I’m in danger of this blog turning into the (political) rant it was never meant to be so, before you read any further I firstly apologies but secondly hope you see the meaningful reason for writing this. I promise at least there is no mention of the leather jacket and denim wearing ones! No, today’s post was promoted by the recent coverage on Cyclingnews.com of the continuing fall out between the UCI and the Pro-teams. None of this is new and Cyclingnews.com’s useful summary highlights the problem between a range of parties over the birth, infancy and death (?) of the ProTour/World Tour in world cycling. The latest battle centres on the UCI’s decision to ban the use of 2-way radios between riders and the support cars/managers, a move which has been taken up by the Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels (AIGCP) as the cause celeb of a new front in the war between the UCI and a growing group of others. The latest volley in this growing “dispute” is the threatened boycott by ProTour teams of the new World Tour ranked Tour of Beijing and now a suggestion of a break away procycling “league” by 11 of the “top” teams and one Grand Tour organiser.
All these disputes are not new to professional sport. As pointed out by a range of commentators we’ve been here before with rugby (union v league), motor racing, cricket, football, rugby (again, and again)…look, even cycling has been here before if you only look back to the early days of road racing in the UK! These ‘splits’ were once the last resort yet now they seem so easy. Sorry really does seem to be the hardest word, “we’re off” is a whole lot easier. The problem is the impact for those of us trying to follow it or, dare I say, compete in it. It’s something I’m acutely aware of following a day of industrial action at the day job where both the actions of the employer and the union merely combine to compound the problems for the employee/member. So who wins.
Let’s go back to the changes in cycling which have precipitated events in recent weeks. The history is long and complex and I won’t go into detail here as it is covered more eloquently and in greater detail by others. But needless to say the ProTour is a critical juncture. It was devised to make cycling more user friendly to the international audience. It seems to me modelled on a strange blend of European style leagues with American style franchises. Teams buy 4-year franchises and commit to riding the best races in the world all in return for a guaranteed place and so prime exposure for their sponsors. The ProTour winners would be the best in their sport. The only problem is it never worked like this. Teams have come and gone with the economic fortunes of their sponsors, races have dipped in and out of the series. What we have been left with is a series of compromises and a complex set of arrangements for anyone, expert included, to attempt to comprehend. There’s the World Tour, the Grand Tours, continental Tours and national Tours. In all, Shearings and Wallace Arnold would be best sponsoring all of this as they seem more expert in Tours than anyone else. To understand what I mean simply read this account of Thomas Voeckler’s weekend. Follow it? I’m not sure I did and had to get another coffee just to get my head around it. As a cycling fan I’m lost and I’m losing patience.
I can understand the frustrations involved amongst the warring parties: the UCI want control of cycling as a governing body; the teams want certainty over race schedules, a platform to sell their sponsors and the means to ‘protect their riders’ (the radio debate being dominated by ‘safety’ issues); the race organisers want to showcase their events and have control over who they do and don’t invite to their races. But this has resulted in each party thinking they know how best to do the other’s jobs. Who gets left out? Some might say the riders and to some extent this is true though I do not pretend to have any insight there. My concern is more from the spectator perspective. When I started watching cycling in the late 1980s it was easy to follow and I could explain to my mates at school about the different races, who rode in what and what it meant to lead the Tour de France versus leading the World Cup (though let’s not start on that particular one!). Now I have difficulty explaining any of these workings to any of my friends and relatives. If the 11 teams go ahead with their breakaway (perhaps unsurprisingly being lead in part by Johan Bruyneel and his (ironically named) Radioshack outfit) it can only make cycling even more complex. Furthermore, as we have seen with other elite sports which have developed premier-style splits (e.g. English football and rugby) I can only see the connections to the remainder of the sport being obliterated.
This year I finally gave up trying to follow football because of its disconnection with the real world. Rugby too has become incomprehensible and unwatchable as a result of so-called ‘fan friendly’ law changes to make it popular. Cycling is growing this tendency. I don’t want last weekend’s Milan – San Remo to be a memory of what was, I want more of it. If this “war” carried on much longer I think it might be and all that conjures up is this song and I’m pretty sure I don’t want a part in that.