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Jonathan Vaughters: The Tour of California can come back but racing in the US has to be re-invented

Jonathan Vaughters
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The news that the Tour of California will take a hiatus in 2020 was greeted by many with disappointment and surprise, but EF Education First team boss Jonathan Vaughters has told Cyclingnews that it could prove to be the wake-up call that professional cycling in the US needed.

"I certainly do hope that they'll be able to bring the race back in 2021, but I think it's a bit of a bellwether as to the direction of American cycling," Vaughters said. "Cycling in the US is a different marketplace than it is in many places. We're never going to have these big money, massive, state-backed races like this new race in Saudi Arabia or the UAE Tour. That's never going to happen in the US. Municipalities or government entities are not going to sponsor cycling. Our political system doesn't allow for that. It has to come from completely private dollars."

After 14 years, it at least appears, going by the announcement by organisers AEG, the Tour of California is not sustainable, financially.

"It has become more challenging each year to mount the race. This new reality has forced us to re-evaluate our options, and we are actively assessing every aspect of our event to determine if there is a business model that will allow us to successfully relaunch the race in 2021," said race president and executive vice president of AEG Sports Kristin Klein in a statement on Tuesday.

"I don't have the exact figures," Vaughters told Cyclingews, "but am happy to be quoted in speculation: from an overhead-cost standpoint, the Tour of California probably costs almost as much as the Tour de France, which seems ridiculous, but that is probably the reality of the situation, because the road closures, closing down the start and finish areas... At a race like the Tour de France, the government supports the race as a patrimoine de France situation, where it's part of French culture, whereas in the US, we just have to pay for that. It makes it much harder to produce big events like that in the US."

Vaughters said that he believed participation events that you can qualify for – Ironman triathlons and marathons such as those in New York and Boston – are great examples of models that seem to work well in the US.

"To put it in cycling terms, events like the Dirty Kanza or Leadville 100 can work in the US, and that's because people are prepared to pay sometimes hundreds of dollars to participate, and so the organisers have a consistent revenue stream that is independent of sponsorship dollars, or of government and municipalities backing them.

"You look at Ironman, which is very much an American venture and was sold to a Chinese private equity firm for $600 million because of the value of the participants paying an entry fee to do it," Vaughters continued.

"That kind of model works in the US, but that isn't to say we can't have professional cycling in the US. What's holding us back in cycling from having an elite contingent of 120, 130, 140 riders who race the Dirty Kanza just like they would any WorldTour event, and then there are 20,000 people behind them doing the exact same course, at the same venue, at the same time?"

'Bike races are epic, an odyssey, an adventure, an achievement'

The more traditional, TV-friendly US sports such as [American] football, baseball and basketball are, Vaughters said, "almost made for television" and are accessible to a TV audience.

"But cycling races are six hours long, and so they should be because they're epic, they're an odyssey, they're an adventure, they're an achievement, that's part of the beauty of cycling, but that's not necessarily that TV friendly," Vaughters said.

"What's to say that the Dirty Kanza – and I keep mentioning that event over and over as I do like the business model – wouldn't be a really appealing television event formatted the correct way?

"I believe that fans of the sport in the developing nations such as the US, Australia and the UK want to participate and race themselves, as opposed to being passive spectators of the sport of cycling. They're aspirational, they want to train, and be a part of it, and not just sit on a couch and watch it. So I think that's the direction in which things are heading," he told Cyclingnews.

Inclusive stage-racing

Vaughters reiterated that in cycling's heartlands of Europe, there was no need to change anything when it came to the Grand Tours – the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia or the Vuelta a España – or the one-day Monuments, including Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders.

"Those events capture the imagination of a worldwide audience like nothing else can, but we need to look at whether a lot of the secondary stage races are the best way to present cycling to a worldwide audience, or whether we should be looking at a different way of doing things.

"You could have an inclusive stage race," Vaughters suggested. "There's this event called RAGBRAI – a ride across Iowa, where people are camping – which you could take a look at, almost as a weird template of what could be an inclusive stage race.

"Look at [EF Education First rider] Lachlan Morton doing the GBDuro," he said of his own EF Education First rider who rode, and won, a self-supported, on- and off-road race the length of Britain in June. "He was camping in bushes on the side of the road. You could open that up to 20-30,000 people and suddenly it's an inclusive stage race.

"I'm not going to say that that's 100 per cent the magic formula, but we need to be more open to ideas like that in non-traditional markets in cycling," said Vaughters, whose team – and notably Morton – have this year taken part in a number of 'alternative' cycling races alongside their more traditional professional races.

"Where it leaves professional cycling is in a moment where it needs to look at itself and say that it needs to be a little more agile than it has been historically, and not caught up in tradition," said Vaughters. "Saying that, we have to remember that the first Tour de France – in 1903 – was put together as essentially an adventure race. It was the original alternative event: can any human manage to ride a bicycle all the way around France, and which human can actually do that the fastest?"

The Tour was followed by the French public in the newspaper L'Auto – the very paper that the race was invented to promote – in a forerunner to today's dot-watching online of participants in distance cycling events. The Tour, back then, as cycling should still be today, said Vaughters, was "a spirit of adventure, of being outdoors, of self reliance, and of participation, open to anyone".

As to whether another event can fill the gap created by the Tour of California's cancellation next season – the USA's only men's UCI WorldTour event, while the women's race is the only UCI Women's WorldTour event in North America – Vaughters remains optimistic, and hopeful that the same race can make a return in a changed format for 2021.

"Sure, it could open up the door to another opportunity, but I hope the organisers behind California, who have the backing and resources and right people in place, take a long, hard look and say, 'How do we re-invent ourselves into something that works for the US audience?' I think that's totally possible, but racing in the US has to be re-invented."