Why is Wout van Aert allowed to race in a Red Bull helmet on the road?
Van Aert can do what others can't, and we aren't just talking watts.
Van Aert can do what others can't, and we aren't just talking watts.
Few took much notice when Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) started wearing a Red Bull helmet for cyclocross races. A brand synonymous with extreme sports deciding to sponsor a top cyclocross rider was perhaps seen by fans of the discipline as a nod of approval to the intense action and skill level of cyclocross racing. But when Van Aert showed up for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad wearing the helmet, everyone noticed.
Our mentions on social media, our members‘ forum, and our inboxes lit up. “Wait, Van Aert is road racing in a Red Bull helmet. Can he do that?” “I thought the UCI banned helmet sponsors?” “The UCI has rules on uniform.” We figured it was time to get to the bottom of it.
As we all know, Van Aert is an incredible all-year-round athlete. He’s won Spring Classics, a hat trick of Tour stages in the summer, he targets Road Worlds in autumn, and dominates cyclocross in winter. He is the epitome of the modern freak-of-nature do-it-all superstar. How does Van Aert do it? Perhaps the answer lies in that Red Bull deal?
Red Bull, in case you aren’t familiar, is a carbonated energy drink that includes caffeine and taurine (and sometimes has vodka added to it). It’s claimed to provide a burst of energy to stave off tiredness and increase productivity. Others claim the drink can cause insomnia, diabetes, rapid heart rate, and even tooth decay. The drink was even said to “give you wings” until a court found it, in fact, does not give you wings.
But Red Bull is not a drinks company, even if it does sell a reported 21 million cans per day, globally. Red Bull outsources its production and instead focuses on selling and marketing the drink through a range of media activities, extreme sports promotions, ambassadors, and even via a record label. Of course, the Austrian brand not only sponsors but also owns several teams in motorsport, soccer, ice hockey, and in the e-sports realm.
Since 2018 Van Aert has raced through fields and over barriers with the iconic Red Bull helmet design. The Red Bull helmet is perhaps the ultimate athlete’s status symbol. Regardless of the sport, if an athlete competes in a Red Bull helmet, it is a sure sign they are either fricking good, fricking extreme, or some combination of both. Behind the scenes, Red Bull athletes receive monthly deliveries of the sleep-defying go-go juice for their personal consumption, and no doubt a hefty chunk of cash for their personal enjoyment.
Now that you know the background, let’s get back to the question at hand. How is it legal for Van Aert to race in this helmet? As it turns out, the UCI has no rules against personal sponsorship agreements, and thankfully so. Many riders have personal deals; mostly for cycling shoes, some for glasses, and there are even some watch deals to watch out for. Then there are those who have deals with car companies and breathing apparatuses. (For more on this subject, check out CyclingTips’s previous report on the value of pro cyclists’ personal endorsements.)
We contacted five UCI rider agents to get an understanding of these personal deals and any rules surrounding them. Understandably, these agents wished to remain nameless. After all, it is their job to protect their riders’ interests, not create unnecessary conflict between riders and their employer: their teams. One agent told us, “if the team agrees, there is nothing stopping a rider from having a personal sponsorship agreement” and went on to suggest he didn’t believe it would be possible “to totally ban personal deals, as under European law that would be considered a restriction to trade”.
Here’s a typical personal sponsors clause many agents will work into a contract for a top rider:
The Rider is in personal capacity allowed to enter into a sponsorship with personal sponsors provided;
(a) they are not conflicting with a product/service category of existing Company sponsors
(b) they do not prevent the rider from carrying out his duties
(c) that the Company pre-approved such agreements
(d) that any agreement does not prohibit the Company from signing similar sponsors for the Team as a whole.
In any case, where a personal sponsor is competitive with a sponsor of the Company, the Rider has to terminate such personal agreement.
Van Aert is far from the first to wear a Red Bull helmet in professional cycling. Red Bull lists Tom Pidcock, Kata Blanka Vas, Pauline Ferrand Prevot, Ellen Noble, and Evie Richards, amongst its athletes. Van Aert isn’t even the first to don a Red Bull helmet on the road. Anton “Toni” Palzer – the ski mountaineer who climbed into the WorldTour – and Justin Williams of L39ion of LA, already enjoy the privilege on the men’s side. Pidcock even broke out the Red Bull helmet for Road Worlds in 2021 when racing in national team colours. On the women’s side Chloe Dygert has raced the Worlds road race and time trial in a Red Bull helmet.
Van Aert, though, is the most high profile, successful, and therefore noticeable rider to consistently wear a Red Bull helmet on the road. As such, two things are perhaps most interesting about the expansion of Van Aert’s helmet deal into road racing.
First is the design’s sheer contrast to the almost perfect uniformity of professional road teams. Professional road cycling is effectively a moving billboard, and both teams and sponsors are very particular about team image. Van Aert’s helmet sticks out massively alongside his otherwise perfectly matching teammates. Yes, his Belgian national champion’s jersey also differentiates him from his teammates, and often he is wearing a leader’s jersey of some sort, but that’s different. Champions and leader’s jerseys are a part of cycling, as much a part as having seven- and eight-rider teams line up for races dressed as identical septuplets and octuplets.
The second interesting thing is the contrast between Van Aert – once a Red Bull athlete for cyclocross only but now wearing the helmet for road racing – and those other Red Bull cycling athletes who, for the most part, still only wear the Red Bull helmet in off-road disciplines.
Tom Pidcock is perhaps the most notable example. He went from a flying-without-wings celebration at Cyclocross Worlds in a Red Bull helmet to road racing for the Ineos Grenadiers a matter of weeks later in a team issue helmet. CyclingTips understands this is not a personal choice by Pidcock – the young British superstar has requested approval to race with a Red Bull helmet on the road, but the Ineos Grenadiers have repeatedly declined that request.
One UCI rider agent, who does not represent Pidcock, told CyclingTips, “some teams see value in it or the big-name riders get it passed in the contract such as Wout. But most teams own the rider’s image and they will take the view that the association adds no value to the team and no contribution to the team budget.”
So why then would Ineos approve Pidcock’s use of the helmet off-road? The same agent told CT, “teams tend to control the image more on the road. They don’t want a situation where 10 riders have personal helmet sponsor deals as it looks disjointed.” Cyclocross and mountain biking are much more individual sports and, according to one agent, “Red Bull also views road cycling as boring, and that’s why CX, MTB, downhill, BMX etc. is all more appealing to them and their target demographic.”
But CyclingTips understands there may be more considerable and complex forces at play, especially in the Van Aert and Pidcock examples.
Jumbo, one of the sponsors of Van Aert’s Jumbo-Visma road team, is a supermarket chain in the Netherlands and Belgium. Guess what Jumbo supermarkets stock and sell – yep, Red Bull energy drinks. Furthermore, Red Bull sponsors the Jumbo-Visma speed skating team and is listed as a “sub sponsor” on the Jumbo-Visma team website. These two factors alone should make it much easier for Van Aert to ride year-round in his Red Bull helmet.
Red Bull Netherlands generates a reported US$200 million per year, and Dutch superstars like Max Verstappen (Formula 1) and Memphis Depay (football) are among the highest-profile Red Bull athletes. Verstappen is particularly interesting given that the current F1 world champion drives for the Red Bull Racing F1 team owned by the Austrian energy drink marketers. Furthermore, Verstappen enjoys a long-standing personal sponsorship from Jumbo reported to be in the region of €2 million per year. In a fun turn of events, the Red Bull driver races with a Jumbo logo on his helmet.
It seems reasonable to suggest the existing Red Bull/Jumbo connections make it somewhat easier for Van Aert to extend his contrasting helmet design into the otherwise consistent uniformity of a road team. In fact, when we asked Jumbo-Visma if the team was involved in the Red Bull negotiations, if Jumbo supermarkets selling Red Bull helped with the approval for Van Aert to race road with the helmet, and other related questions, we were told, “the answer to most of your questions is yes.”
On the F1 connection, Jumbo-Visma told us “there’s no direct link between the F1 business and our sports teams”, however, the opposite is true for the Ineos Grenadiers and Pidcock.
Pidcock races for the Ineos Grenadiers, a team sponsored and solely owned by the Ineos Group Ltd. Ineos is also a principal sponsor and owns a 33% stake in the Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula 1 team. The Mercedes team part-owned by Ineos counts Red Bull Racing amongst its biggest rivals in the hotly contested sport.
It seems reasonable to assume Ineos and its owner Jim Ratcliffe wouldn’t take too kindly to the team’s biggest star, Pidcock, endorsing the brand whose F1 team “stole the F1 world title” last year. Listen carefully during the ‘cross season and you might even hear Toto Wolff (part-owner and team principal at Mercedes F1) cry, “No Tom no, that is so not right.”
We asked the Ineos Grenadiers if Pidcock had requested to road race with a Red Bull helmet and for comment on any link with the F1 team. A spokesperson told us, “We have always supported Tom’s broader ambitions and will continue to do so – these are what make him such a unique and versatile bike racer. He is at the forefront of an exciting new generation of multi-disciplined riders who are influencing the sport’s dynamic future and we are delighted that Tom has committed his next five years to the Ineos Grenadiers.”
CyclingTips also understands some cycling teams’ nutritional sponsors are quite opposed to Red Bull affiliations for its supported riders and teams. Presumably, nutrition brands see Red Bull’s energy drink as a competitor to their energy products. That said, it is worth noting that most cycling teams’ sponsors do not have an energy drink offering, and Red Bull is not in the energy bar or gel market. However, although unlikely, it’s not impossible to think the drinks company might one day expand into energy foods.
Red Bull has more competitors in the energy drinks market these days but the market is still growing. Just as Red Bull outsources the production of its energy drink and focuses instead purely on selling and marketing the drink, it could take a similar approach to energy foods. But let’s be clear, Red Bull likely has zero interest in energy food; the market is just too small. The global energy bar market was valued at US$645 million in 2018, which pales in comparison to the US$53.1 billion the energy drink market was valued at.
With those Jumbo and Red Bull links, what are the chances of Red Bull venturing beyond personal sponsorships and into team sponsorship? This seems equally unlikely. Red Bull often owns the teams its supports and it specialises in sports that make it money. Take the New York Bulls, for example. Red Bull acquired the Major League Soccer club for US$29 million in March 2006; today the club is reportedly valued at US$290 million. Then there is the F1 team. Red Bull acquired the F1 team for just $1 in 2004, and now effectively sells advertising space on its cars to the likes of Tag Heuer, Bybit, Tezos, and Rauch, the world’s only bottler of Red Bull drinks. The team recently announced Oracle as its new title sponsor in a five-year deal worth a reported US$300 million, despite F1 introducing a spending cap.
But that is only part of the picture. Red Bull Racing reportedly spent around US$400 million per season (pre-budget cap), but in return, the team brought in a rumoured US$150 million in prize money and bonuses from Formula 1, on top of all that sponsorship. All told, the Red Bull Racing team realised a profit somewhere between US$10-20 million in 2021.
Long story short: no cycling team ever will return that kind of profit.
As for Van Aert, his agents did not respond to requests for comments on their rider’s Red Bull agreements. And despite numerous requests, we received zero confirmation about how or when Van Aert and Pidcock like to consume their personal allocations of Red Bull product.