This week, the 105th Giro d'Italia begins when the starting gun fires in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. After COVID-related issues forced race organisers…
Well, this is nearly it. The 2014 pro cycling season has burned down to a few scattered embers, the Northern Hemisphere cyclocross season has started, and most of the pro road-peloton is off enjoying a few of life’s pleasures, guilt free.
The World Tour champion has been decided – veteran Spaniard Alejandro Valverde’s consistency securing him the #1 ranking over Alberto Contador and Australia’s own Simon Gerrans.
A fresh young talent is World Champion. A fan favourite, Dan Martin, won the season’s final monument at the Giro di Lombardia.
The Tour of Beijing (a race with no history, no future and no audience) has been run for the final time, netting Philippe Gilbert a victory he probably won’t bother telling his grandkids about.
And two Australians have won in Japan. Sky’s CJ Sutton took the Japan Cup Criterium ahead of Steele Von Hoff (Garmin-Sharp) and Ben Swift (Sky). Nathan Haas followed up by winning the Japan Cup Road Race for Garmin-Sharp in the team’s last race in the argyle blue.
Haas has had a great season, earning his place as a domestique and completing the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana. He managed a handful of top-ten places when given opportunities, so to finish his season with a win will be gratifying.
Next year Garmin-Sharp (and Haas) will be racing as Cannondale, following a merger which promises to produce cycling’s equivalent of the Brady Bunch.
Unfortunately, cramming two teams into one team bus isn’t possible, so there are a number of uncontracted riders from both sides of the family who are still looking for a new team – Australians Von Hoff, Lachlan Morton and Cameron Wurf among them. Popular Kiwi Jack Bauer is also without a contract.
Morton has said he will step back from the World Tour, but hasn’t announced where to.
Other emigres from Garmin-Sharp include Phil Gaimon (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies), Johan Vansummeren (AG2R), and Tyler Farrar (joining Matt Goss at MTN-Qhubeka).
The 2014 edition of Cannondale will be scattered between 2015-model Cannondale (Matej Mohoric, Davide Formolo, Moreno Moser, Kristijan Koren are the main names), Tinkoff-Saxo (Peter Sagan, Ivan Basso, Juraj Sagan and Maciej Bodnar), BMC (Alessandro De Marchi and Damiano Caruso), Team Sky (Elia Viviani), and Team LottoNL (George Bennett).
Although it sucks for the riders who lost the game of musical chairs, it makes a lot of sense for Cannondale, an American bike brand, to sponsor Slipstream Sports (aka Garmin-Sharp), an American World Tour team. It will be a powerful squad, too, even without the superstar quality of Peter Sagan.
Because the old Cannondale is folding, rather than finding a new sponsor, there will only be 17 teams in the World Tour.
The broader impact of having 17 World Tour teams instead of 18 probably won’t even be felt – races will just invite an extra wild card team – but it makes a bit of a mockery of the World Tour that the second-tier Pro Continental teams are so ambivalent about moving up to fill the empty space.
Can you imagine a football team turning down an offer to play in the Champions League? Of course not, the top division in the big sports represents a bigger pay day than winning the lottery. Clearly, this is not the case in cycling, which feels like the world sport equivalent of subsistence farming. Most teams make just enough to get by, until they don’t, and then they disappear.
To me, the reticence of Pro Continental teams to step up indicates that the financials of a move to cycling’s top division don’t stack up unless you’re bankrolled by a national body or a wealthy benefactor.
In the US it’s even worse; only two US teams (Novo Norisk and United Healthcare) even want Pro Continental status, preferring to remain as cheap-and-cheerful third-tier Continental outfits.
These teams can save money and hassle, safe in the knowledge that they’ll still be invited to race at the biggest North American races, which have studiously avoided gaining World Tour status precisely so they can invite the local squads.
Between the UCI’s licensing conditions and the financial risk involved, there are strong disincentives for teams to move up through the ranks, and that’s a problem.
Financial stability is something the UCI is moving slowly to address, but it’s not easy to solve without strong-arming the race organisers (and this really means the business behind the Tour de France and La Vuelta, ASO) into coughing up a healthy chunk of TV rights.
Changing the status quo is going to take something that fans of old British TV comedies would recognise as a ‘brave decision’. It won’t happen between now and 2015.
Fortunately for the UCI’s image and the riders involved, they are currently only one World Tour team down for next year.
It was not always looking certain. Belkin managed to find its fourth naming-rights sponsor in as many years (it was Rabobank in 2012, Blanco and Belkin in 2013, Belkin in 2014) and will be LottoNL in 2015.
In other naming rights news, Omega Pharma-Quick Step will be known as Etixx-Quick Step (Etixx is a brand of sports nutrition supplements owned by Omega Pharma, you’ve probably already seen its logo on OPQS shorts).
Marcel Kittel’s magnificent hair will be sponsored by Giant and Alpecin, a caffeinated shampoo which claims to reduce hair loss. This electrifying synergy between the best barnet in pro cycling and a reluctantly-receding MAMIL audience is one of the better sponsorship deals I can remember.
Lotto Belisol will become Lotto Soudal. Soudal makes adhesives and sealants. There is nothing funny about adhesives and sealants.
One other possible change for 2015 will come if Astana is booted. Cycling Central’s Al Hinds avoided saying as much, but when you lay the team’s history out in front of you, it really makes you think about whether the team deserves a place in the ‘new cycling’.
The UCI has ordered a review of Astana’s license following three doping positives this year alone, and given the way Katusha was (temporarily) banned two years ago, anything seems possible.