It’s July, the one time of year when the sport of cycling is allowed to take centre-stage and capture the attention of television audiences and newspaper editors around the world. For the rest of us cycling fans the Tour de France represents simply one installment on an already incredible calendar. There is much for us to swoon over in what is a beautiful, even if tempestuous, romance. There is the race to the sun of Paris-Nice and the sprint finale of the 298k Milan-San Remo in March, the alarmingly steep hills through the farmlands of Flanders and then the coal-mines and the cobblestone trenches of Paris-Roubaix in April, the merciless mountain passes of the Dolomiti in May, the Tour de France appetisers in the Swiss and French Alps in June, the loca-ness of the parched Vuleta d’Espana in August, the global domination of newly crowned World Champions in September and the stunningly beautiful race to the falling leaves in Lombardy in October.
For the cycling fan there is so much to enjoy but July is the one month where we allow the common man to watch with us on the couch while we direct the riders from our sporting armchairs. With this in mind July is a hugely important month for the business of cycling. It is absolutely imperative that all goes well in the Tour de France as it is the one event that transcends cycling.
The conundrum for the sport is that cycling is quite a difficult game to follow if you are a casual once a year observer. On a simple level the fight to win the Tour de France takes place over 21 five hour rounds with some gentle sparring during the first ten days before the knock-out blows are delivered in the mountains. While there are usually two main protagonists the reality is that the Tour is more like a Royal Rumble with 198 riders in the ring. If you are not paying attention to the mini-battles in the race for a jersey or a stage win then it is often hard to understand why the peloton is happy to relax and let a couple of lesser-known riders sneak away twenty minutes up the road.
To spare the casual sporting fan the hassle of understanding the somewhat complex tactical calculations of teams, the television director ensures to include a huge amount of stunning shots of the beautiful French countryside from the heli-cam. Chateaux, sunflower fields, galloping horses and road-side picnics all act as fillers to captivate the short and demanding attention span of the casual observer. The only thing that keeps the sports-fan watching on the couch is the engrossed cycling fan in his arm-chair. The sports-fan resists getting up because he is puzzled as to why we are salivating. Can we really be watching women’s tennis on another channel while he has to suffer the boredom of size-zero men robotically spinning pedals in technicolour lycra on the same television? The puzzle as to why we are so excited is as entertaining to him as the riddle of the unfolding race is to us. If it wasn’t for the unbelievable physical prowess of the top riders uphill and their sublime skill downhill during a few mountain stages when the big guns reveal their hands, the casual sports-fan would switch channel.
The lengths sports go to to captivate the casual sports-fan are impressive. In the case of cycling the lengths the federation goes to are often desperate. By bringing their sport into the consciousness of the casual sports-fan the federation and race promoters justify all the sponsorship dollars invested in the sport. Of course, the advertisers don’t really care about the sport, they only care that they are accessing as many people as possible who may purchase their particular product. This forces each sporting federation to become marketers so that they can keep the sponsors happy. They try to appease the sponsors by constantly tweaking the sport and making it as TV friendly as possible. Creating as much drama as possible helps keep things entertaining. By bowing to the needs of sponsors sport risks becoming more like wrestling, fake. It is no longer acceptable to have anything that might be construed as boring represent your sport, even if your sport is largely boring to most people.
The problem is that the people stumping up the cash are as fickle as the TV audience they are chasing. A sponsor can change his mind on a multi-million dollar contract as quickly as a sports-fan can switch channel. There was a time when the sponsors of a sport were simply the equipment suppliers within that sport. It was in their interests to remain loyal but sport is much bigger than that now. This battle for the consciousness of the average sports-fan amongst all sports creates a huge amount of drama in my sport of cycling. This is because cycling teams and sponsors are so deeply entrenched. Unlike the name of a soccer club the name of a cycling team is always simply the sponsor. Liverpool Football Club is never referred to as Standard Chartered FC, however, in cycling the teams are called ‘Quickstep’ (a Belgian flooring company), ‘Team Radioshack’ (a US electronics retailer), ‘AG2R La Mondiale’ (a French insurance company) etc. Every year there is a revolving door of sponsors and thus, teams, entering and exiting the sport. This creates a great deal of instability for the best cyclists, which is unusual for athletes at the top-level of other sports.
If you are someone who is making a living in this sport then of course, you are very concerned about the size of the overall financial pie. However, whenever people kowtow to money there is always undesirable behaviour. This is normally kept from the prying eyes of the press and the casual sports-fan in other sports but for the more entrenched cycling fan it is all in full view. Cycling fans are unusual in that the cycling press seems to have incredible access to information from behind the scenes and once one becomes familiar with the main players it is often easy to read between the lines. If you are an insider you hate the fact that everything that happens within the sport is public information. The temptation is to control the flow of information such that the sport puts its best foot forward and protects its image and thus, its sponsorship dollars. This is what every other sport does. Shutting the door on the fan in this regard only raises the question as to what underhand stuff is actually going on? Wherever there is lots of money at stake there is dirt.
It is because cycling is so open that we get to understand how large sums of money and sport are in fact a toxic mix. This actually makes cycling more appealing to some as there is far more drama off the bike than actually on it. While some of the performances remain unreal it is a sport through which the casual observer gets a sense of modern sport as it really is. It is only when one learns about the background stories of the riders, the teams and the sport that cycling becomes really interesting. It is this knowledge that makes the often boring ritual of repetitively spinning pedals more engrossing for the armchair cycling fan.
As an entrenched cycling fan who could never tire of watching all five hours of another boring stage of the Tour de France, it is not me who the federation or the riders need to please. Drama or no-drama, I will still continue to watch. However, I get dragged into the dirty business of sport by simply watching. If the sponsors are not demanding that the federation markets the sport to an increasingly global audience then it is likely that they won’t. The result being that the amount of cycling on TV dwindles such is the competitive nature of other sports to battle for the TV minutes available. Naturally, I want to have the opportunity to watch as much of my sport as possible and the better packaged the product is for the casual sports-fan the more enjoyable it is for me too. Indeed, keeping the sporting fan inside on the couch as opposed to outside actively participating is what most sports have come down to. Thus, while I lament the effects of large sums of money on sport I can’t seem to switch off the television and appease my idealism .
Yellow is no longer the colour of cycling in July, it is now green; the green of the dollar bill.
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