Cycling through 2020: Did the wheels stay on?


Image Description: Cyclists participate in the Tour de France

As the pre-season training camps wind down for another January, and we build into a highly anticipated 2021 season, it is vital to take stock of a momentous 2020 for cycling. Despite not racing for four months, in an incredible feat of organisation all three Grand Tours went ahead (although not without some teething problems). The General Classification was settled by less than a minute in all of them, an unprecedented occurrence in recent times! The only large casualty of the racing calendar was the much-revered Paris-Roubaix.

Amongst all this revelry as the carnival toured through Western Europe, underlying financial fears returned with a vengeance. For context, at the top of the sport are the 19 World-Tour teams, such as INEOS Grenadiers (formerly Team Sky), Bora-Hansgrohe, and EF Pro Cycling. Their entire budget comes from external sponsorship. Indeed, in an interview with Cycling Tips, CEO of EF Pro Cycling (then Cannondale-Garmin) Jonathan Vaughters commented that the current financial model was “basically like a donation model.”

Vaughters outlined the process as such: “In theory right now, you set up a holding company, the holding company goes out and garners sponsors that are looking for a set amount of publicity. They raise revenue and then they go and contract riders and soigneurs and mechanics and so on. It is based on impression-based publicity from jersey signage, naming rights and so on.”

Whilst this does mean that cycling is unique in its use of this method as its primary revenue generation, it also leaves riders with minimal job security. Most contracts will last a maximum of two or three years, reducing the shelf life of older riders as ‘young talent’ is a lot cheaper. Furthermore, sponsors can pull out at the last minute as members of the board change, potentially heralding a change of commitment, or they no longer feel the publicity is sufficient for the cost. Subsequently the riders are placed in a constant battle to prove their worth, and to be constantly in dialogue with teams that have the most stable financial platform.

In recent years this has led to the emergence of super teams, whose domestiques (workhorses) are more talented than the leaders in many of the other teams. When Team Sky burst onto the scene in 2010, setting themselves the goal of winning the Tour de France within 5 years, they nailed one crucial element: budget. They could afford the best riders, a plethora of home-grown Olympic talent (Bradley Wiggins, Geraint Thomas, and Mark Cavendish, to name but a few), smattered with enough experience from elsewhere in the World Tour, exemplified by Edvald Boasson Hagen. Increasingly resoundingly this year, another team has sought the right to the Grand Tour dominance of the British outfit, Team Jumbo-Visma. They have invested heavily in talent, with their Slovenian superstar Primož Roglič and Dutch Giro d’Italia winner Tom Dumoulin leading their roster.

The range in budgets at the world tour level is quite staggering, with the top Teams spending in excess of $50 million per year. Yet the lowest budget for next year (that of Qhubeka Assos) is thought to be less than $10 million.

Nevertheless, without the heroics on the final Time Trial of the Tour de France by the young Slovenian Tadej Pogačar, these teams would have taken a clean sweep of the 2020 Grand Tours. Out of the nine Grand Tours since 2018, these teams have taken a staggering six overall wins, proving that it is very possible to buy success within cycling. This is especially prevalent if considered over a long period, where bad luck and crashes will average out. It is also crucial to mention that the Grand Tours are not the only races in any season, and many fans would argue that the One-Day Classics are more fun to watch, but for sponsors, a three-week race (which is much easier to control) is where the big bucks are.

This begs the question of what can be done to improve the guarantees for team staff and ensure that there is a more even financial playing field. Despite gate revenue being impossible to generate, with races staged on public roads, television rights are heavily fought for, and represent a significant investment for any broadcasting company. There are also other advertising rights associated with the Tour, such as Skoda being the main sponsor for the past few years, and towns must pay to host stages.

Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO), the company that organises and runs races such as the Tour de France and Vuelta a España, take in an estimated $150 million each year for the Tour de France alone. This would be sufficient to sustain around ten world tour teams, with an average budget of around $15 million per annum. This means that all investment in the events themselves will be retained by firms that have shareholders and seek to make profit for themselves. This originated at the inaugural Tour de France, as it was started by a paper to sell more copies. This belief that the riders, and more recently teams, should be self-sufficient has not changed since 1903. This is a complex issue that is ingrained in the fabric of cycling and is not set to change any time soon.

Therefore, social media has offered both teams and riders a greater opportunity to advertise themselves, and crucially their sponsors. Riders with big followings on Instagram will have their accounts littered with product placement posts about everything from the nutrition supplements they take to the coffee they drink and the pants they wear.”

Therefore, social media has offered both teams and riders a greater opportunity to advertise themselves, and crucially their sponsors. Riders with big followings on Instagram will have their accounts littered with product placement posts about everything from the nutrition supplements they take to the coffee they drink and the pants they wear. It has also meant that riders whom pundits may describe as ‘over the hill’ are snapped up as a big name signing to help appease sponsors, such as Chris Froome’s big ticket move to Israel Start Up Nation over the summer.

Unfortunately, social media has provided some very unsavoury moments this year as well. American riders Quinn Simmons and Chloé Dygert have both been reprimanded by their teams for their actions on social media. Both are outspoken Trump supporters, Simmons, a rider for Trek Segafredo, posted a racially inflammatory tweet, responding with a black hand waving emoji after an American Cycling News outlet asked Trump supports to unfollow them.

Dygert ‘liked’ transphobic and racist tweets and was subsequently forced to issue an apology statement by her new team Canyon-Sram, who signed her after the furor surrounding her actions online. Readers are encouraged to watch YouTube videos by channel Lanterne Rouge, as the insight provided there is critical to understanding the team’s hypocrisy. In the context of the business model of cycling these cases are incredibly important in understanding where the community mindset is. The majority of those who follow the sport would certainly not have voted for Trump, and many American-based cycling companies were vocal in their support for Biden.

Despite avoiding the topic of Coronavirus entirely for this article up thus far, it is prudent to highlight why social media scrutiny will be more heightened than ever before. With race attendances restricted to locals for the first time since the Second World War, cycling fans are consuming a far greater proportion of their content online. Furthermore, the effect of advertising on the race and at venues is also greatly reduced. This means riders are urged more and more to pedal their bikes harder for more wins and peddle their products harder for more dollars.

Image Credit: Th G, Pixabay


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