage 19’s stage across the Galibier and up to Alpe d’Huez predicts the winner will take 3 hours 18 minutes and my calculations put the cut-off at 26 minutes. So let’s call it 3.44 for the slowest permissible time on the day. In fine weather last week, and with fresh legs, more than 7,000 amateurs tackled Stage 19 in the Etape du Tour cyclosport race and. Only four of them managed to beat the Tour de France cut-off time.

Whilst everyone watches the action up front, spare a thought for the guys behind. Thanks to the gruppetto they can work together to reach the finish line but this is a race in itself and for some a time of huge suffering.

Even the sprinters climb at an impressive rate.

 

Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) is assisted following his heavy crash.

Fines a cost of operating in Tour de France

By:
Inner Ring
Published:
July 13, 2011, 18:46 BST,
Updated:
July 14, 2011, 18:02 BST

Oddities from Tour de France communiques

Every evening the Tour de France issues the official results of the day’s stage along with the full standings for the overall classification and the other jerseys in the race. The same release contains details of other incidents during the day.

There’s a summary of riders seeking medical attention, a formal record of those who drop back to the medical car for treatment, usually because of a crash but we’ve seen riders get help for more random complaints, for example BMC Racing’s Amaël Moinard got a bee sting inside his mouth the other day.

But the fines issued each day are also documented. Riders and team staff commit a variety of infractions and the fines vary according to the offence. For example on the opening stage Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo was fined 50 Swiss Francs (about US$60) and docked 20 seconds for "prolonged sheltering behind a vehicle".

Last Thursday’s rainy stage to Lisieux was won by Sky’s Edwald Boasson Hagen but it wasn’t such a happy day for Team Europcar. The French squad was fined 1,000 Swiss Francs ($1,175) when their mechanic leaned out of the car to conduct a moving repair on one of their rider’s bikes.

Yes, you read that right, it is actually against the rules for a rider to draw alongside the team car and get their bike fixed on the move with UCI rule 2.3.030 saying it must be only "when stationary" and 2.3.031 stating "persons riding in vehicles shall not reach or lean out". It’s for safety reasons but an odd rule because if you’ve followed the sport for a while you’ll have seen many mobile repairs from an acrobatic mechanic hanging out of the team car.

Regulation 12.1.040.29 might sound very specific but it is about "insults, threats, unseemly behaviour", a catch-all term for a variety of inappropriate moves. It’s this rule that often sees a handful riders fined for "urinating in public" every day but again if you’ve watched the race you’ll have seen the moments when the bunch stops en masse for what the French call a "pause pipi". It’s a moment so public you can see it on TV; one of the downsides of HDTV broadcasting. So you have to wonder how the rule gets applied, although urinating whilst riding along and splashing roadside spectators is likely to result in a donation to the UCI.

The list of naughty riders and staff tends to reveal who gets caught rather than every misdemeanour committed. In races like the Tour de France the jury of commissaires is big and some travel on motorbikes to survey as much as possible. Most infractions happen when riders are outside of the bunch, hidden amongst the long convoy of vehicles. In fact you can watch the race on TV and spot things that the officials miss.

The UCI’s last set of published accounts dates from 2009 when they collected 179,984 Swiss Francs ($215,000) in "fines and appeals" but this was less than 1% of the UCI’s annual revenues that year.

For riders these fines are part of the job. Often the fines are offset against prize money for the team and a rider isn't usually out of pocket. Nobody wants to get them but they’re what you might call an operating cost. A team could be fined for a mobile repair but maybe they’d prefer to risk this instead of losing time by stopping to fix things. Similarly if a rider has to pee, well they gotta go.

But talking of going, if someone can be fined once or twice, there are offences where a third offence risks disqualification from the race. This is gets heavy, a leap from a few hundred Swiss francs to a scenario that could change the outcome of a race.

The Inner Ring

Don't miss the early action each Tour de France stage

By:
Inner Ring
Published:
July 09, 2011, 17:21 BST,
Updated:
July 09, 2011, 18:54 BST

Frantic stage beginnings often overlooked

I don't know about you but I've been on the edge of my seat for the Tour de France stage finishes this week. But if the sprints have been action-packed, the start of a stage can be great to watch too. This is a crucial part of the race but you don't see it on TV that often.

Each day on the Tour de France there is the départ fictif, the symbolic start. It's a chance for the local mayor to get their money's worth as they see the riders off. The race rolls out in a neutralised convoy, some riders might chat at the back but others will be trying to move to the front, even using the grass verges to gain a few places. Nobody is allowed to pass Tour director Christian Prudhomme's red car with until the race reaches the départ réel with the big Kilometre Zero signs. Then Prudhomme waves a white flag and in the next five seconds everything changes.

In the red car the driver floors the accelerator and riders leap out of the saddle. If you were standing by the KM 0 sign you'd hear the swish of tubs on tarmac, the clank of taut chains finding the 11 sprocket and the rattle of carbon rims against brake blocks. What happens next depends on the stage.

If it's a finish for the sprinters then most likely a move is condemned because later on several teams will combine to capture the fugitive riders. Perhaps the yellow jersey's team will be on the front to keep an eye on who goes away but normally once the breakaway goes things calm down for everyone else. Often the first attack of the day gets away and the early action is over quickly. Yes, the escape may look futile but hope dies last, maybe one day it'll work. Plus there's pride in leading the race, not to mention points and prizes for the sprint and mountains competition as well as valuable TV airtime.

If the stage finish doesn't suit the sprinters this can mean fewer teams willing to chase and so the chance of a breakaway being able to contest the finish goes up substantially. Consequently half the peloton fancies its chances. Moves go clear, get pulled in and then someone else goes and even riders in moves off the front attack each other. This is frantic racing with non-stop attacking, often much less controlled than a stage finish. The race might cover 50km in the first hour, and on hilly terrain.

Note for all the action there are fewer crashes partly because fatigue has yet to set in but also because riders aren't trying to fit into tiny gaps, this is about attrition with riders taking turns to attack. This can be great TV but spare a thought for the rider on a bad day because they're battling just to hold the wheels. Finally the moment comes when a group goes and others think "I can't go on" or better "I've got a teammate up there" and they can sit up, marking the end of what Team Sky's managers label "Phase 1".

As the race heads into "Phase 2" and a good gap appears the riders escaping have to keep the effort up because if they don't take a minute's lead soon then others who missed the move might try to jump across.

Sometimes there are no cameras to film the start but some broadcasters will be covering stages from start to finish this year and if you get the chance be sure to watch the beginning of a stage as closely as you might follow the finish. Sometimes it's easy to tune and watch the breakaway get reeled in but you've missed the effort needed to make the move stick.

Author
Inner Ring

The Inner Ring blog has rapidly emerged as one of the most well informed and informative blogs about professional cycling. 

The author has preferred to keep his identity a secret but clearly has a finger on the pulse of the sport. He writes from a fan's point of view but has inside knowledge of the sport thanks to a network of contacts and a close monitoring of the cycling media.

 Link: inrng.com