Gifted Group plan. Gift or Misguided?
That’s what Twisted Spoke thinks every time we think about the Gifted Group proposal for some kind of World Series of Cycling.
The core idea is to present ten 4-day races that feature a sprint stage, time trial, mountain stage and rolling stage. Those events would join the three grand tours and six classics — Milan San-Remo, Roubaix, Flanders, Amstel, Liege and Lombardia.
We’re tagging this with artificial because those ten new events are missing one of the critical ingredients that all the great races have in spades: a rich history. That sense of place and geography, the exploits of past winners and the memories of previous editions are what give the sport part of its depth, beauty and timelessness.
Now TS is all for modernity and God knows pro cycling needs a far more progressive, financially stable and audience-friendly approach. We’re not some crotchety old French guy bemoaning the destruction of Paris-Tours while we suck down a cheap Cote du Rhone and runny camembert.
Here in America we’re not generally as protective of our history as Europe. We’d rather knock down the old and build the new, the past being something that holds us back. That said, you only have to look at baseball to understand that for many fans that long term connection to the sport, its history and sense of place is part of the love.
The Gifted Group plan presented by Jonathan Price would seem to ignore the rich history of pro cycling in favor of starting from scratch. Now that doesn’t mean they can’t “manufacture” some heritage by the careful selection of where those ten events take place. For example, there are “storied” climbs all over Europe and North America. There are plenty of start and finish towns with a deep connection to cycling.
However, you’re talking about a compete overhaul of the cycling calendar, with the majority of the races completely brand new and sporting a new format. This strikes us as kind of crazy when history is such a vital part of the fan attraction. Remember that last season when race organizers removed the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen climb from the Flanders route, fans and cycling journalists went nuts.
The Flanders example serves to highlight the fan orientation of the Gifted Group plan. They are willing to ignore and disappoint existing fans in search of a bigger audience of less knowledgeable fans. It’s a mass-marketing approach where more always equates to better, a numbers game that puts a premium on acquisition. It sort of reminds us of companies that brag about the high number of “likes” on their Facebook page. In truth, the majority of those “likes” mean nothing but a one-time click. Do you want 50 passionate fans or 100 casual ones?
One of the arguments for the new approach is that casual fans can’t understand bike racing. Any attempt to increase the audience must therefore be based on simplifying the sport. Thus the idiot proof formula: ten more or less identical races, formatted in exactly the same way. The easier, repetitive approach will allow the mentally challenged to eventually figure out that Mark Cavendish is a sprinter, Joaquin Rodriguez is a climber and Tony Martin is a time trial specialist.
So if we’re about to fundamentally restructure pro cycling, maybe the first question is, do we really need more fans? Do we need to simplify — or dumb-down — the events to widen the audience? Do we need to wipe out existing races like Paris-Tours or Tour of the Basque Country in favor of increasing viewership?
Our answer is a definite no. Not, if those plans mean turning our back on unique, and historically great races in favor of artificial, repetitive races that trade richness for simplification. The gentlemen behind the Gifted Group come from soccer but that doesn’t mean it’s the ideal model for cycling.
Do we wish that more people were passionate about pro cycling? Yes. Do we wish all our friends were as excited about the iconic climbs, the famous exploits of Merckx or Coppi, the gradients on Alp d’Huez or the insanity of Bola del Mundo? Yes, absolutely.
It’s a question of priorities. Pro Cycling will have more fans when the sport wises up instead of dumbing down. Before we worry about the race calendar and format, let’s fix what’s really keeping more fans from the sport.
FIrst, we need to put the dark doping years behind us, once and for all. We support the idea of a Truth & Reconciliation approach. We simply have to wipe the slate clean and stop the endless trickle of doping stories that come with suppression. Fans return when they believe in the sport again.
Second, UCI president Patrick Mcquiad must resign and the entire organization must be overhauled. Confidence and integrity have to be re-established or big sponsors like Rabobank and Radioshack will continue to exit and teams will continue to die because no business is willing to take the risk of association. Fans will return when there’s some vision and guidance.
Third, the financial structure of the sport must change to a more equitable revenue sharing arrangement so teams don’t come and go with every season. Fans like to root for teams that don’t change names or disappear with alarming frequency. Smart guys like Jonathan Vaughters and Giro boss Michele Acquarone know that sharing TV revenue is the only way toward greater financial stability. Fans return when most teams aren’t in critical condition and struggling to survive.
We’re all for making the sport of pro cycling more view-friendly and financially stable. However the real “gift” for cycling fans would be to strengthen what we already have. Great races with rich histories are dying for lack of financial support, cool teams are forced out of business for lack of sponsors — from HTC-Highroad to Spidertech, major sponsors are fleeing and the biggest name in the sport isn’t a rider, it’s US Anti-Doping Agency boss Travis Tygart.
While we appreciate the revenue sharing aspect of the Gifted Group plan, it force-fits a soccer approach that we don’t think recognizes the role of history in the sport. In its bold rush to restructure cycling, it also disappoints existing fans in an attempt to pander to a wider audience.
In other words, no artificial insemination in cycling, please. That’s not a gift anybody needs.