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by Shane Stokes
September 29, 2014
Commenting after last week’s news that the Tour of Beijing will cease to exist after next month’s race, the managers of three WorldTour teams have expressed disappointment, saying that they considered a top-level event in China to be important for the future of the sport.
The UCI confirmed this week that the contract between its sister company Global Cycling Promotions (GCP) and Beijing would not be renewed, and that the 2014 edition of the Tour of Beijing would be the last.
“For me it is a shame that this race will be pulled out of the calendar,” Richard Plugge, the managing director of the Belkin Pro Cycling team, told CyclingTips Friday. “I think if you want the globalisation of this sport, which is really important, then you need a race like this one, well organised in Beijing.
“Of course there were some things to improve on, but they were working on it, they saw the problems. They were really keen to keep this race into the WorldTour in China. For me it is a shame that it is finished.”
This sentiment is echoed by Orica-GreenEdge’s manager Shayne Bannan, who said that he first heard rumours ‘two or three months ago’ that the race might not continue.
“I have an association with China and in particular the head coach there,” he said. “We have done various little projects together in the past year. So I have already been quite interested in the progression of firstly, the Chinese athletes and secondly, cycling in China.
“I feel that it is certainly a step backwards for Chinese cycling in the UCI’s endeavour to really make cycling a known sport in China. Hopefully the teams and the UCI can work together to get some other project up and going in the future, because I feel that China plays a big part in the world generally. I also think having Chinese people interested in cycling is good for the sport.”
Garmin-Sharp CEO Jonathan Vaughters is similarly inclined, telling CyclingTips that he believes that cycling needs to have more top-level events in growing markets. He states that Europe, the traditional heartland of the sport, is not a growing market, and that it is important for the governing body to look to other countries to expand the sport.
“China is one of the fastest growing economies in the world, quickly becoming the largest economy in the world,” he said. “So it makes sense as we go further into the 21st century that if cycling wants to succeed economically, especially that it has a sponsorship-driven revenue model, that it is going to make an impact on the Chinese market to succeed.”
While the Tour of Beijing earned some criticism due to pollution issues, its place at the end of a long season and also due to claims of a potential conflict of interest between the UCI and GCP, it appeared to be earning increasing favour with teams as time passed.
Improved organisation and a more varied parcours was a factor, but so too the share of revenue on offer. This was only fair; teams were integral to the race’s success and, in addition to that, when GCP was set up, money was drawn out of the Pro Tour reserve fund to finance it. This fun was based largely on payments from teams.
Teams were paid an average of $30,000 to participate in the race, and also had all fights and accommodation costs covered. This greatly exceeded what was given in most other races. In addition to that, a substantial prize fund of $400,000 was on offer; again, this was considerably more than other similar-length races.
Teams will compete there again next month and receive those financial benefits. So too will others working on the race, including Tour de France organisers ASO, who are heavily involved in running the event.
Beyond this year, though, the loss of the race will affect more than just GCP and the UCI, and will also complicate matters in terms of growing the sport in a country with one fifth of the world’s population.
So what went wrong?
When the end of the race was confirmed in L’Equipe this week, the news was presented as a change in priorities for the UCI. This was reinforced when president Brian Cookson said at the world championships in Ponferrada on Friday that GCP had not achieved its objectives.
However, rather than the governing body making a conscious decision not to continue with the race, CyclingTips understands that the loss of the Tour of Beijing contract was due to delays in making a proposal prior to negotiating a new contract.
Cookson went to Beijing soon after his election and met with people there connected with the race. The new UCI regime then examined the accounts of the company and saw solid profits from the race, reportedly between half a million to a million Swiss francs per year.
This heightened interest in a renewal but delays in getting a proposal together plus indecision in implementing it led to a window of opportunity closing. When Cookson travelled to the Youth Olympics in Nanjing in August, he was told by the Director of the Beijing Sports Bureau Li Yingchuan that, as a proposal had not been received before than point, it was too late.
Instead, budgets had been allocated to the 2015 IAAF World Athletics Championships plus the Beijing bid for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
As a result the income from the race has been lost to the UCI, but so too to those who worked on the race such as ASO, plus the teams themselves. It remains to be seen how long it will take to have a similarly-sized race reintroduced to the country.
One debate which the end of the race brings to a close is whether the UCI, as the governing body of the sport, should also be involved in the promotion and running of events. It has long had such the road with the various world championships, but the Tour of Beijing and GCP were seen as a step towards a greater involvement in this area of the sport.
This is something which Vaughters feels has presented challenges.
“It has always been my belief that the way cycling is set up right now, that the UCI should be the governing body of the sport and not be a race promoter and not be a team manager and not be a sponsorship sales entity,” he said.
“Basically that the UCI should govern the sport, create the rules for the sport, enforce the rules for the sport and then just stay out of the business. Because otherwise it is very difficult to avoid conflicts of interest.
“You could see that with the radio debate a few years ago; that conflict came down to Beijing. There were really angry reactions, as we all know about.
“You have got to eliminate those conflicts of interest. My hope going forward is that GCP or a similar entity would be put in place by the UCI as an angel investor group. If a company wanted to go into China and start a bike race there – maybe a Chinese company there wanted to start a race in China – that the UCI would have funds to be able to help that get off the ground.”
Asked for his thoughts, Bannan said that he felt that he needed more information prior to being able to make a call on whether or not the UCI’s decision to stop GCP was the right one. “Before I could comment on that, I would need to understand what their strategy is in going forward,” he said. “They might have a really reasonable argument why there is no Tour of Beijing for next year and why they are stopping GCP.
“I’d need to understand the situation before I can make any critical comments. At this point in time, I haven’t had the opportunity to talk to the UCI or to see any documents on the issue.”
Like Vaughters, Plugge sees an issue with the governing body also having a role in running events. “I agree with the opinion of the UCI [as stated this week – ed.] – they are not the ones to organise races. They are there to judge races. That is my opinion on that.”
However he’s also clear that the end of the event is a setback. “I do think it’s not good that the Tour of Beijing stops.”
He believes a solution would have been for the race to have continued under different circumstances. “You could have had someone else taking over complete ownership,” he suggested, “or the race could be run the ASO is doing in Qatar. They are working with the organisation there. I also understand they work with California and the Tour Down Under on certain points.
“That is their business, they are good at it, so please let the organisers organise races and please let the UCI rule these races and rule the sport and judge. That’s exactly what I think is right.”
All three managers are clear that cracking the Chinese market would have helped the future of sport. It would have boosted participation and viewership, and also paved the way for potential sponsorship deals from a powerful economy.
“It is unfortunate that the race is going away because we don’t have the opportunity to try to open that new market,” said Vaughters.
“There are also other very fast growth market where we don’t have a presence – India is an example. Maybe these are markets where it is very difficult to enjoy bike races, maybe not.
“Consider that ten years ago, nobody would have said that cycling would be even a quarter as big as it now is in the UK. These things do change over time. Markets change, people’s interests change and so on.
“I think the UCI needs to encourage race promoters to get into the Chinese market or into fast-growth markets and make things favourable for them to do that.”
Bannan is in agreement with that. Asked if he believed that Beijing could have led to an influx of Asian sponsors into the sport, he said that it could well have happened.
“I think there is certainly potential anywhere you can go into a country, develop the product, develop the interest and eventually use it as a real good marketing tool,” he said.
“The argument is the timeline – would that have happened at this year’s Tour of Beijing? Would it have happened in two years, in ten years?
“We don’t really know the answer to that. But unless we are promoting the sport globally and in different parts of the world, it is pretty hard to have an impact in an area where you don’t exist.”