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Cycling Breakaway League: A Brave New World

By:
Richard Moore
Published:
February 03, 2012, 13:36 GMT,
Updated:
February 03, 2012, 15:34 GMT
Is this the future of cycling?

Is this the future of cycling?

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This feature comes from the latest issue of Procycling, which you can now download from Apple's Newsstand.

Two 20-year-olds called Luke Armstrong and Charlie Vaughters step out of their team buses, ensure the tiny cameras fitted into their stems are not obscured and then pedal their bikes through the polite fans in the paddock – sorry, village départ. Although French remains the official language of cycling, in India in 2020 this now seems like an affectation. In Delhi, the buses are actually in the exclusive area with the VIPs and paying customers. These people have access to the riders, those outside do not.

As they stop for photos and autographs, up-and-coming stars Armstrong and Vaughters maintain an old feud between their fathers, Lance and Jonathan, by avoiding each other. Today’s stage is a flat one that should favour the sprinter Rick Zabel, though Mark Cavendish in his final season could push him close. The previous evening saw a time trial that was won by the experienced Taylor Phinney.

Tomorrow there’s a team time trial in the morning and a circuit race in the afternoon. The day after, a Himalayan mountain stage concludes the four-day classic.

None of these riders represent what cycling fans used to call ‘trade teams’. They ride for franchises with generic names – slipstream, la Vitesse, strada alta (an Italian outfit whose name is a clear rip-off of the old, much-lamented Highroad team). Sponsors come and go but franchises remain. And the riders are better off, at least financially. In the 14-team World Series Cycling (WSC) there’s a minimum wage, a reserve fund to ensure that teams are more stable than in the old days when they were wholly dependent on a title sponsor, and the travel opportunities are unsurpassed.

The European race season

The sport is truly global. But there has been a cost. The three grand tours – of France, Italy and Spain – remain, as do the five Monuments: Milan-San Remo, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Giro di Lombardia.

Other old races have withered on the vine. The European calendar has been decimated. Classics such as Gent-Wevelgem and San Sebastián survive only thanks to the efforts of local organisers and sponsors but they have a decidedly local feel. Of the stage races in spring, only Paris-Nice is still a major event. WSC teams and riders are more likely to be in India, China or Brazil than in Tuscany, Catalonia or Romandy.

And what of the UCI world road race championships? It remains but it has suffered a similar fate to football’s FA Cup in England. When faced with the riches offered by its big rivals the Premiership and Champions League in the 1990s, the FA Cup’s prestige steadily declined. Since the advent of WSC, the rainbow jersey has come, like the FA cup, to represent history and tradition rather than hard currency. And in the new cycling world it’s money that speaks loudest.

Is this what our sport would look like in the era of World Series Cycling – or whatever the so-called breakaway league might be called?

Listening to Jonathan Vaughters, the general manager of Garmin-Barracuda and president of riders’ organisation AIGCP, as he outlines what he sees when he gazes into his crystal ball, you might well come up with a picture similar to that described above.

RadioShack-Nissan’s Johan Bruyneel is another team director pushing for changes that seem designed to give the teams far more power – and money. Comparisons have been made to English Premier league football and Formula One motor racing. Both are run as self-managed and highly lucrative businesses and enjoy a certain independence from the sports’ traditional governing bodies.

So it’s no wonder that cycling’s world governing body, the UCI, is scared. When news of plans for a proposed breakaway league first emerged in March 2011 it prompted a furious reaction from UCI president Pat McQuaid. He penned an open letter that was ostensibly about another controversy concerning race radios but he added that he and the UCI, “fully believes that this is not a fight about radios but rather a fight for power and control”.

It went on: “UCI is aware of steps being taken to set up a private league, world cycling Tour, outside UCI, by certain team managers. I wonder will the financial benefits they are chasing benefit you, the riders. Somehow I think not! I quote Johan Bruyneel: ‘I’ve been laying the framework for something great…’”

During the 2010 spring classics, Bob Stapleton spoke of the desirability of major changes to the way professional cycling is structured. As with Bruyneel, the way Stapleton spoke, a revolution didn’t seem a distant possibility – it was coming.

Eighteen months later Stapleton has gone, his hugely successful HTC-Highroad team folding at the end of 2011. But perhaps that only illustrated the point that he, Vaughters and Bruyneel have been making that the current ‘model’ for professional cycling is too fickle, too dependent on the whims of sponsors and ultimately unsustainable.

WSC and Rothschild

Eight months after the first news of a breakaway by the top teams, flesh was added to the bones when Procycling’s sister website Cyclingnews.com published details of a proposed world series cycling (WSC), plans for which had been drawn up in early 2011.

WSC would be a joint venture between 14 leading teams, the Rothschild group and the London-based Gifted Group and would see the “formation of a new, truly global racing competition… bringing together 14 cycling teams, or franchises, in 10 newly created racing events”.

WSC would “put teams at the heart of the event”. In addition to the three grand tours, five Monuments and another eight events in Europe, there would be 10 new four-day events elsewhere in cycling’s ‘new markets’. Ambitiously, the proposal identified 2013 as the first year of WSC.

The world governing body again reacted angrily, and McQuaid described the new proposals as “unworkable”. However, the UCI thought them workable enough that they were moved to buy up several domain names (worldseriescycling.com, worldseriescycling.net and worldseriescycling.org) that might have been attractive to the new joint venture. But it will surely take rather more than that to foil Vaughters, Bruyneel, Rothschild and Jonathan Price and Thomas Kurth of the London-based Gifted Group, who specialise in taking on sporting bodies. Kurth is the former head of G14, which comprised the world’s richest football clubs.

Vaughters seems unperturbed by the UCI’s resistance. “The critical mass needed to direct some positive change is there,” he tells Procycling.

“There have been enough incidents to inflame and incite enough parties over the last couple of years that I think people want positive change. They want the sport to be managed in a more professional way.”

But it isn’t just the UCI who have criticised the proposed breakaway. Many fans appear suspicious of the motives of those behind it – the teams. Vaughters, who is less accustomed to negative press than Bruyneel, nonetheless seems unruffled.

But he agrees it will take time: “It’s a very long-term process and has to be worked through very carefully.” In any talk of a breakaway the involvement of the major race organisers must be critical. But why would ASO, who own the Tour de France and enjoy healthy profits, vote for change – especially agreeing to share out revenues such as those from TV rights?

For Vaughters a “more professionally run sport as opposed to the current model where it’s essentially run as an amateur sport with a professional aspect to it” would benefit everybody. But he admits that ASO will take a lot of convincing.

“ASO make a lot of profit from the Tour de France,” he says. “Is it in their interests to go down this road? I think it is. But do I think they’re going to need a lot of encouragement and a lot of convincing? Absolutely. Right now, they’re not seeing that if they become business partners with the teams and give greater fan access and work on new events together, then they’ll help grow the whole sport and end up with more than before."

“Instead, they’re thinking, ‘wait a minute, you guys want some of our money?’ The short-term view is they are not going to be overly receptive. But my long-term hope is that they will be convinced that it is in their best interests.” One benefit for all, says Vaughters, will be “more stability in the parties you’re working with”.

It means teams will not be so vulnerable to the vagaries of the economic climate and whims of sponsors. And it also means teams will no longer be solely reliant on a title sponsor but funded by a range of “stable sources: TV rights, merchandising, ticket sales, sponsorship”. Vaughters also wants a reserve fund of at least 30 million Euros to be set up and independently managed in order to guard against, for example, the overnight disappearance of the sport’s most successful team, HTC-Highroad.

As for the comparisons with the English Premier League and Formula One, Vaughters prefers to look west for inspiration.

“I see the English Premier league as something to avoid,” he says. “All it does is get bigger and bigger but it’s not an example of a responsible business model because the teams are carrying huge amounts of debt.

"I look more at the American sports and their revenue models, where ticket sales are important but they’re not the big thing: the biggest piece of revenue is TV rights.”

It is for other reasons that some fear cycling going the way of Formula One, which seems to exist in a bubble of wealth and exclusivity. When the first Indian Grand Prix was held last year it was criticised for failing to engage with the local population, regardless of the high ‘official’ attendance figure.

“Cycling is going to be played out on public roads no matter what,” says Vaughters. “Maybe certain sections of the road could be ticketed but I don’t think that’s the thing cycling needs to stabilise its economic platform. We want the sport to be open to anyone who wants to watch – that’s something everyone agrees on.”

Another criticism of the proposed breakaway is its emphasis on teams. The WSC want a future in which fans turn out to support their favourite squad rather than rider – an idea that strikes many as unrealistic.

Here a solution needs to be found to an inherent problem – namely that cycling is that rare and awkward creature, an ‘individual team sport’.

“As long as we’re focused on the individual, the sponsors are going to say, ‘why do i want to sponsor a team?” says Vaughters, and he sounds like a man who is speaking from experience.

He adds: “The way for cycling to truly become a team sport is budget caps and more wage parity. Stars are paid more, of course, but people realise the value of the worker bees. In order to build a team as opposed to focusing on individuals, there has to be more emphasis on the team brand and team image. That’s the only way to get more sponsorship dollars in.”

So looking ahead to when Charlie Vaughters will be old enough to (theoretically) ride as a professional in the all-singing, all-dancing ‘World Series Cycling’, what would his father like to see?

“If I have my ideal there’s a 30 to 40 million Euro reserve fund that’s independently managed,” says Vaughters.

“The revenue model of teams has changed so around 40 to 50 per cent of their budget is from sponsorship with 50 to 60 per cent from other sources: TV rights, merchandising, co-operative marketing efforts, revenue from new events in new places.

“The teams racing in the top events are established and stable so they can build solid fan bases. It’s no longer a year-to-year scramble to get a licence. Then there’s a greater anti-doping effort in terms of technology and execution. And finally there’s a budget cap for the teams, a minimum wage and more wage parity so the sport truly becomes a team sport.”

Then there are long-overdue innovations in broadcasting such as cameras on bikes. Vaughters suggests the problem is a lack of incentives for teams. He says: “If someone wants to put a camera on a bike and only the broadcaster and organiser benefit, the reaction is: ‘no, you can’t put a camera on my bike’.” 

And he’d like to see more made of the village départ, with privileges for ticket-holders. It’s a concept that will make some people uncomfortable although he insists on the principle of road racing as a free sport.

The vision may be long-term and hazy in places but there is a clear outline. It seems certain that the UCI will continue to resist any breakaway and a bloody battle could ensue. But the big, decisive question is whether ASO can be persuaded to come on board.

If they do then in less than a decade, in India, China or Brazil, the focus might be back on the sport and on whether Charlie Vaughters can beat Luke Armstrong or if Rick Zabel can hold off his father’s old protégé, the grizzled veteran Mark Cavendish.
 

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