CS Comment: A real cultural change

Enough of squabbling over petty issues. It’s time for cycling to face up to the real challenges facing the sport.

Words by Lionel Birnie

A friend called round the other lunchtime while I was watching the Tour of Qatar on television.

“Where’s this?” he asked.

Qatar, in the Middle East, I replied.

“Ah. The place that won the bid to host the World Cup?”

That’s right.

“Not much to look at, is there? No one’s watching either. Where are the spectators? Seems an odd place for a bike race. Why do the cyclists go there?”

I explained some of the factors. The warm weather and the event’s status as an ideal training race at the start of the season make it popular with the riders. It’s low-key, with very few fans getting in the way, little stress, and not too many media demands. Logistically it is uncomplicated too, with all the teams staying in one (excellent) hotel for the week. There’s not much of a time difference between Qatar and western Europe either, so jet-lag is not an issue. And, of course, the most important reason – the race is organised by ASO, the company that owns the Tour de France, so politically it makes sense to show willing by racing in the desert.

“Bet the prize money is huge too, eh?” asked my friend.

No, not particularly.

“Really? That’s odd. I thought that was the main reason sports wanted to crack places like this and Dubai.î

A fortnight ago, the Danish golfer Thomas Bjorn picked up a cheque for Ä303,000 for winning the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters, played at Doha Golf Club. That’s around £261,000, or $416,000.

Last month, Roger Federer won Ä177,000 after taking the Qatar-Exxonmobil Open tennis tournament. That’s £150,000, or $239,000.

Mark Renshaw, who clinched the overall title at the Tour of Qatar, will take home a cheque for Ä9,200, which is £7,780, or $12,400. Add in all his other winnings from the race and Renshaw collected around Ä16,000 – not a bad week’s work by any means. But it’s peanuts in comparison.

Of course, cycling is structured very differently to golf and tennis. Cyclists are contracted to a team and are paid a salary. Generally speaking, individual prize money goes into the pot and is divided among team-mates anyway, so a rider’s winnings don’t really come into play until it comes to contract negotiation time and he can use it demonstrate his worth. A rider’s currency is his salary, not his winnings, unlike a golfer or a tennis player, who makes his living from prizes and individual sponsorship deals.

So what is the point of comparing the amount of money on offer at an early-season training race in the Middle East with the riches that two of the most lucrative sports in the world can provide? After all, the prize money at the Tour of Qatar compares favourably with the Tour of the Mediterranean, which is going on at the moment. Besides, the winner of the Tour de France last year won Ä450,000 – not much more than the amount awarded to the winner on one of the stops on golf’s European Tour. We get the picture, golfers and tennis players earn a fortune, cyclists, by comparison, do not.

Earlier this week, the teams presented a united front against the UCI’s plan to ban two-way radio communication from all events other than World Calendar races in 2011. The plan is to extend the ban to all races in the future. Most of the riders from WorldTour teams turned up to the first leg of the Challenge Mallorca with their radios, as usual. The organisers decided to let the race go ahead after making it clear the result would not count towards the overall classification.

That evening, the AIGCP (Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels – in effect, the teams’ union) sent out a press release which congratulated the riders for showing a united front in opposing the ban.

However, the following day, the rumoured protest at the Tour of Qatar – an ASO race – did not materialise. It is not difficult to come to the conclusion that it was far easier to strike a blow for their rights at a small race run by a parochial organiser than risk upsetting the high and mighty of the Tour de France. But if the issue really is of such importance to the teams, isn’t that precisely where the protest should have been made? Otherwise it’s just so much hot air, and the only losers are the small races.

Without entering the debate about the rights and wrongs of radio communication, the fact is the UCI has decided on a policy. The teams disagree and claim that the governing body has acted autonomously and without appropriate consultation.

But the wider question is that the AIGCP thinks this is the biggest issue facing professional cycling at the moment. Really?

Not a day has gone by recently without a damaging headline, without someone doing, or saying, something that brings the sport into disrepute or is simply and staggeringly stupid. WIth the federal investigation into doping at the US Postal Service going on in the background and in the light of Floyd Landis’s extraordinary interview with Paul Kimmage, do the teams think that the biggest problem is the use of radios?

Then Riccardo Ricco almost killed himself, giving the riders and teams a convenient villain to condemn so they could look tough on doping and tough on the causes of doping for a few minutes.

Then Manolo Saiz – one of the architects of Operacion Puerto – makes public his desire to run a team in 2012. Where are the protests about that? There won’t be any, of course, because a couple of dozen riders will be eyeing it up as the place to get their next contract.

The problem is that the AIGCP cannot possibly represent the interests of all the teams because the teams cannot agree among themselves. Ask all the ProTour teams what colour the sky is and you’d get 20 different answers.

Trying to unite the teams is a thankless task because they do not think alike and they do not act alike. The only thing they have in common is that they are interested in themselves.

How can AIGCP president Jonathan Vaughters, who is the boss of Garmin-Cervélo, which is happy to trade very heavily on its suppposed transparency in order to bank positive PR, possibly represent Katusha, who signed Danilo Di Luca, a rider who has served two suspensions for doping offences and should not have been allowed near a ProTour team again? Or for that matter, Movistar, which has allowed the suspended Alejandro Valverde to join them on their training camp (as long as he dresses in neutral kit, of course – wouldn’t want to give the wrong impression).

Edit: Since the publication of this article, Jonathan Vaughters has asked us to point out that Katusha are the only major team not to have membership of the AIGCP. We apologise for the inaccuracy.
While the AIGCP’s intention may be noble – to give the teams a voice – their fundamental misunderstanding is that anything they say counts.

The UCI is not a democracy. Nor is ASO.

And that is what the teams should be seeking to change. That would truly be a blow for the good of the sport. But have they the stomach for the fight? Have they the backbone to stand up and be counted? Do they really care? Or do they, like everyone else, want to engage in point-scoring over trivial matters? We’ll leave that up to the readers to decide.

Back to the money. ASO made a profit of Ä31.8m (£26.9m or $43m) for the year ending 2009 (the latest for which figures are available). Admittedly, a large slice of that cash comes from motorsport events, rather than cycling, but it’s still the same company that deems the winner of the Tour de France to be worth only Ä450,000.

The prize money on offer at cycling events should give the teams and riders an idea of their worth to the governing body and the race organisers. The teams and riders forget that if a plague wiped them all out tomorrow, they’d be replaced by Monday next week and the fans would not take long to celebrate their new heroes.

ASO is expanding its empire. Its portfolio looks more like the UCI’s original version of the ProTour than anything the UCI itself has managed to cobble together. No one would be surprised if the Paris-based company added another couple of races to its burgeoning calendar over the next year or so.

According to its latest annual report, which covers the year ending 2009, the UCI collected around Ä8.6 (£7.3m or $11.6m) from the various World Championships (road, track, mountain bike etc). The UCI gathered around 3m Swiss Francs (£1.9m or $3m) from the professional teams as a contribution towards the anti-doping effort, money which comes on top of the licence fees.

Given the contribution the teams make – both in terms of competing in the races that attract the sponsors and TV companies and the money paid for licences – is so significant, they feel they deserve a say.

And Jonathan Vaughters had a point when he used Twitter to quote the American politician Patrick Henry, who said “No taxation without representation.”

But an equally apposite phrase, and one that would sound just a catchy, is: “No rights without responsibility.”

The teams have one crucial responsibility. And that is to stand up for the sport’s reputation by changing the culture. Instead of acting in their own interests, they must put the sport first. Granted, it’s never been done before and it’s probably too idealistic. But with the sport’s reputation taking a battering (ask someone in the mainstream media who does not cover cycling and so has not been seduced by its guile what they think of the sport and you’ll find many of the results depressing) is this really the battle to take on?

To pick a fight over an issue as minor as race radios right now is perverse. In fact it’s not perverse, it’s laughable. It’s like arguing over who has the car keys having turned up at the car pound just in time to see your vehicle squashed into a three-foot cube.

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