In the jungle

There has been a growing crescendo of opinion voiced over the last few weeks amongst the cycling Twitterati concerning team ownership, team loyalty and, it would seem, a team fandom. And this crescendo seems to have reached a natural apex this morning with the emerging news that Leopard-Trek will be no more next season.  In many ways this is hardly surprising given its history: it has always been essentially a personal project for the Schelcks, a means to “escape” the Riis empire and do things their way; the team has had high ambition and been overly confident despite the poor return in terms of results; and importantly it has always lacked a headline sponsor. In sport the first two of these have always been a fact of life. In professional sport it is the latter which is crucial – it is a business.

The initial discussions I followed were linked to the fluidity of team identities and the fickleness of team benefactors.  Whilst the criticism of these discussants appears to be levelled at team directors for accepting the “gifts” of seemingly capricious backers, the implicit issue seems to be one of “who do we support”.  This is an interesting issue given the fluid nature of cycling teams but raises an interesting question about the relationship of cycling fans to the sport.  For me, one of the attractions of cycling is the far less partisan nature of the support. Growing up in England the peer pressure to pick a football team to follow was immense. Choosing the “right” team even more so. It took a move to Wales before I realised that my Father’s instilled belief in me that I was Welsh was incorrect. This tribalism has been largely absent from cycling: yes, we all support various stars and have preferences for one team over others but by and large we give our support to the entire peloton. One of my good friends used to say at the time Welsh rugby adopted regional “super teams” that she was “a fan of rugby at Rodney Parade”. At the time this made little sense to me but looking back on the days I’ve spent on hillsides watching racers toil against the gradient I can see exactly what she means. And cycling has always had this.

For team backers this is part of the world that they are entering into and to describe their decisions as fickle or capricious belies the economics of this business environment. It is also in danger of comparing apples with pears. Cycling is not football or rugby or any other sport with a fixed location. It attracts crowds who the vast majority of the time do not pay any entrance fee to watch. Even where teams do build a following, there is only limited financial return for the backers and much of this is indirect return through sales of their products. Of course, this can turn quite mundane products (e.g. adhesives and sealants) into glamorous sports sponsors (e.g. Mapei) but I’m sure I’m not the only cycling fan not to know or even care what some of these sponsors do. You see, as humans we are fickle too and care only about what we want to take from the occasion. As cycling fans we want the race to watch (and for some, to moan about). Therefore team backers are reliant on exposure in the media where a recognisable brand catches the attention of the wider public.  It is amazing how HTC phones and Skoda cars have become popular amongst cycling fans but the economics of this business mean that they have to reach beyond that audience. HTC pulled their sponsorship of the “world’s most successful team”.

And so for a team whose major backer has no visible identity in the team’s name, its brand or its jersey, what is the point in being involved. For the backer of a World Tour ranked team the costs run into 7 figures.  True, cycling sponsors in the past did enter the sport for the love of it thought the costs of entry and involvement were much lower in an often nation-based calendar. And if we compare this with football at least the club chairman/owner has some tangible return on investment, if not in a net profit on gate receipts then through the returns available on property in and around the ground, as well as the personal ‘honour’ which goes with the position. Again, cycling is simply not the same and offers few such opportunities.

It is therefore little wonder that in the jungle, the leopard is about to sleep.  Whilst some will deride Flavio Becca for his involvement he gave rise to a potentially great team. That it didn’t reach the heights that might have been expected of it are the result as much of the nature of sport as to any deliberate flaw in the riders. Becca gave it a chance and it didn’t work. Shouldn’t we as cycling fans be grateful for that? Equally, many deride the UCI for its World Tour (for which I am as guilty as the rest) yet this is precisely the type of certainty which sponsors want in order to commit large sums of money to backing a team. The fact that neither the ProTour/World Tour nor “philanthropic” team sponsors is as much to do with economics as it is to do with organisation and bureaucracy. It is difficult to see how professional cycling can buck a trend in wider global economics on its own.

But things could be worse

Having written the piece I did yesterday reflecting on the British national road race championship, it might be easy to fall into a pessimistic mood.  So what a difference a day makes. For a start, Bradley Wiggins is quoted as being unimpressed by the tactics of his teammates in the final kilometres of the race. Even if this was tongue in cheek it shows that the race perhaps didn’t run exactly to the plan envisaged by Ellingworth pre-race.  However, we are a long way from a La Vie Claire or Astana falling out between teammates.

But the result that puts it all into perspective comes from Luxembourg. I have to admit the knowing the names of only a handful of Luxembourgish cyclists thought this may be a few fingers more than others. It should therefore come as little surprise that the title was won by a rider called Schleck. This year, breaking with what seemed to be a trend of alternation, Frank retained his title ahead of brother Andy.  The brothers crossed the line together, in the same time, riding for the same team.  Laurent Didier (rising for the Schlecks old team Saxo Bank-Sungard!) was over a minute behind with the rest of the field over 4 minutes in arrears.  We’ve seen this Schleck one-two before at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and though admittedly it was  home by a regal Phillipe Gilbert questions were already forming.  For one, it makes you wonder at the conversations between these brothers – without any disrespect I know I would be hard pushed to have convinced my brother to let me win a bike race.  And importantly in this debate it questionsthe  Luxembourgish depth to Team Leopard Trek, a squad which has been repeatedly billed by its riders, management and backers as a Luxembourg cycling project. The British national championships did highlight the depth of talent that there is in British cycling and the way it can be fostered if the right structures exist.  Team Sky highlights how a project can be developed to be internationally competitive whilst nurturing domestic talent into that arena.  These are two major positives in relation to Luxembourg and Leopard-Trek. Whilst (Swiss rider) Fabian Cancellara has indicated in this month’s Procycling magazine that Leopard is still forming and isn’t last year’s Saxo Bank team (as indicated by Didier), it is light on Luxembourgish talent purchasing and cajoling its riders from around the globe (albeit predominantly from one source – Saxo Bank-Sunguard).  Hardly a Luxembourg project and more a vehicle for the Schleck’s and their mates.  One has to wonder what good it is doing cycling in the Duchy. At least David Bralisford has got something right for all the doom-mongers.