With the release of yet another “strategic vision” promising to save cycling by turning its professional ranks into a closed club fashioned after Formula-One, the “experts” might stop to consider the sport as it is in the only countries in which bike-racing can claim any considerable place in the public consciousness. In Belgium and Italy, France, the Netherlands and Spain, cycling is, for the most part, run by beer-swilling bureaucrats and small-time businessmen. Teams are, by and large, podunk passion projects sponsored by local construction companies, while the racing calendar is filled with lesser kermesses and lower-tiered UCI events. Nevertheless, people love the sport.
Is the attraction of the Ronde van Vlaanderen rooted in made-for-TV production values or do all of the mothers and fathers, neighbours and friends, stand there at the race, with their picnic baskets and portable radios, because small-time bike racing has filled their summers, springs, winters and falls for as long as they can remember? Do a million fans line the route of De Ronde because of this or that corporation’s advertising agenda or because generation after generation of Flemish schoolboys grew up eating shit in little races on those very same roads with hopes of becoming the next Merckx, Museeuw or Boonen?
The reason that cycling is such a part of these cultures is that such dreams are within reach. The young farm boy has seen professionals racing in his local kermesse, he has seen them suffer, seen the empty look on their grime covered faces and seen the sheer joy of the winner crossing the line. That boy knows that, with hard work, he too can be a part of that race and, with talent, he too might throw his arms in the air. It is not distant, not glossy; it is right there in front of him and a whole network of clubs and teams with threadbare budgets exists for him to rise upwards if he wills. At each step, a community will be there to support him. This is how it is in Belgium, in Italy, in France, in the Netherlands, and in Spain, and our friends from the Fortune 500 want to kill it.
Professional cycling’s open, flexible hierarchy allows this organic structure to exist. That a team like Topsport Vlaanderen can one day ride De Ronde and another day compete in a small-town criterium is the spark for all of those local business bosses to put money aside to support the local hopefuls at the club and continental level. If their boys succeed, they become a part of something great. This time-honoured model has already been put on its knees by the World-Tour; classic races are disappearing and being replaced by sparsely-attended television events in all corners of the globe. Is it any wonder that nobody cares about bike races in countries without a racing culture? If the globalization of cycling is truly the goal, invest in cycling clubs around the world; otherwise, cycling will be turned into a hollow shell that is only profitable to the few.
For those at the top, the traditional structure is, without a doubt, bad for business. We have all heard the arguments; teams have no security, no guarantee of riding the biggest races, no certainty to sell to the big corporations; but, De Ronde, Le Tour, San Remo and the others are bigger than the teams that make up their start lists. These races are the pinnacle of the living culture that makes them what they are. The Tour de France does not need super-teams or million euro athletes, it matters by itself; packaged hours of television coverage are only valuable because people care.
Shouldn’t the teams get a bigger piece of the pie? At what cost? A fixed hierarchy will do nothing but concentrate investment at the top. Will the construction boss still sponsor local talents if the only access to the highest echelons of the sport is set within a closed, academy system? Where will those academies race? It is not without reason that the fledgling feeder teams of today hone their craft in the rough-and-tumble worlds of amateur French, Italian, and Belgian bike racing.
What about doping? Ever the bane of professional cycling, is it not easier to control a closed-off league of franchised teams? In theory, yes. But to contend that more powerful teams will better discourage doping goes against history. Every sophisticated method of doping has been introduced by the biggest, most-sophisticated organizations. It is quite simple; the higher the stakes, the higher the incentive to seek out illegal gains. Can all doping be monitored? No. Is there doping at the continental and amateur levels? Of course. But the truly insidious forms of doping trickle down from the top. A clean athlete can compete against the small-time doper; he hasn’t a chance against a rider on a program worth tens of thousands of euros.
In every case, the sport’s popularity has proven most resilient in those countries in which cycling is a part of the everyday culture, where the sport is bigger than the biggest of teams. In the model of super-teams, one doping scandal can kill the entire sport. German cycling is still recovering from Telekom’s demise. With a more flexible structure, there are always more teams to keep racing alive.
By starving the bottom, bike racing will become a product instead of an activity; it will be pulled out of the culture and put on TV. The “experts” want to model cycling after professional sports in America, but how many Americans play football after graduating from high school? Filling in fantasy forms doesn’t count. Like professional American sports, watching professional cycling is, for most, an excuse to drink beer. The difference is that as the football fan reaches for another hotdog, the cycling fan hops on his bike. Long past their prime, aging pelotons of all shapes and sizes fill roads. Some are very serious, others are not. But they ride bikes right through their lives. Where does this life-long participation come from? For those who raced as youths, surely a system that allowed for high level racing into adulthood played a formative role. For those who came to the sport late, any racing they might have experienced likely rested on the back of a lesser elite or professional race. At the very least, being a part of a culture in which bike racing is ingrained, surely breeds cyclists, whatever their age.
The interests of a few team owners should not take precedence over the interests of the sport as a whole. A vibrant, viable sport begins at the bottom. Money speaks and big-money speaks loudly, but little-money is cycling’s lifeblood as a sport.