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Along for the ride: Are cyclosportives the key to pro cycling’s future?

  • By Mark Johnson
  • Published Apr. 1, 2013

GHENT, Belgium (VN) — While we think of Sunday’s Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) as the biggest day in Belgian cycling, way more riding goes down on the race’s 17 cobbled climbs the day before.

That’s because Saturday sees 16,000 cyclists from around the world descend upon Oudenaarde for the Ronde Van Vlaanderen Cyclo, one of Europe’s biggest mass participation rides.

Known variously as a cyclosportive, gran fondo, or cyclo, the increasing popularity of these public events poses the question: Are sportives a potential revenue source that could help stabilize financially teetering pro events?

While events like the Volta a Catalunya, which may have held its final edition in 2013, struggle to stay solvent, gran fondos grow in both frequency and popularity.

The Ronde cyclo event has drawn upwards of 20,000 riders who scale the same cobbled bergs the pros race on Sunday.

In spite of polar weather that has cursed Belgium this year, the 2013 Tour of Flanders cyclo was sold out. The Tour de France’s l’Etape du Tour, which was founded in 1993 and takes riders over 130km of Alpine terrain, sells out within hours of registration opening. And in South Africa, the Cape Argus Pick ‘n Pay Cycle Tour commonly draws nearly 40,000 entrants to its breathtaking Cape Town course.

The Tour of Flanders is organized by Flanders Classics, a Belgian race organizer that also promotes Omloop Het Niewsblad, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Ghent-Wevelgem, and Scheldeprijs. While all five pro races have an associated cyclosportive, Flanders Classics event coordinator Stijn Vermoere told VeloNews the pro events do not depend on the public rides for money.

Vermoere pointed out that Flanders Classics licenses the Ronde Van Vlaanderen name to a separate sportive event management company.

“Financially or organizationally we don’t need the sportif race,” Vermoere said. “It’s a way to give our people, our public, the opportunity to do the same race like the pros do.

“The Tour of Flanders is more than a national holiday for us. It’s one of the most important days in Flanders in the year.”

Indeed, since its founding in 1913, the Ronde Van Vlaanderen has become one of Flanders’ most important kermesses, or festival days. Vermoere said that for Flanders Classics, giving the public the opportunity to ride the same course the pros has more cultural than monetary worth.

“It’s a minimal contract,” he said, in explaining the financial terms between the pro and amateur events.

One place where the Ronde Van Vlaanderen cyclo does have a financial impact is in terms of tourism. While Belgians can crab their way up the Oude Kwaremont any time they want, that’s not the case with foreigners, for whom going up those stubby hills “is once in a lifetime,” Vermoere said.

Ian Holt owns La Fuga, a bicycle travel company that hosts annual trips to all of the classics. Holt’s British company is one of many capitalizing on cyclists’ fascination with all things Belgian and the singular appeal of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen sportive-race weekend.

“We have a lot of American customers, a lot of Australian customers, a lot of Canadian customers, a lot of Scandanavian customers,” Holt told VeloNews. This year the group of clients that gathered at Ghent hotel the Friday night before the Flanders sportive included cyclists from the USA, Australia, Scotland, Brazil, France, and Ireland.

While many of Holt’s European customers take a train in for the weekend, some of his more far-flung riders stay for a week-long tour, riding sportives the Saturdays before both Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, getting a guided tour to multiple watch points at those pro events, and also catching Scheldeprijs the Wednesday in between.

Along the way, they stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, rent bikes, and frequent shops. This trail of economic activity does not deposit directly into the coffers of races like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, but it does spread wealth to the local communities whose acceptance, patience and tax dollars are critical to the longevity of the pro events. The sportives create an economic and sporting ambiance essential to the success of the pro events.

Holt, who has eight full-time employees and as many as 30 on the payroll during the Tour de France, says he has seen a surge in interest in sportive events in unison with the success of English-speaking riders and teams like Sky and Orica-GreenEdge in the pro peloton.

“The mass participation elements of the sport are really driving investment in pro cycling, I think,” Holt said.

Holt pointed out that many of his customers are urban, well-educated, and handsomely compensated. He says cycling and events like the Ronde Van Vlaanderen cyclo have more appeal to clients than golf because of the intoxicating brew of physical taxation, unforgiving weather, on-the-bike camaraderie, and the uniqueness of riding with thousands of like-minded people in what Holt described as the same “stadium that the pros are playing in.”

Creating deep fan relationships with riders is another way sportives indirectly support pro cycling. Pro cycling teams are, after all, marketing vehicles designed to build bridges to potential customers.

Greg Sadowski of Corona del Mar in Southern California spent a week with Holt during the classics. Sadowski, 52, said that even after three decades of riding, he came away from the Flanders sportive with a deeper connection with the pros.

“I was watching Ghent-Wevelgem this weekend and I was watching how they jump up on the sidewalks. It’s so brutal, and I really appreciate it,” Sadowski said, reflecting on how his own experiences negotiating Belgian cobbles and road furniture gave him a better feel for what the pros do.

Sadowski has also run marathons. A look at the economics of mass running events illuminates other difficulties gran fondos face in growing into something that could spin off enough revenue to support races like Catalunya or the Amgen Tour of California.

According to sources in the marathon industry, it takes 8,000 to 10,000 registrants for a 26.2-mile running race to break even. Marathon logistics are expensive. They require the total closure of miles of streets, often in dense metropolitan cities. And that means hiring platoons of police, paramedics, and firemen.

However, on the other side of the expense ledger is the potential for enormous revenue. Marathons, unlike the Ronde Van Vlaanderen cyclo, can cap their entry limits far higher than 16,000.

The main sources of revenue for marathons are runner entry fees, sponsorships, visitor tour packages with airlines and local hotels, and sales of marathon merchandise.

The marathon profit scale is enormous. The 2011 New York City Marathon had a record 46,795 finishers. The 2012 marathon was canceled because of super storm Sandy, but before the plug was pulled, most U.S. runners paid an entry fee of $255, while international participants paid $347 each.

Beyond entry fees, a 2010 study estimated that the New York event contributed some $340 million in economic activity, much of it from the 290,000 runners, supporters, and guests who spent about $1,800 each during their Big Apple visit.

Recognizing this potential in mass participation endurance sports events, Rob Klingensmith and Italian business partner Matteo Gerevini helped bring the gran-fondo concept to the United States in 2008. They ran their first San Diego gran fondo in early 2009, grew the business, and sold it in 2011.

Klingensmith, who has also worked at the Active Network event management company since 1999, where he is a vice president, told VeloNews “we were hoping there was going to be potential for gran fondos to be profitable and successful mass participation events in their own right, without being necessarily tied to a grand tour. And I think that largely we proved the case that they can be.”

Klingensmith mentioned that from his first event in 2009 (which predated Levi Leipheimer’s inaugural gran fondo by a few months) the scene has grown to over 40 gran fondos in the United States. Plus, “the gran fondo and cyclosportif circuit over in Europe is booming,” he said.

He cautioned, however, that bike rides are not cash machines like marathons. While cyclosportive popularity is growing exponentially, Klingensmith echoed Vermoere’s point that events like the Ronde Van Vlaanderen cyclo are more cultural occasions than big money makers.

Klingensmith said a gran fondo requires some 3,500 entrants to break even. The main costs U.S. sportif promoters face are city services such as fire and police support, insurance and sanitation.

“These days with state budgets being what they are, you are going to pay your own way,” Klingensmith said — not as a criticism, but to illustrate the challenges of building a cycling event that generates extra cash which could be funneled back to a partner pro event.

Klingensmith pointed out that while licensing fees generate some cash flow for a pro race associated with a sportive, it is not close to the sort of revenue generated by something like the London Marathon, which receives a reported $5.2 million in Virgin Group naming rights alone

Klingensmith has ridden some of the most popular mass rides including l’Etape du Tour as well as the luxuriously supported Gran Fondo Felice Gimondi in Italy. With entry fees for the European events being relatively low, (the Ronde Van Vlaanderen cyclo entry fee is about $20 to $40), and significant costs of providing food, drink and mechanical and police support over courses as long as 160 miles, the sportive margin for profit is thin.

Organizing sportives with an eye for building culture before profits “is more of a European way of doing things,” Klingensmith said. He has also ridden France’s brutal La Marmotte cyclosportive, which he said “typically celebrates the culture around Le Bourg-d’Oisans and l’Alpe d’Huez and the iconic climbs in that area. They have some sponsors, but it certainly wasn’t commercial in my mind in any sense.”

“The challenge that cycling events will always have is not being able to accommodate fields as large as runs,” Klingensmith, said. These comparatively low participation numbers make it difficult to attract multinational sponsors like Virgin.

While the Ronde van Vlaanderen event has attracted upwards of 20,000 riders, and South Africa’s Cape Argus Pick ‘n Pay Cycle Tour draws nearly 40,000 entrants, these events are the exception, not the rule.

Klingensmith’s partner Gerevini now works in Italy, developing gran fondos in the country that invented the name. He told VeloNews one of the challenges to creating profitable cyclosportive events in the United States is that licensed racers set pricing expectations long before the rise of gran fondos.

Marathon runners are used to paying $150 or more to do an event. Cycling, however, “is coming out of years where the real market for cycling was the criterium, and that was just for the serious rider,” Gerevini said.

And what did the crit rider expect to pay? For years it was $5 or $10; only recently have crit entry fees hit $30.

This transition from the racing cyclist who does not expect a goody bag, T-shirt, on-course support, free massage, and a post-race beer-garden to the cycling enthusiast who wants to feel the mystique of Belgium, France, or Italy during a daylong outing on the bike followed with beers with friends, is a disconnect Gerevini thinks gran fondos will have to work through in the next few years.

“It’s a really confusing market right now,” Gerevini said.

Yet, the potential is there, for while there are millions of cyclists he said “will never do a critierium because it’s too dangerous, too fast,” they are intrigued by the more welcoming experience of a gran fondo.

While gran fondos fight the headwinds of high organization costs and an entry-fee structure far lower than marathons, the hand at their back is the mammoth public desire to feel part of cycling’s century-old tradition.

“Every single rider in the world is dreaming about coming to Italy to ride the bike, from Tuscany to the Giro,” Gerevini said.

As for the connection between pro events and their sister cyclosportives, Gerevini said a real benefit to professional races like the Giro d’Italia is that the “amateur events drive attention to the pro events.” More fan interest, in turn, makes these races more attractive and valuable to race sponsors.

In other words, while a sportive might not generate much immediate cash for a pro race outside of licensing fees, Gerevini believes their longer-term value is that “they increase brand awareness; if you have more followers around the world, the value of the pro event increases.”

 

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Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson

Writer-photographer Mark Johnson's work has been published in titles including VeloNews in the United States, Cycling Weekly in the UK, Vélo in France, and Ride Cycling Review in Australia as well as general-interest publications including The Wall Street Journal and the San Diego Union-Tribune. His book on the Garmin pro team, Argyle Armada, was published by VeloPress in 2012. A Cat. 2 road cyclist, Mark has bicycled across the United States twice and completed an Ironman triathlon. He graduated from UC San Diego and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Boston University. His other passion is surfing, which he does frequently from his home in Del Mar, California. Follow him on Twitter @ironstringmark.

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