Pro Cycling 2.0

By: Whit Yost Feb 18

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I have stacks of books scattered throughout my apartment (sorry, honey), most of which I’ve picked-up in some way, shape, or form to be read sometime in the future. Lately though, one book’s been calling to me more and more—not just because it seems that everyone else has read it, but also because it might go a long way toward explaining a recent phenomenon we’ve been witnessing in the world of professional cycling. The book is Thomas L. Friedman’s The World is Flat, and the phenomenon—of course—is globalization.

Let’s start with teams. Of course, we’re long past the days of trade teams with rosters in which listing nationalities was unnecessary. As teams grew and the traditional cycling powers realized they weren’t the only countries producing talented riders, individuals from nations less known for producing cyclists began finding success riding for the big-budgeted teams traditionally known for exclusively enlisting the services of riders from their own nations. The list is long, but names such as Simpson, Ritter, and LeMond come first to mind. At the time teams were considered “multinational” if they contained one or two foreign riders—otherwise, they were more or less national entities from top to bottom.

Now though, the notion of a “national” team really only applies to teams entered in international competitions like the World Championships and Olympics. Few big-budget teams employ riders from primarily one country. In fact, many of the more successful teams are melting pots of riders from various countries, some more so than others. The composition of the UCI Pro Tour has taken a distinctly globalized look as well. Recently, traditional two-wheeled powerhouses such as France, Spain, and Italy have lost their stranglehold over the sport’s upper echelon. In contrast, the USA and United Kingdom have 4 teams in total, former Soviet Republics have 2;, and Denmark’s got 1. And it’s not as if these teams have all-American, all-British, or all-Russian rosters—they have fully embraced the need to include riders from all over the globe so as to ensure the best chance for success, in many cases excluding homegrown talent as a result. Maybe there’s a reason French teams seem to fare so poorly in major international races—their rosters consist mainly of mediocre French riders, the better ones having been lured away by “global” squads.

Furthermore, world-class events are now being organized on 6 continents. Look at the current UCI calendar for more proof of the sport’s international expansion. You’ll quickly see several events—many of them less 3-years-old—being organized in places like Australia, Oman, Qatar, Malaysia, California, and Canada. On top of that, these races are beginning to attract the world’s best riders and teams—further raising the bar competitively and garnering added prestige for those men who find success in these new locales. And worse, each year more and more revenue-starved European events are cancelled. I miss you, Midi Libre!

All this begs the question: how are we to feel about it? Your answer will likely boil to where you consider the line to exist between tradition and innovation. While I’m sure Mr. Friedman lists many more causes for it, I would the #1 factor contributing to rise of globalization (both in cycling and in other areas) is innovation—technologically and philosophically. Thus, your feelings about a team from the United Kingdom (Sky), winning a race in Africa (the Tour of Oman), with a Norwegian rider (Edvald Boassen Hagen), probably falls in line with your feelings about sloping top tubes, low spoke counts, carbon fiber, and electronic drive trains.

Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle. I’m worried about the departure of title sponsors from the Pro Tour. Saxo Bank, Milram, and Caisse d’Epargne could just be the tip of the iceberg—especially in Germany where Milram’s exit leaves the country’s fans without a bona fide top-level team to support. A side effect of globalization is the lessened burden placed upon the sport by the departure of these sponsors—as long as there’s a Radio Shack, a Sky, and a BMC willing to step-up and sponsor big programs, the sport will survive at the top. Likewise, as more teams from “non-cycling” nations continue to find success, teams with more traditional approaches will be forced to innovate or risk falling by the wayside. It might hurt at first, but I’m sure everyone agrees that some countries could use a kick in the derriére to revive their national sporting traditions in one of the few sports left where tradition actually means something. Globalization puts more pressure on everyone to remain competitive, thereby raising the bar for everyone. Who could argue with that?

That said, there’s a part of me that wishes the European peloton would have to knuckle down and suffer through this abnormally cold winter—just like everyone else. The Etoile des Bességes and the Tour Méditerranéen used to be highlights of the sport’s first month. Now, thanks to warmer offerings in Qatar and Oman, these once great races are almost an afterthought, with start lists falling far short of where they once were. But can we blame the riders and teams for heading further south? High temperatures, nice roads, and organizations offering high start money and royal treatment are tough to pass-up this time of year.

At this point, I should probably just go and read Friedman’s book before continuing—at least to see if any of my ideas are valid. I can tweet about it when I’m finished though, and all of my friends from overseas can share their thoughts with me as soon as I do. Then I’ll walk down the street to buy a bottle of Mexican Coca Cola, and head home just in time to enjoy the latest running of the Nordic Combine while I ride the trainer. It’s too cold to ride outside anyway.

 

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