With the news that Vuelta a Murcía has been reduced from a three-day stage race to a one day road event, another sad chapter in the history of Spanish cycling has been written.
Since 2000, over 15 races have permanently disappeared from the calendar. Others like Murcía and Clasíca de Almería have been reduced to one-day races. But not only the races are hit hard, the teams and the riders too are part of the process where economy and bike racing meet.
Spain is struck particularly hard by the economic crisis which has been raging through Europe since 2008. A staggering 26% of all Spaniards are currently without a job. The Spanish government has asked the European Union to help keep the banks afloat.
In times of prosperity sports prosper too. Sponsorship of teams and races, hospitality packs and merchandise boom. When the crises hit, marketing budgets – of which sport sponsorships are usually part – are cut.
In Spain this shows in the amount of races that have been cancelled and the amount of professional cycling teams at the highest levels of global cycling.
In 1991 when there were 71 cycling teams in total, 20 percent were Spanish. In 2012 with about 200 WorldTour, Procontinental and continental teams, this amount has dwindled to three percent.
Of course, there are still a lot of top quality Spanish riders in the peloton like Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodríguez who are, not by chance, both riding for foreign teams like Saxo-Tinkoff and Katusha.
Spain is now down to only three professional cycling teams: Movistar and Euskaltel in the WorldTour and Caja Rural in the procontinental circuit. Five if you count the semi-professional Burgos-BH and Euskadi in the lowest category of continental teams.
The Andalucía team, very active in breakaways in last year’s Vuelta and victorious in many other races, seems to have disappeared completely after they were refused a procontinental license in December.
This decline is not because Spain has lost its appetite for cycling. Even though there are fewer races and fewer teams, Spain still has 67 riders on WorldTour and procontinental level, two thirds ride for the three Spanish teams Movistar, Euskaltel and Caja Rural, the other 33 percent found a job abroad.
And not only are Spaniards still riding professionally, they are successful. Cycling is still hugely popular in the amateur ranks too. Bike paths are constructed everywhere and Grand Fondo-like races are increasing in popularity every year, as are youth events in the cycling-crazy Basque country and Navarra.
No, the demise of professional cycling in Spain is down to money.
Spain is a country made up of several autonomous regions whose governments were active in sport sponsoring like the Illes Balears and Andalucía teams.
Furthermore, all of these regions have their own savings bank, like Cajasur, Caja Granda and Caja Rural. Savings banks are obliged to give back money to society and for many years that was done through sports sponsorships like handball, basketball, football and cycling.
All of these bank and region names will sound familiar to cycling fans because they sponsored cycling teams and races. More and more they will withdraw their money like we saw last year with the Tour of the Basque Country and the Clasíca San Sebastian, which were saved at the last moment.
It is a sad development but one that is very hard to turn around while the economic crisis persists. Spain has been hit hard but the same thing happens all over the world.
Think about the GP Costa degli Etruschi, which was supposed to be ridden on Saturday the second of February, the women’s Giro future still hanging in the balance and several stage races in France.
Bike racing is just as much about money as it is about passion for the bike. As long as the economies of Europe and the United States suffer under the economic crisis, countries like Qatar, Oman, Australia and China will continue to grow.
And the UCI gets its much wanted globalisation of the sport.