How the loss of smaller races could save French cycling

Why having fewer, but bigger, regional races could help to save French cycling

The first day of racing in the much-debated and heavily-revamped WorldTour had barely come to an end at the Tour Down Under when news emerged of the demise of the Nationale Sluitingsprijs Putte-Kapellen.

The season-ending Belgian event is no less than the fourth race to disappear from the international calendar this year, following the Critérium International, Tour of Qatar and La Méditerranéenne.

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That two of those four races are French says much about the crisis facing many organisers in the cradle of cycle sport.

Coming on the back of last September’s loss of the long-standing Tour de Picardie and allied to the ongoing struggles of other French races, it emphasises the issues that have been highlighted by FDJ team boss Marc Madiot, who evokes a doomsday scenario for such events unless they receive more support from the international federation and the sport’s biggest teams.

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In his role has president of France’s National Cycling League (LNC), Madiot has been highly critical of this year’s expansion of the WorldTour and the UCI’s perceived lack of support for smaller events on the calendar. Other factors have had a more direct impact, though, notably cuts in funding to local government, the perennial struggle to find sponsors, and the lack of young blood coming through within many race organisations.

“All of the French races that aren’t organised by ASO depend on associations, on volunteers,” Madiot told L’Équipe in the wake of the announcement that La Méditerranéenne, only recently cut from four days to two, will now not take place at all.

“They are all struggling due to financial and administrative difficulties, and because of a lack of consideration,” he added.

“The second and third division teams suffer the biggest impact because, unlike those in the first division, it is very difficult for them to find a substitute event. But if there aren’t any races, there won’t be any teams or any riders.”

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Madiot’s bleak analysis chimes with organisers across France. Roland Fangille, founder and organiser of the Étoile de Bessèges, came close to pulling the plug on his early-season event last season and again this year. “Up to now we’ve always managed to balance the books, but we don’t know what the future holds,” Fangille admitted at the launch of his 2017 race.

He revealed last year that the event would not have been able to survive without the assistance of volunteers. The 2016 budget for the five-day event was €570,000. Without the assistance of volunteers, it would have been ten per cent higher.

Cuts to council budgets in the small towns around Bessèges that traditionally host stages of the race have led to Fangille expanding into new territory in the search for new funding. The second stage of next month’s 47th edition is being financed for the first time by Nîmes and will take place some distance from the event’s usual roads in the foothills of the Cévennes.

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Fangille says that trend is likely to continue. “For the last six years we’ve done all we can to stay in the Gard, but we’ve had offers from richer towns such as Sète and La Grande Motte,” he told Midi-Libre.

Although a move to even more distant towns such as these that were once regulars on the route of the much-missed GP de Midi-Libre and Tour of the Mediterranean would dilute the local nature of Fangille’s race, it would probably ensure its long-term future. It is worth noting that the organisers of the Four Days of Dunkirk have done exactly this with their race in 2017 by including terrain previously covered by the Tour de Picardie.

This strategy might even provide a model to ensure the vitality of French events below WorldTour level. Although Madiot and the LNC won’t like the idea of there being even fewer races, even if they are better supported, an increasingly multinational cycling calendar could well mean that having fewer, but bigger regional races is the best remedy for French cycling.