What's Cool In Road Cycling

Vingegaard Wins Velo d’Or; Another Cycling Reform Project Gets the Rumors Going; What is EY Up to In Pro Cycling? Quintana Returns; Looking Back at the Glasgow Worlds…

Thoughts from The Outer Line

The prestigious Velo d’Or award recognizing the best male cyclist in the world was awarded last week to Jonas Vingegaard, winner of the 2023 Tour de France, while Demi Vollering received the women’s accolade. Vollering’s dominant season left little doubt as to her Velo d’Or resumé, but Vingegaard was a slightly surprising choice based on this year’s hard numbers.

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Is Vingegaard a worthy winner of the Velo d’Or?

As we detailed in a Special Report last week, Vingegaard placed third in terms of total points, just behind Remco Evenepoel and trailing points winner Tadej Pogačar by a large margin. Vingegaard also placed third in terms of total wins, and fourth in terms of what we defined as “high-quality” wins and podium placements. In terms of the most prestigious victories, or “top wins,” Vingegaard also placed third, after Pogačar, and behind Mathieu van der Poel’s remarkable three victories at the world championships and the monuments of Paris-Roubaix and Milano-Sanremo. Given that the award is determined by a group of journalists at the French magazine Vélo (not to be confused with the American Velo site) we wonder if the award this year might better be titled the “best winner of a big French bike race?” On the other hand, Vingegaard also won the Tour last year, and he didn’t even rank among the top three finishers for the Velo d’Or. So, it’s a bit of a puzzle. As we emphasized in our report, there is never a single right answer to the question – who is the world’s best cyclist – and that’s part of the allure of cycling.

Demi Vollering’s dominant season left little doubt as to her Velo d’Or resumé

Another veritable frenzy gripped the cycling world this past week after a Reuters report suggested that there are advanced talks underway, among a few key stakeholders, to create a new “competitive league.” Although the One Cycling concept – originally promoted by Jumbo-Visma boss (and AIGCP president) Richard Plugge – has been bouncing around for a couple years, this latest iteration seems to be a more specific and near-term plan, apparently supported by several of the stronger teams. Reuters also reported that the accounting and management consulting firm EY had been retained to collect expressions of interest from potential investors to fund the scheme – with proposals supposedly due this past weekend. The private equity firm CVC Partners – already heavily invested in sports – was mentioned as a possible investor. Later in the week, there were suggestions that the Saudi Arabian PIF (sovereign wealth fund) was the potential backer – a rumor that quickly echoed around the cycling media, but without any verified corroborating sources. However, while stories of Saudi interest in the sport did circulate a few months ago, inferences that the Saudis are “on the cusp” of taking over pro cycling seem highly speculative. The only evidence seems to be some offhanded observations – such as podcaster Daniel Friebe’s rumination that the Saudis might be “one of the parties who could possibly be interested in investing.” The PIF has invested in numerous sports, but historically it has not publicized its investments, nor has it worked via intermediaries. Hopefully, the cycling media is not getting way out over its skis again on this story.

Foto LaPresse - Fabio Ferrari 08/02/2018 Dubai (Emirati Arabi Uniti) Sport Ciclismo Dubai Tour 2018 - 5a edizione - Tappa 3 - Dubai Silicon Oasis Stage - da Skidive Dubai a Fujairah - 180 km (111,8 miglia) Nella foto: Photo LaPresse - Fabio Ferrari 08/02/2018 Dubai (United Arab Emirates) Sport Cycling Dubai Tour 2018 - 5th edition - Stage 3 - Dubai Silicon Oasis Stage - Skidive Dubai to Fujairah - 180 km (111,8 miles) In the pic:
More investment from the Middle East?

What has not received much attention in this new controversy is the background or nature of EY’s (formerly Ernst & Young) alleged participation in this scheme, as well as its broader – if somewhat under the radar – interests in pro cycling. It’s worth noting that the firm has had an extended and seemingly cozy relationship with the UCI; it has historically been involved in the WT licensing process, and has recently authored a number of complimentary reports on the economic impact of UCI events. If EY – one of the world’s largest professional services firms – is in fact helping this informal group of teams solicit and qualify potential investor interest, it raises several questions. First, who is paying them? Top-flight management consultants don’t come cheap. Has EY helped play a mediation role to bring the teams and the UCI closer together on reform ideas? Is EY itself somehow financially involved in this effort to reimagine cycling?

Bahrain, UAE and….

Perhaps the most important question is: what about this plan will enable it to succeed when similar reform ideas in the past have never gotten off the ground? What is different about this plan, and how will EY or any other participant in this go-around convince investors that they can make a decent return? If in fact a major financial backer for this project does emerge, it could end up being a situation similar to what we observed in the LIV golf experiment; i.e., assemble an exclusive portfolio of athletes or events and make some big financial promises. Thus far in the LIV case, the huge amount of money paid to a few players has come straight out of the Saudi pocket – not from TV or events. Hence, it is perhaps understandable that many around the sport are skeptical, and reserving judgment, waiting to see what actually happens here. As former UCI President Brian Cookson commented, somewhat wearily, “here we go again.”

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Where does this leave the UCI?

Complementing our look last week at the individual points ranking for 2023, our sister publication – the Beyond the Peloton newsletter – published a breakdown and analysis of the final teams point ranking, highlighting a few interesting trends behind the numbers. The top takeaway was that – despite winning the UCI points rankings – UAE Team Emirates failed to keep pace with Jumbo-Visma in terms of the number and quality of wins; i.e., UAE may have won the points competition but Jumbo was clearly the best team. Interestingly, when the final 2023 points standings were cross-referenced with BTP’s points-based pre-season performance predictions, the top teams – UAE, Jumbo, Soudal-Quick-Step, and Ineos – all performed roughly as predicted. Even the year’s worst WorldTour team, Astana, slightly outperformed their prediction based upon pre-season roster strength. Bora-Hansgrohe, however, which finished a respective 10th in the rankings, was one of the bigger underperformers of the season, given a lack of consistent performances from their biggest stars. This lack of a singular star rider, who can reliably collect points and wins, probably helps explain their decision to roll the dice on signing 34-year-old Primož Roglič to an expensive multi-year contract.

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BORA-hansgrohe needed Primož Roglič

Over the weekend, Movistar announced that they had signed a contract with Nairo Quintana, ending the Colombian climber’s year-long hiatus from the sport. His prior Arkéa-Samsic team released him after last year’s Tour following a positive test for Tramadol, and he failed to find another team willing to pick him up. (At the time, the painkiller was prohibited by the UCI, but was not on the WADA banned list.) Many fans, particularly in South America, will be happy to see such a recognizable face back in the peloton – especially after he seemed to be somewhat unfairly blackballed. However, it is strange to see Quintana go back to Movistar – which he left after multiple public disagreements over his leadership status – and it feels like a desperate move by the Spanish team. As the sport’s top stars tilt younger, and the biggest races are increasingly won by youthful legs (only a single race amongst cycling’s five Monuments, World Championships, and three Grand Tours were won by a rider over 30-years-old in 2023), it is somewhat baffling to see Movistar go after a veteran coming off a year-long hiatus, irrespective of what they’re paying him. The team’s development strategy has not been clear in recent years, and it seems odd that they would bring in an older rider at the expense of focusing on developing in-house talent or mining the junior ranks. It’s also not clear how Quintana and Enric Mas might share GC leadership responsibilities. If the team, which is currently in 12th place in the UCI’s 2023-2025 relegation rankings, falls into yet another relegation battle during the 2025 season, we may look back at this decision as a major turning point.

Nairo Quintana back in the WorldTour

We recently examined how the UCI World Championships (WCs) in Glasgow went nearly $10 million over budget. The figure is substantially higher when accounting for a $6.3 million emergency allocation and the fact that local counties had to invest millions in road and infrastructure improvements beyond what was in the original budget. The UCI highlighted Glasgow’s positive broadcast reach in a “press release” (via X), touting the event’s viewership successes – and its 200 million “viewing hours” bode well when compared against the sport’s overall flat performance since the Armstrong era’s high points. However, the numbers weaken when considering that the viewing figure doesn’t differentiate “reach” impressions ‒ for example, when someone sees the race in a news report for a minute or so ‒ versus those viewers who actually seek out and watch the race. And there is still a huge distribution problem, as live racing was only broadcast in select markets.

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The Glasgow World champs were popular, but…

In this light, Glasgow’s marginal viewership gains and financial losses embody the paradox of hosting a major international sporting event. The Olympics, various World Championships, and stadium/team hosting investments are big bets in terms of long-term economic growth and reinvestment in a host location. On a macro level such hosting endeavors constitute a master class in sports business failure; the Olympics debt phenomenon is remarkable in that the last Games to turn a profit was Los Angeles in 1984. UCI-hosted events have often finished in the red, or even bankrupted the partner-nation’s hosting organization. So, while Glasgow viewership was encouraging, its cost-per-viewer was far too high when one realizes how far over budget the edition went. This is a warning sign for sponsors who understand the metrics, and who demand strong and verifiable content distribution results to justify an investment in cycling. As has been suggested for future Olympics, we would invite UCI stakeholders to revisit our proposal to centrally host future World Championships at existing cycling monument sites – which can support and draw fans into the storied venues and history of our sport – and more carefully evaluate, place, and stage new World Championship venues ‒ perhaps only every four or five years — where they will have the most impact on cycling’s future.

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Would you want to host the Worlds?

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