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Two bits of pro cycling sponsorship news landed within a few hours of one another Monday, and while they’re quite different, those differences highlight the current financial health, and direction, of varying WorldTour teams.
Belgian squad Quick-Step Floors, which leads the 2018 UCI team rankings with 70 wins this season, announced that it had found a new title sponsor in Deceuninck, a Belgian window frame manufacturer. The announcement comes as a welcome relief to team CEO Patrick Lefevere, who sought a new title sponsor throughout the summer and had been rumored to release Colombian star sprinter Fernando Gaviria from his contract one year early in order to trim the 2019 budget. The team will be called Deceuninck-Quick-Step next year.
EF Education First-Drapac, which sits 16th out of 18 in the 2018 UCI team rankings with six victories this season, announced that British apparel brand Rapha had signed on as a partner for 2019. In addition to providing team kit, Rapha’s content division will produce recurring videos from inside the squad, following certain racers throughout the season. Additionally, the team’s riders will not only compete in WorldTour races but also in “fixed-gear criteriums, ultra-endurance races, and mixed-terrain events.”
Quick-Step, one of the longest-running and most traditional programs in professional cycling will continue on, dominating spring classics, field sprints, and perhaps, with Spaniard Enric Mas, Grand Tours. They’ll once again be a force to be reckoned with on the white dirt roads of Strade Bianche, the plug streets of Gent-Wevelgem, and the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix. But it won’t be at Paris-Tours, because Lefevere didn’t approve of its use of nine sectors of gravel vineyard tracks inside the final 60km.
EF-Drapac, an unorthodox team with an underdog roster, will highlight the eclectic characters on its squad while branching out into unconventional events, such as gravel races, run outside of the umbrella of the sport’s international governing body. Of course, they will try to win at the Monuments and Grand Tours, but they’re also taking steps to assure that their riders, and brands, are given exposure regardless of how they finish. They’re taking a proactive stance on generating their own publicity while also attending events that have captured the attention of cyclists who are not necessarily road racing fans.
One team wins everything. The other thinks it doesn’t need to.
I’m not here to say which model is better, because it’s all entirely subjective — not just to fans and journalists, but ultimately to team sponsors. Corporate pro cycling sponsorships are marketing endeavors, and what works and what does not all comes down to a sponsor’s marketing objectives, and their target audience.
But I will say that, here in North America where teams are folding and races are disappearing, the EF-Drapac model certainly makes sense.
‘Cycling with character’
A few weeks ago, I published an in-depth look at the state of US road cycling. There was a consensus among riders and team directors that the sport is evolving. Interest in road racing events, both professional and amateur, is down in the United States, as are road bike sales. Interest in gravel riding and racing, as well as cyclocross is up, and bike sales reflect that, as well.
The article was expansive, even after several rounds of edits, exploring where American road cycling was 10 years ago, where it is today, and what it might look like 10 years from now. One sentence, near the end, read, “As the race calendar continues to shrink, and the industry fragments, pro road teams may need to evolve into pro cycling teams, their team trucks filled with road, gravel and mountain bikes, targeting the most widely attended cycling events in the country.”
And this is very much the approach EF-Drapac will be taking on 2019. It will be a pro cycling team, not a pro road racing team.
I’m not claiming to be prescient with my article; that forecast was based on interviews with pro riders such as Travis McCabe (UnitedHealthcare) and Pete Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) as well as team directors and managers including Mike Creed (Aevolo), Gord Fraser (Silber), Jonas Carney (Rally), and yes, Jonathan Vaughters (EF-Drapac), who suggested his team would be entering more mixed-terrain events next year.
I met up with Vaughters last week about the state of US cycling, and the role events like Leadville 100, Dirty Kanza 200, the Belgian Waffle Ride, and Crusher in the Tushar, among others. will play in the future — not just for his team, but for the US cycling ecosystem. He had a lot to say; more on that below.
But what I found interesting about this strategy is that for the past two years, Rapha has been working on a study, titled the Rapha Roadmap, focused on the future of professional cycling and examining “the opportunities and challenges facing road cycling.”
Among the more than 50 individuals Rapha interviewed include executives, officials, athletes, organizers, journalists, and observers inside and outside of pro cycling. My colleague Caley Fretz and I were interviewed for the study together by Brendan Quirk, Rapha North America’s former president, back in June 2017. To be honest, it was long enough ago that I’d kind of forgotten about it. And, as it turns out, the findings from the Roadmap aren’t going to be made public. “It will be used internally and with the contributors to the study,” a Rapha spokesman told me, “but only parts of it will be public facing as support for relevant announcements.”
But what’s clear is that Rapha’s partnership with EF-Drapac shows that both parties agree that expanding into these unconventional events is, at least in part, the path to attracting and engaging a new audience to professional cycling. As a pro sport, the thought goes, cycling fails to capitalize on all those who ride bikes.
“The [Roadmap] project found that there is vast opportunity to grow the sport and increase its overall value by converting more cyclists into fans and connecting more meaningfully with a modern audience,” the team’s statement reads.
“Connecting with a modern audience” is vague, perhaps intentionally so, but seems to indicate using social media channels as well as prioritizing fan engagement over results. In Monday’s partnership announcement, in addition to announcing the team’s plans to compete in alternative events, there was also mention of Rapha’s content team “documenting every stroke of the pedal” and “showing cycling with character.”
And who might be some of those characters? A video accompanying the release highlighted team riders Mike Woods, Taylor Phinney, Rigoberto Uran, Lawson Craddock, Sep Vanmarcke, and Mitch Docker. (Though it hasn’t yet been announced, the inclusion of Phinney and Craddock in the forward-looking video made it pretty clear the Americans have renewed their contracts and will return with EF-Drapac next year.)
Australian Lachlan Morton, whose contract with Dimension Data has not been renewed, is another likely candidate. The Thereabouts films he and his brother Gus have produced have been widely popular – full disclosure, CyclingTips has partnered with the Morton brothers on their film projects in the past — and he clearly loves the adventure side of recreational and competitive cycling. Over the weekend, Morton posted photos on Instagram from L’Eroica in Chianti, the vintage ride across the white dirt roads of Tuscany, which he called “the best day on the bike of the year.”
Exclusivity vs inclusivity
On Friday, I sat down with Vaughters to discuss his views on the road racing scene. We chatted for a long time, about a variety of issues, but first and foremost was this new approach to events. Here are some of the most interesting things he said:
What we’re doing, as the professional arm of the sport, is not working, but there are people out there that are doing things that are working. It’s a matter of the professional side of things not being hard-headed about the way we view bike racing, and adapting.
The ecosystem is such that the events are what allow the teams to flourish. So if you have an event that’s getting good publicity, and good traction in a community, then a team can come in and take advantage of that traction and publicity. So if the event goes away, it only makes sense that eventually the teams start to go away.
The successful models in endurance sport in the United States are Ironman or New York City Marathon or Boston Marathon, that type of event. In the whole triathlon market, the consumers are the participants are the athletes are the consumers are the participants, etc. We buy the shoes and we show up to the races, therefore, we support the sport, therefore the sport flourishes, therefore it can grow. So for me, we need to start doing bike races that emulate those events.
And so for the pro race, all of the prize money, all of the road closures for the guys who are running 2:02 marathons, all of that stuff is paid for by Uncle Bob from Nebraska’s entry fee.
So what does Uncle Bob get out of it? Well, he gets to say, ‘I ran the New York City Marathon, and that’s a big deal and a big accomplishment.’ He gets to brag at the Thanksgiving dinner to his family, like saying, ‘I did an Ironman.’
In cycling, we totally discount that. We do these very abstract stage races, which people don’t understand to begin with — first to cross the line wins is much more understandable. They can’t join, it’s completely exclusive, ‘no, sorry you’re not allowed to compete.’ And even if you could, even in a criterium, you’d be dropped so fast that you’d get pulled off the course and eliminated because of the time cut before you blew your nose. So it’s totally exclusionary.
There are events flourishing in the US. How many people try to get into the Leadville 100? Now they have Leadville qualifiers. Ironman just tried to buy the Firecracker 50. These events are flourishing, and they are inclusive. Sure, you have to qualify for them, you have to fight for it, you have to go to a qualifier or whatever, but you’ve got a chance.
Everyone’s been saying that cycling is the fastest growing sport. You’ve heard that for the past five, six, seven years, right? Yeah, on the recreational level that has been true, it’s been growing very quickly, and we’ve totally alienated all of those people as a competitive sport. We basically just said, ‘we’re not interested in you, we’re doing this over here.’
The old model of cycling is that that you win a stage of the Giro d’Italia and you get the front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport, and your sponsor sees their name there, and they say, ‘okay, we’re happy.’ That is not true anymore, especially in North American cycling.
I think the new model is that you win a stage of the Giro d’Italia and therefore you are now a credible spokesperson for cycling. And you can create your own channels — Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, whatever it is — that convey your personality, who you are, and you can become a mentor, a tip-giver, a teacher, a spokesperson for cycling. That’s the audience you’re reaching. Taylor Phinney has been very successful at just that model. Lachlan Morton has been gaining traction in just that model.
It’s that model of the guy that’s basically like, ‘yeah I’m in the World Tour, that gives me credibility. I want to win races in the WorldTour, but I realize that the bread and butter of what gives me value in the sponsorship market is doing these other things and being an icon for cyclists — not for cycling fans, but for cyclists that are hopefully going to become cycling fans.’
EF dipped a toe in the water with Joe Dombrowski and Alex Howes doing the Leadville 100 in 2016. We’ll be doing a little bit more stuff like that. It’s not that we’re going to pull away from the WorldTour calendar, but it’s a matter of ‘well, you know should we be doing the Taiwan KOM Challenge, or Dirty Kanza?’ Those events probably have more value from a marketing standpoint than Circuit de la Sarthe, or one of the 58 races that Quick-Step has won this year that just don’t even hit the radar of any global company.
Even within our organization, some of the more traditional guys, the directors and whatnot, are kind of like ‘What? Why are we doing that? What the guys need to do is this stage race, to get ready for this stage race.’ And I just have to back up a little bit and say, ‘listen, we are about making a commercially sustainable organization. And here the races that matter to EF, and we need to support that.’ And it’s really that simple.
There are some riders that would view what I’m saying here as a dog-and-pony show, and that it’s bullshit, and there are some riders that will think about it and get it. I just think when you’re confronted with a crisis like US cycling is having right now, that you just have to be creative about how to get out of it.
And the thing about it is, it shouldn’t be a crisis. The audience is there. The people that ride bikes are there, and they will be interested in bike racing if you make it something that they can get into. Right now we’ve just put this huge divide in between bike riders and the competitive side of things, and with that divide you just destroy your consumer base. That was the first thing with EF — it was like, this is about riding bikes. This is about becoming synonymous with riding bikes, not winning races.
ADAPT OR DIE?
Where all this will lead is impossible to know. It’s hard to predict the future, especially in a sponsorship-driven sport like professional cycling. I think it’s safe to say that next year Deceuninck-Quick-Step will win more races than EF-Drapac. Based on the announcements of the past 48 hours, it sounds as though EF-Drapac will be sending riders to race gravel events while Deceuninck-Quick-Step won’t return to Paris-Tours… because of its use of farm tracks.
At first glance, it certainly looks as though one team is following trends in the sport, and the other is resisting them. Two paths diverged in a WorldTour wood. One team will take the one less traveled by. Will that make the difference?
It’s hard to say. But what’s clear is that even winning 70 traditional road races in a season doesn’t guarantee new title sponsors will be lining up to step in. It’s almost unfathomable that the team of Gaviria, Terpstra, Alaphilippe, Gilbert, Mas, Viviani et al would struggle to find sponsorship. It’s also almost unfathomable that the CEO of team built on winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix would be so upset about racing over farm tracks. October 8 is pretty late to be announcing a new title sponsorship for a team that’s won 70 races. Nothing’s guaranteed in the current status quo.
In a moment of snark, I tweeted out Lefevere’s words — “It has nothing to do with road cycling” — accompanied by an image from the pavé of Paris-Roubaix, taken three days before this year’s race. The reaction was almost unanimously supportive of the route changes at Paris-Tours, and dismissive of Lefevere’s resistance to change.
Look, I get it. Change is hard. Those who love the sport want to preserve the sport they love. It’s natural.
But evolution and adaptation are also natural. Today’s Tour de France looks nothing like the inaugural edition in 1903. It barely resembles what it was 50 years ago. Today’s peloton has power meters and race radios and GPS head units and carbon this and aero that. In fact, all that modernization may be a contributing factor in the surge of gravel events, which actually more closely resemble what early editions of the Tour de France looked like.
Even Christian Prudhomme, director of cycling for Tour de France organizers ASO, sees this. In defending his use of the farm tracks at Paris-Tours, he told L’Equipe, “It’s the riders who are the principal actors but if we don’t have any madness anymore in designing our race routes, then cycling will go to the wall. People complain that everything is sanitized, people complain about the monotony of certain races. We chose to do something out of the ordinary. I’ve received numerous messages from people who never normally send them, all to tell me that we were in the right.”
It would be simple enough to dismiss EF-Drapac’s shift toward mass-participation gravel and ultra-endurance events with skepticism; the team doesn’t win a lot of races, so they’re seeking other avenues. It’s a survival technique. As one commenter wrote, “There is no better way to not win races than to opt out.” And that might play a role.
Others mocked the notion of a hipster team being sponsored by a hipster apparel brand competing in hipster races. While funny, I think that’s short-sighted. But it’s not wrong.
The reaction on Twitter was far from uniformly critical. Other comments ranged from “Hallelujah, a team that is acknowledging what trends are buoying contemporary everyday cycling,” to “others will surely follow as ratings for traditional long-form bike races drop and sales of gravel bikes continue to soar,” to “just the kind of creative disruption pro cycling needs right now.”
One WorldTour rider who got the concept right away was Mitchelton-Scott’s Carlos Verona, who will transfer to Movistar next year. “Interesting move by @Ride_Argyle, and in my opinion, in the right direction!” he wrote on Twitter. “I think this is the future of professional cycling, because today it is not enough for us to “see,” but we like to “live,” and cycling allows its fans to live the experiences!”
Interesante movimiento de @Ride_Argyle, y en mi opinión, en la dirección correcta! Creo que el futuro del ciclismo profesional irá por ahí, ya que hoy en día no nos es suficiente con “ver”, si no que nos gusta “vivir”, y el ciclismo permite vivir experiencias a sus aficionados! https://t.co/fVkVNlH81X
— Carlos Verona (@Carlos_Verona) October 8, 2018
For me personally, I’ve always been excited by crossover riders who can excel at multiple disciplines, riders like John Tomac and Marianne Vos, and more recently, Mathieu van der Poel. Think back to the interest and excitement of watching Peter Sagan race the Olympic mountain-bike event. An early puncture put him out of the medals, but for one glorious lap, anything was possible. (Related: Sagan now puts on a gravel fondo of his own.)
No, the Dirty Kanza is not an Olympic race. The magnitude is not the same, but the concept of a WorldTour rider toeing the line is — the versatile bike racer who can compete across all terrain. And there is exposure and interest in that. I’d never heard of Bahrain-Merida rider Ivan Cortina until he won his Red Hook Crit debut in Milan last year. This year’s Red Hook Crit Milan winner, Italian Filippo Fortin, will ride for Cofidis next year. Recently crowned world pursuit champion Ashton Lambie comes from a gravel-racing background.
“To me, Ashton Lambie is the new American cycling story,” Vaughters said. “He’s just a cyclist. He’s a commuter, a fixie rider, he loves dirt road riding. He’s just a cyclist, a bike-shop mechanic. He does Dirty Kanza and local races, whatever else, and then he gets on the track and apparently he’s incredibly talented at that, and boom, he breaks a world record. It goes to show you that they way we’re used to thinking of how to identify talent and how to bring guys up the ranks is just not right. If you read his comments, he was basically like ‘I was sick of snobby fuckers in road races, so I’m not doing that.’ This exclusionary attitude almost excluded the guy that is now a world record holder. It needs a rethink.”
So I’m all for it. I really don’t see a downside. The best riders will still compete at the most important races on the calendar. WorldTour riders will make appearances at flourishing events, bringing attention to the event and to their teams, and hopefully creating new fans along the way.
Just don’t get me started on the farm tracks.