When I first came into this sport, and for a long time before and after that, January was the month when teams held their training camps, usually in the South of France. My first editor would take a train to the Côte d’Azur, ride his bike between camps, and then report the series of February warm-up events, which included races in the swank cities of Antibes, Cannes and Monaco. The serious racing didn’t start until March, with Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo.
That’s no longer the case.
This coming Tuesday, January 17, all of the world’s major squads, the 18 UCI ProTeams, take to the Adelaide, South Australia, start line of the six-day Santos Tour Down Under — which began its life 13 years ago as a pleasant warm-up event. It’s now the opening round of the UCI WorldTour and is regarded as the teams’ first major target of the year. And, for the first time in race history, next week’s TDU even has a summit stage finish. That’s a serious opening to a season filled with more major races than ever over the next nine months.
Australia’s premier bike race is the first in a number of early-season, non-European stage races that are quickly growing in importance, with the participation of ProTeams at Argentina’s Tour de San Luis (January 23-39), the Persian Gulf’s Tour of Qatar (February 5-10) and Tour of Oman (February 14-19), and Malaysia’s Tour de Langkawi (February 24-March 4). All of these events are competing with traditional European races — the Étoile de Bessèges (February 1-5), Mediterranean Tour (February 9-12), Tour of the Algarve (February 15-19) and Ruta del Sol (February 19-23) — not only for participating teams but also for television coverage, publicity and, ultimately, sponsorship dollars.
The new races have brought dramatic changes to professional bike racing in the past 15 years. Until the mid-1990s, the year’s first events were low-key races like Bessèges, the Med and Ruta, which allowed riders to ease their way into the season with short stages and more time to train. But the sport’s global expansion is putting greater emphasis on marketing the events and potential profits rather than the health of the athletes, who, besides having to jet around the planet, need to be racing fit much sooner in the year.
The new dynamic was emphasized last week, when Europe’s most influential race-promotion group, ASO, announced it was aligning with the Australian race organizers to further improve the TDU’s standing in world cycling. To work with or acquire existing events, rather than start new ones, is ASO’s new strategy, and it’s proving to be a smart one.
ASO (Amaury Sport Organization), which owns and runs the Tour de France, once restricted its operations to France, with major events such as Paris-Roubaix, Paris-Tours and the Tour de l’Avenir complementing the Tour. Then, in 1983, a first outreach to global markets saw the Paris-based company promote the first (and only) Tour of America in Virginia and Washington, DC. It wasn’t a fruitful experience because the race lost money, a lot of money, and when that buried information came to light three years later, Tour director Félix Lévitan lost his job.
Since then, Amaury has been more conservative in its policy. First, it took over running the established Belgian classics, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which needed logistical and financial support. It next acquired the secondary French stage races, Paris-Nice and the Critérium du Dauphiné, and partnered with cycling great Eddy Merckx to promote the Tours of Qatar and Oman.
Besides becoming a partner with the Tour Down Under, ASO most recently took an ownership stake in the Vuelta a España, partnered with AEG (Anschutz Entertainment Group) to enhance the Amgen Tour of California, and joined forces with the UCI’s Cycling Global Promotion to organize last October’s inaugural Tour of Beijing.
Proving that it’s also interested in making money with mass-participation events, the French promoter last year bought Europe’s most popular mountain-bike race, the Roc d’Azur, which attracts 17,000 riders. Other recent additions to ASO’s portfolio have been a second L’Étape du Tour in France, cyclo-sportive rides preceding Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and a two-day L’Étape Argentina in South America.
With such developments likely to continue, including more races from Global Cycling Promotion, many European organizers will continue to struggle or close up shop — as has happened in recent years with the Spanish stage races Semana Catalan, Bizikleta Vasca, and the Tours of Aragon, Rioja and Valencia. Europe’s lost events have already benefited overseas races such as those mentioned above, along with this country’s Tours of California, Utah and Colorado (a.k.a. the USA Pro Cycling Challenge). And ultimately, the heightened interest in cycling worldwide will naturally bring benefits to the European scene.
Teams are more international … and more national
Just as the international calendar has expanded around the globe, so the structure of pro teams has changed to include riders from many more nations, making them more attractive to multinational sponsors. The latest trend, however, is toward nation-based squads. With this season’s addition of Australia’s very first elite pro team, GreenEdge, there are now four such squads in the sport’s first division.
The first member of this new “nations” club, in 2007, was Astana, named after the capital city of Kazakhstan. Today, the team has 12 Kazakh riders, including team founder Alexander Vinokourov, 38, who’s doing one more season even though he said he was retiring last year … and the year before. Now under the management of veteran Italian official Giuseppe Martinelli, Astana has strong hopes in the grand tours for its new signing from Team RadioShack, the Slovenian Jani Brajkovic, 28, and its Czech all-rounder Roman Kreuziger, 25.
Whereas Astana is sponsored by Kazakh companies from the petroleum and transportation fields, Team Katusha, founded in 2009, has a similar consortium of corporate sponsors in Russia. The team’s title comes from a popular war song about a girl, Katerina, whose more familiar name is Katusha. The pro team is also the major part of the well-sponsored Russian global cycling project that includes second division and under-23 development squads.
Now in its fourth year, Team Katusha has 13 Russians on its roster, including the promising sprinter Denis Galimzyanov, 24, and multi-time grand tour winner Denis Menchov, 34. The team’s other leaders are the Spanish climbers Daniel Moreno, 30, and Joaquim Rodriguez, 32. Now managed by former Team Gerolsteiner owner Hans-Michael Holczer of Germany, the team has added Spain’s three-time world champion, Oscar Freire, 35, in his final year of racing.
The third-oldest “national” team is Sky Pro Cycling, which began racing in 2010. It’s sponsored by the Sky satellite broadcasting company and is closely integrated with British Cycling, the national federation, whose performance director Dave Brailsford also manages the ProTeam. The signing of world champion Mark Cavendish, 26, brings the number of British team members to 10, which already includes grand tour podium finishers Chris Froome, 26, and Brad Wiggins, 31, and all-rounder Geraint Thomas, 25; while Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen, 24, and Colombian Rigoberto Uran, 24, will continue to shine in one-day classics and the grand tours.
The newest of the “national” teams, GreenEdge, has no less than 17 Australians on its roster for its first season, and it has already taken both 2012 national titles with Simon Gerrans, 31, in the road race and Michael Hepburn, only 20, in the time trial. The other homegrown standouts on this Aussie ProTeam are 2011 Milan-San Remo winner Matt Goss, 25, and veteran sprinter Robbie McEwen, 39, who will retire mid-season to become the team’s sprint coach.
Like Sky in Britain and Katusha in Russia, the generically named GreenEdge is closely aligned with its national cycling federation. The general manager, Shayne Bannen, is the fed’s former performance director, and the team’s top two sports directors, Australians Neil Stephens and Matt White, have both worked with the national team at past world championships. GreenEdge is being bankrolled by wealthy Australian tycoon Gerry Ryan for a few years until it can acquire solid, long-term sponsors.
One more team with a national basis, Champion System, was presented this past week in Beijing, with the Chinese Cycling Federation as its partner. In only its first year as a Pro Continental (second division) squad, the Chinese team’s goal is to help the development of its seven Asian riders.
This trend toward “national” ProTeams looks sure to increase as the sport becomes more popular in all five continents, which will in turn spawn new major races. So the days when, like my first editor, I would head to the Côte d’Azur in January or February for pro cycling’s traditional early-season races, are truly gone forever.
The old structure has been replaced with glitzy team presentations and the first global races in January, and by a frenzy of non-European events in February — but none of them will be able to replace the prestige of winning the sport’s historic classics, kicking off in mid-March with Milan-San Remo. Happily, some things always stay the same. For now.
Next Friday, I will take a look at the world’s other major teams, including the new “super squads” BMC Racing, RadioShack-Nissan-Trek, Movistar and Omega Pharma-Quick Step, and look ahead to how they’ll perform in 2012.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson.